The poop on diapers, from cloth to disposables

Saving the earth, one question at a time

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Q: I always assumed cloth was the eco choice, but does diaper recycling in the green bin give disposables better standing environmentally?

A: How do you look a baby in the eye and coo, “You’re a little environmental menace, aren’t you?”

Of course, it’s really the parents you should be guilt-tripping, considering they’re the ones who buy, then toss 1.7 billion disposable diapers every year in Canada. They’re oh so convenient, but disposables contain perfumes, asthma-inducing chemicals and plastics like super-absorbant polyacrylate, the very material that causes toxic shock syndrome in tampon wearers. Toronto’s diaper consumption alone swallows 450 tonnes of plastic and 30,000 trees each year. And of course, all that wood pulp has to be bleached a blinding shade of white, a process that emits nasty toxins like dioxins and furans.

Reusable diapers do come with their own eco baggage – think pesticide-laden cotton and heavy soap, water, bleach and energy use in cleaning. But the benefits far outweigh the costs, despite what you might have heard in the early 90s when mainstream diaper corporations launched an aggressive campaign against reusables. At the time, many states were considering taxing or banning disposables.

The fact that Toronto’s new green bin composting program accepts disposable diapers does make them a much earth-friendlier option than in the past, but don’t think you’re off the hook. All that plastic just gets separated out, then shipped off to landfill. Only the cotton batting gets composted. And the inclusion of poop-filled nappies (along with mercury-laden fish) means Toronto’s compost is better suited to landscaping than veggie growing. Yes, green-binning your Pampers is better than nothing, but we have higher aspirations for you, dear reader.

What do we suggest? Well, if you can’t drop your addiction to disposables, at least switch to greener brands. Both Seventh Generation (at Noah’s on Yonge or Bloor, Big Carrot on Danforth and Whole Foods on Avenue Road) and Tushies (Big Carrot and Whole Foods) are chemical-, fragrance- and chlorine-free. They’re made instead with unbleached cotton and wood pulp (from $20.99/42 small).

If you’re too busy to clean your own reusables, consider a diaper service. Comfy Cotton (905-940-8118, $14.95/week) is the oldest and largest company of its kind in the country. It uses diapers 100 times, then donates them for industrial use. The company does use bleach (to meet hospital standards), but says it adds a bleach neutralizer. Half its business is adult diapers for nursing homes, hospitals and the like.

ABC Diaper Service (416-429-8459, $15-$19/week) is the only entirely eco-friendly service in T.O. All pickups and deliveries are made by cargo bike, and ABC washes with Nature Clean and a little baking soda and vinegar, then hangs diapers to dry.

If that’s too pricey for you, try the DIY method. And note that you don’t have to go for the old-fashioned pinned, folded cotton types (though these are the cheapest, from $27/12 at Diaper-Eeze on Bloor). New reusables also come with elastic bands and Velcro tabs (like Snug to Fit, $10 each at Diaper-Eeze). Some are made with terry cloth (like Mother Ease, $12 each), others with flannel (like Flannel Ease , $28/12). If you happen to be near a department store, both Sears and the Bay sell cotton flannel Kushies/Kooshies from $39.99 for five.

All of the above aren’t made from especially eco-friendly fabrics, but Ecomum (Grassroots on Danforth or Bloor, $35/four) is made with hemp and “green” (or unbleached, undyed) cotton. There aren’t a lot of organic options out there, but if you’ve got extra cash, T.H.E. Store on Avenue Road offers 100 per cent organic cotton nappies with velcro snaps ($29.95 each).

To clean, presoak diapers in a pail half filled with water plus 1/4 cup baking soda and vinegar, then toss in the wash. You won’t need to bleach as long as you follow this step. By the way, bleach and pure detergents like Ivory Snow will break down your cloth nappies faster. Use borax and baking soda or a natural laundry liquid instead.

Open-air drying is always best, but if you must use a dryer, skip the chem-filled fabric softener and toss 3/4 cup vinegar in the final rinse. It’s easier on the earth and reduces diaper rash.

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