The Effects of Disposable Diapers on the Environment and Human Health

Environmental Effects of Disposable Diapers: Disposable baby diapers represent an incredible amount of environmental waste. Their potential harm to infants is no less devastating.

Read also: A Guide to Sustainable Kids’ Clothing

words by Andrew Karpisz

The Harmful Effects of Disposable Diapers

Convenience VS Waste

Disposable baby diapers produce an incredible amount of environmental waste. While disposable diapers may seem more convenient than cloth diapers, their environmental impact is terrifying. Not only do they form a sizeable portion of non-recyclable landfill waste, but they also contain many harmful chemicals that are subsequently dispersed into the environment. To safeguard the future, we need to consider alternatives.

The Big Problem With Disposable Diapers

In the United States, there are about four million babies born every year. During their first year of life, the average newborn uses about 2500 diapers. This means that from babies under one year old, Americans dispose of around a trillion diapers a year. If we include all children before potty-training age, the amount grows. Children in their second year of life need fewer diapers, around four to five a day. That’s an extra 1400-1800 diapers a year, per child.

Production of synthetic diapers began in the 1960s and gained popularity over the following decade. In 2017, Americans disposed of over four million tons of used diapers, 80% of which just sits in landfills. Diapers are made of synthetic materials that aren’t biodegradable. 

Out of all “non-durable goods,” diapers were the second most generated waste by weight, surpassed only by discarded clothing and shoes. And we have over half a century’s worth of them taking up space.

Conventional diapers take hundreds of years to break down, which means that the diapers that you wore as a baby are likely still intact, sitting in a landfill.  Brands like The Eco Pea Company are trying to change this by creating diapers that use more natural materials that have an easier time breaking down. This can go a long way towards countering the environmental effects of disposable diapers.

Chemical Compounds in Diapers

Aside from the sheer volume of waste, disposable diapers contain many harmful substances.

  • Tributyltin (TBT) – A biocide used to prevent the growth of bacteria. It’s poisonous to marine life as well as humans. It damages fertility, unborn children, and our organs. TBT can be fatal if inhaled and doesn’t degrade. TBT remains in our ecosystem and is entering our food chain.
  • Dioxins – A group of persistent organic pollutants. The bleaching process used on diaper material creates dioxins as a by-product. They’re carcinogenic and linked long-term health problems. Dioxins are highly toxic, according to the EPA.
  • Adhesives, synthetic dyes, and perfumes – They are manufactured with and contain the chemicals on this list. Adhesives are used to hold the entire diaper together. Synthetic dyes create the cute pictures found on diapers, as well as the colored straps and the convenient strip telling you whether the baby needs to be changed. Diapers use perfumes to hide odors.
  • Sodium polyacrylate – Used as the absorbent stuffing. Menstrual pads containing this compound have been implicated in cases of toxic shock syndrome.
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) like toluene, xylene, ethylbenzene, and dipentene – They’re used to produce dyes, polymers, and adhesives. But the problem with these chemicals is that they are quickly released into the air when exposed to heat.
  • Plastics/polymers – Mainly polypropylene and polyethylene, but also includes polyester, polyurethane, and polyolefin. They’re the primary materials used in product packaging, household products, and the production of plastic grocery bags, respectively. Most of a diaper is composed of these non-recyclable plastics.
  • Phthalates – While they’re used to soften plastics, the diaper’s adhesives, dyes, and perfumes also contain these chemicals. People of any age can have adverse reactions to phthalates, but unborn babies and young children are potentially more susceptible.
  • Petroleum/petrolatum – Used to keep diapers from leaking.

Most of us don’t want these substances in our environment. Yet we are encouraged to place these compounds directly against our children’s skin.

These chemical compounds are typically used to keep manufacturing costs low, but there are safe and healthy alternatives for parents who want to avoid them, just like there are for sustainable shampoo products. Look for diaper brands that state: hypoallergenic, fragrance-free, totally chlorine-free (TCF), phthalate-free, etc.  Also, opting for sustainable brands with little to no patterns means lessening your baby’s exposure to synthetic and toxic inks and dyes.

Effects of Disposable Diapers: baby walking at beach
The Environment, A Major Concern of the Effects of Disposable Diapers

What About Alternatives?

Fortunately, we have other options that are better for our children and the environment.

Biodegradable Disposable Diapers

A few companies have started production of completely biodegradable diapers. They use plant-based materials instead of polyacrylate stuffing, artificial dyes, toxic materials, and plastics. 

There is a higher price attached to these diapers, due to higher manufacturing costs. But you also get the comfort of knowing that your child won’t be exposed to harsh chemicals. These diapers won’t sit in landfills for centuries. If you want the convenience of disposable diapers without the waste, these are perfect.

Natural diaper brands like Eco Pea Co. can begin degrading in as little as 2-3 months as opposed to 500+ years.  They also utilize water based ink that is environment-protected. Because bamboo is naturally odor-resistant and antibacterial, opting for a bamboo diaper subscription is not only better for our planet, but also safer for your child.

Reusable Cloth Diapers

If you can’t stomach the high cost of biodegradable disposables, there is still another solution — cloth diapers.

Reusable cloth diapers have come a long way since their creation. The classic image of a cotton sheet held on with safety pins is no longer the reality. They’ve updated cloth diapers with contours, velcro or snaps, leak protection, and some pretty stylish prints. Now, these diapers are made of breathable fabrics and don’t require soaking before washing (like they did previously). 

With all-in-one cloth diapers, all you do is shake solids from the diaper, and throw them in the washing machine. After two wash cycles, they’re good as new. 

And if you’re concerned about wasting water, you should know that it takes approximately nine gallons of water to produce a single disposal diaper. When you compare your entire household laundry to the number of disposables you’d use, the answer is clear.

Not only are they environmentally friendly, but cost about half as much as the seven thousand diapers a child uses before potty training. Are you having another child? The only cost is laundering if you chose not to do it at home. Reusables require scant investment instead of a constant drain on your wallet.

Let’s say that you don’t want to have to wash them at home. For the sake of convenience, there are plenty of companies that provide delivery and laundering services. There are green and eco-friendly cleaners as well, so your environmental impact from cloth diaper use has the potential to be negligible.

The cost of laundering services, combined with the purchase of cloth diapers, is almost equal to that of using disposable diapers. Cloth diapers save us significant energy, water, raw materials, and landfill space when compared to single-use diapers.

Final Thoughts on The Effects of Disposable Diapers

Diapers are a necessity for your child. The negative impact on our environment is not. It’s possible to achieve the same protection at a lower cost and similar convenience for about the same as disposables.

It’s our responsibility to use these earth-friendly options. Our total amount of waste produced globally is expected to double by 2030. This is one way we can lessen our impact. If we plan on giving the earth to our offspring, shouldn’t we protect it while raising them?

Andrew Karpisz

Andrew Karpisz is a freelance writer for hire, husband, and proud stay-at-home father. He writes about parenting, self-improvement, and more. When he’s not writing and researching, you can find him frolicking and playing with his 2-year-old daughter. He can be found on FB and Twitter at @TheAndrewAK.