A few numbers to keep in mind as we dive in:
- 300,000: The number of babies born each year
- 450,000: The number of disposable diapers used each year
- 77 million: The tons of waste disposable diapers produce in landfills annually
- 500: The number of years it takes for a single disposable diaper to biodegrade
Source: The World Watch Institute
The disposable diaper’s 1950s debut was a watershed for infant and newborn. As a result, parents worldwide witnessed an efficiency revolution: Instead of washing and reusing their children’s cloth diapers, parents could simply ball up and toss the soiled garments into a crude early version of the Diaper Genie.
But in light of these new conveniences, one burning question remains unanswered: at what cost?
What does the accumulation of disposable diapers cost our landfills? Our environment? Our atmosphere? Are we sacrificing sustainability at the altar of convenience?
In this article, we will discuss the environmental impact of disposable diapers, from what initially sparked the departure from cloth products, to the lifecycle of an average disposable diaper, to how consumers can empower themselves by choosing to purchase responsibly. We will also briefly forecast what’s ahead in the diaper industry and how we can use our purchasing power to reduce the massive environmental footprint left by disposable diapers.
The Disposable Diaper: A Short History
Pre-World War II, parents clothed their babies in reusable, soft-cloth diapers – that is, until a mother named Marion Donovan prototyped a waterproof diaper cover to escape the hassle of constantly washing the soaked and soiled cloth that clung to her children. Marion’s initial model was made from nylon parachute cloth secured by metal and plastic snaps – a safer alternative to the ubiquitous pins that held cloth diapers together.
By 1949, Saks Fifth Avenue picked up Marion’s invention – “The Boater,” an absorbent diaper made of synthetic fibers rather than natural ones – and the items immediately started selling out. The Boater was not entirely disposable. In fact, the nylon part was washable and reusable. Inspired by The Boater’s success and determined to level up the convenience factor, Marion experimented with a new idea: a truly disposable diaper. But investors showed little interest in her idea.
It wasn’t until 1956 that Victor Mills, a chemical engineer with Procter & Gamble, stumbled into the disposable diaper when he was assigned to the creation of new paper products. When P&G acquired Charmin Paper Company the following year, the company expanded the market for disposable diapers through its acquired immersion into absorbent paper products.
Throughout the next two years, the production giant commissioned the creation of 37,000 diapers, which were sent to the broader market for extensive testing. In time, P&G streamlined the diaper design to a one-piece rectangle comprising a hydrophobic rayon liner and a plastic outer covering. This model was dubbed “Pampers” and launched in Peoria, Illinois, in 1961. After some experimenting with consumer-accessible pricing, Pampers hit the broader national market in 1970.
Save for a few niche consumer markets, disposable diapers are king. Half a century of careful engineering has made these products virtually fail-proof, and the use statistics prove it. In fact, each year, families dispose of enough diapers to fill 30 Empire State Buildings. And a 2014 study by Cision predicted that the global diapers market would approach $60 billion by 2020.
Yet while the disposable diaper undeniably changed lives, it also ushered in an era of ever-increasing amounts of non-biodegradable landfill waste. While in recent years, some manufacturers have taken steps to introduce biodegradable products, there’s still a long way to go. This is primarily because the technology necessary to replace the polymers and other components that are derived from petrochemical sources has thus far eluded the industry.
The Lifecycle of the Average Disposable Diaper
Throughout the manufacturing, packaging, and disposal phases, diapers produce and release an alarming amount of biohazards which threaten the environment.
- The manufacturing process involves the extraction of raw materials such as crude oil. The materials are used to create the polyethylene plastic that lines the top and bottom layer of a diaper. The petroleum refining process involved can pollute the air.
- The diapers are packaged in plastic (therefore requiring more petroleum refining) and are transported during the sales phase, creating toxic gas emissions in the process.
- Once discarded, the polyethylene plastic components can take up to hundreds of years to biodegrade, clogging landfills and releasing methane gas (which is not only flammable but is also 84 times more potent than CO2).
Empowering Consumers with Choices
Consumers post-1970 likely believed the disposable diaper was the way of the future – and it’s true that for a time, it was here to stay. Today, though, an increasing number of manufacturers and industry experts are responding to what is quickly becoming an environmental crisis by empowering consumers with alternatives, most prominently, the cloth diaper.
The Cloth Diaper’s Resurrection
In many ways, we’ve come full circle: The cloth diaper of old is back, thanks to the arrival of the “Rumparooz” adjustable cloth product in the mid-2000s. Market research companies like Fact.MR project a 2.1 percent increase in cloth diaper sales from 2017-2021 in light of this renewed interest in sustainability.
Nonetheless, the main hurdle to this sustainable alternative’s ubiquity is that it’s just not as convenient: An average newborn tears through an average of 10-12 diapers daily, which means – you guessed it – more laundry and more work.
Hacks for the Environmentally Conscious Parent
Fortunately, though, parents aren’t stuck between choosing the environmentally savvy option or submitting to a lifetime of constant laundry cycles. There are several options parents can explore to not only waste less but use less.
Elimination Communication, or EC, involves recognizing your child’s natural signals. When your child needs to use the bathroom, she will create a sound to alert you to her need. Eco-conscious parents can use this technique to guide their children to the bathroom rather than allowing them to continue soiling diapers.
Biodegradable Single Use
The widespread use of biodegradable disposable diapers is not far off: Since 2012, Tethis has worked to refine super-absorbing hydrogels from celluloses derived from wood pulp or starches (like corn, tapioca, and peas). As manufacturers add more sustainable elements to their diapers, parents will have more options that strike a better balance between the convenience and eco-friendliness.
What’s Ahead for the Diaper Industry
While the disposable diaper industry is moving toward a more environmentally friendly future, some companies are exploring the “smart” route. Pampers is launching a “smart diaper” this Fall, which will incorporate an activity sensor that tracks a child’s elimination habits during the night. The sensor will help parents identify patterns so they know when their children will use the bathroom. Other manufacturers are offering environmentally friendly diapers made from unbleached organic cotton, bamboo, and hemp.
No matter the product, the intent is to help families manage their parenting responsibilities while reducing the global cost – ensuring that our planet will be a safe place for children for generations to come.