I’m a new mom to a beautiful, perfect, two-week-old baby boy (see below). I think I had a sense before, but I didn’t fully possess an understanding of exactly how much waste is generated by a newborn. I’m not just talking about bodily fluids, but the actual trash. There’s the packaging for all the baby stuff you have to get – swings, strollers, and bottles to name a few – which doubles if you order things online. If you are breastfeeding, there’s the plastic storage bags for freezing breast milk. There’s all the water waste – from doing extra loads of laundry to washing the bottles if you’re bottle feeding. Then, there are the diapers. You go through A LOT of them – you could easily use upwards of 10 per day depending on your little person.
Being a new parent is exhausting enough considering only the lack of sleep, but when one considers the environmental impact, it’s even more draining. There are certainly “green” parenting products and practices, but these things seem to take a whole lot more time, money and effort. While cloth diapering is definitely an option, it takes way more time, which I can now say from personal experience is hard to come by in those first months. Because the time investment to cloth diapering is a huge barrier to some people, I did some research on other options.
Disposables: Just to be clear, disposable diapers are without a doubt the most convenient, cheap option for a sleep deprived mom. As the term would imply, these diapers are thrown away along with their waste and end up in landfills. In fact, tons enter landfills daily, which is problematic, as the disposable diapers add to the methane that is produce in the landfill2,3. In addition to the air pollution and contributing to global warming, methane can infiltrate the ground water and pollute the soil, which is a threat to health and to agriculture2,3. There is also waste associated with producing the disposables, as they hold so much liquid because of the high-tech polymers3.
Compostables: The production of compostable diapers is similar to disposable diapers as far as environmental impact, but creates much less waste for landfills in the long run3.
The downside to compostable diapers is that they must be processed industrially (they can’t be processed at home) to get rid of the bacteria in feces and create useable compost1. Compostable diaper services are not widely available; from a quick Google search, they seem to only exist in large cities (San Francisco, New York, etc.), and cost upwards of $120/month.
Implementing Responsible Practices
As social workers concerned with environmental justice and providing support to folks who are marginalized, it’s ethical for social workers to advocate for sustainable practices in public assistance programs. While diapers are costly, there are no government assistance programs to help purchase diapers for families in need, meaning they must be purchased out of pocket and might mean a family must choose between diapers and other necessities4. As a social worker, support government programs providing or subsidizing diapers for families in need, but now as a new mom who is keenly aware of how much diapers cost, I’m slightly outraged this is not a policy. If government assistance programs like SNAP or WIC could provide support to needy families with diapers, but by providing either cloth or compostable diapers, the amount of disposable diapers as a whole in landfills would decrease, which is a win-win for families and our environment.
1 – Abel, J. (2014). Disposable vs. cloth? Compostable diapers are now an alternative [Blog post]. Retrieved February 23, 2017 from http://www.wehatetowaste.com/compostable-diapers/
2 – Allred, A. A. (2009). Solutions to a stinky problem: Congressional legislation to promote the use of cloth diapers. San Joaquin Agricultural Law Review, 19, 65-251.
3 – Colón, J., Mestre-Montserrat, M., Puig-Ventosa, I., & Sánchez, A. (2013). Performance of compostable baby used diapers in the composting process with the organic fraction of municipal solid waste. Waste management, 33(5), 1097-1103.
4 – Porter, S., & Steefel, L. (2015). Diaper need: A change for better health. Pediatric Nursing, 41(3), 141-144.