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Disposable Diaper Trivia

I wanted to share what I thought was some interesting information about various types of disposable and partially-disposable diapers, that I found in my research, pursuing answers to my own questions about these products.

~ Paula

1) Why are Seventh Generation’s Disposable Diapers Brown?

Because they dye them brown! Someone pointed this out to me via Twitter, and I had a hard time believing that they would do this (as did everyone I mentioned it to) - until I went to their website, where they offer a full explanation.

Excerpt: “The color of disposable diapers is typically achieved through the addition of color pigments to their inner and outer cover materials. This is also true for Seventh Generation diapers. While most designs on the market use pigments that result in a white color, we use a small amount of blended color pigments to impart a tan color to our diapers. The blend is proprietary to the supplier of the pigment. To the best of our knowledge [bolding added], there are no known toxicity issues associated with the use of these pigments in our diapers.

They also write that:

“All disposable diapers, including Seventh Generation’s, rely on man-made materials to deliver the high-level performance that parents expect of modern diapers. These materials are mostly petroleum-derived and are not renewable, which adversely impacts the environmental footprint associated with these products.”


2) What happens when you flush a flushable diaper?

Looking into this question, I found just one study that investigated what happens after a flushable diaper goes down the toilet, done by our neighboring City of Vancouver, Washington, regarding G Diapers flushable diapers.

You might find their study, as well as G Diaper’s rebuttal, to be interesting reading. In the link which follows, you will go to the City’s home page where you can find links to both the study and to the rebuttal & commentary. I spoke to an engineer at the Portland Water Bureau to see if they had similar experiences. The engineer that I spoke to said that while yes, rag content is routinely screened out (and then land filled), that they don’t have the time nor money to identify specifically what is in it. (I am sure you would get a similar answer from most water bureaus.) That is why the Vancouver study is unique. They did take the time and money to follow that specific product:

Excerpt from home page:

“Wastewater treatment facilities are sophisticated systems designed primarily to treat organic wastes, such as human waste and household wastewater, with sensitive, natural processes doing the work of breaking them down safely. Untreatable products can interfere with or skirt those natural processes and harm pipes, pumps, systems and the environment.”

“Just because a product says flushable on the label, that doesn't mean it's treatable in our wastewater system. The fact is, some things should never be flushed down the toilet or washed down the drain.” Flushable diapers are listed as one of those things.

, and then on the Links:

City of Vancouver “Flushable” Diaper Study
Study Commentary and Response

3) But don’t flushable diapers use a lot less water than washing cloth diapers?

Depending on whether you have a modern low flush or an older higher-flush toilet, each time you flush, approximately 1.5 - 5 gallons of water is used. Multiply that by the approximately 8 times per day you will likely change a diaper, and that is 12 gallons to 40 gallons of water used per day. That translates to 84 to 420 gallons per week!! And it consumes even more if you change the diaper more times per day. (Younger babies typically require 10 changes per day.)

Cloth diapers, at 2-3 loads per week, depending on whether a washing machine is high efficiency (15 gallons) or more old fashioned (40 gallons), it would take approximately 30-120 gallons per week to wash them. You could easily use more water flushing paper diapers than washing cloth diapers.


3) Aren’t “natural” disposables chemical free and better for the environment?

Remember--all fully-disposable diapers, whether “natural” or “conventional”, usually end up in the same place - the land fill.

Chemical free? With one exception that we could find--no. Perhaps this is because it is hard to get paper to hold liquid without chemical agents. The only disposable diaper brand that we have found which appears to be free of chemical additives is Tushies. Tushies may manage this in part by being thicker than the other brands. Disposables containing various “natural” claims may have fewer chemicals and perfumes than the more conventional brands, or may not be bleached with chlorine. (And as noted above, at least one is synthetically dyed brown.) One brand marketing itself as natural simply adds organic cotton to the plastic outer material. While I have no idea what the benefit of this would be, the manufacturer simply says, “Discover the bliss of a diaper that includes gentle, natural materials.”

Parents still report finding chemical gel crystals or beads stuck to their babies’ skin using various brands of natural disposables. While there appears to be no conclusive evidence that this is harmful (or not), many parents find it unsettling.

Other customers (and my own personal experience) find that the chemicals themselves can be irritating to babies with sensitive skin, causing dryness, scaliness, and rash. Customers have indicated rash and irritation issues using “natural” as well as “conventional” disposables. Perhaps some could be a contact rash as paper may not be as soft as fabric.


4) An Experiment with Polyacrylate Chemical Gel

You can do your own experiment, as we did at Babyworks, to check out the absorbent powers of this chemical.

Carefully remove the thin, absorbent pad from the center of the disposable diaper, and put it in a large bowl, and fill halfway with water. We left ours there for 2 days, adding more water as needed. At the end of that time, it absorbed 5.25 lbs of water weight! And this was a NEWBORN sized diaper!

This is why you can leave a baby in a disposable diaper for countless hours and it will still feel dry, though might weigh a ton.


5) Is the information I read about “The Diaper Debate” unbiased?

Perhaps it depends on who is funding the website, the study, the article, or the ad. In my own research, I find less-spun facts by not reading about “The Diaper Debate”, but rather reading about laundering, about the landfill situation, about plastics and the environment, etc., that apply to all consumable products including diapers.

Snippets that appear in newspapers and magazines can be generated by press releases from companies with biased interests, and do not always appear to be fact-checked by the reporting staff. So says someone close to me who works in the news.

Take, for example, Web MD’s article on its popular website, called “Solving Your Diaper Dilemma.” Looking carefully, we see that this article is funded by Huggies. While it states online that the content is independent, logic might tell us that a disposable diaper company would not fork over big bucks to underwrite an article that presented cloth diapers in an equal or even favorable light. More about the information presented in this online article can be found in the Diapers and the Environment section.

Seventh Generation makes a “documentary” video about diapers called “Big Green Lies”, without disclosing that they, as disposable diaper makers, were behind it. While it was simply pitched as an “unbiased” look at the diaper debate, the title apparently refers to the fact that the environmental harm caused by disposable diapers is a “Big Green Lie”. In fact, the only image of cloth diapers shown is of a woman sitting amongst mountains of prefolds in a diaper service building. (Maybe some day when I make my documentary, it will show a woman sitting amongst similar mountains of disposable diapers, generated by one baby, destined for the landfill.)

- Check out the following Twitter interview, conducted by Phil Corbett, a professional PR man who was granted an interview with a Seventh Generation executive, Geoff Davis, who was involved in the production of this video. There are not only interesting explanations from Mr. Davis, but also good stats obtained from Mr. Corbett’s own research into the diaper debate:


“When Geoff and I started the conversation of landfill waste he said that ‘life is full of gray areas’........”

“I did ask if the Seventh Generation baby laundry detergent would work since the cloth manufacturers don’t advocate bleach and he said it is not designed to be a zero residue product, that it is designed more for garments and not diapers.”

(Just so you know, in case you’ve been washing your diapers with it, or using their bleach alternative.)

One of my favorite parts of what I’ll call the “infomercial” is when a woman standing in her large green lawn, being interviewed while her two children were at play, says the reason that she did not use cloth diapers is because she is “violently opposed” to water use.

Perhaps she, and Seventh Generation, do not know that one of the largest consumers of water is lawn watering, which can use 3-10 gallons per minute. I also wondered if she had the same “violent opposition” to the water used by doing the family’s regular laundry, or about her kids playing in the hose or sprinkler.

The statement in the show that “You can enjoy your baby more with disposable diapers,” was personally offensive to me. No one using disposables enjoyed their babies “more” than I enjoyed mine. Conversely, many use diaper changing time as a bonding time. I don’t think love and enjoyment of your baby, or quality time you spend with them, is ultimately about which diapers you use.

I came away truly surprised that a company who claims to put “earth first, customer second”, and whose products I formerly purchased, would even make a show like this.

6) Who are the Experts in the Diapering Debate?

Most cited experts in the articles and videos funded by disposable diaper companies are doctors. While we are the very first to give our greatest appreciation, esteem and admiration to doctors for their noble expertise in healing and saving lives, when it comes to diapering or environmental issues, I find that their knowledge, opinions and preferences about these issues are all over the map--just like stay-at-home parents, business owners, engineers, writers, and everyone else. For every doctor who states that there is no “clear winner” or that “disposables are the winner” in the diaper debate, we could find another doctor who feels that cloth diapers are the winner. In fact, one of our customers is a pediatrician in Portland who routinely recommends cloth diapers to her patients.

When doctors do address the diapering issue from a medical perspective, you will find sound advice such as this:

1) Wash your hands with soap and water after each diaper change.
2) Change your baby often enough. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that, “What is more important than the type of diaper is how often it is changed.”
3) Properly dispose of disposable diapers. Wash cloth diapers at a hot temperature.

I would like to hear from more experts and scientists who are directly in the trenches with and studying environmental issues and the impact of consumer actions on the environment (and who are not affiliated with the disposable diaper companies, the paper industry, or even the diaper service industry). Perhaps I can find out who they are and what they think. Stay tuned.