Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cloth Diapers - myths and facts

This post is part of the Real Diaper Facts carnival hosted by Real Diaper Events, the official blog of the Real Diaper Association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to cloth diaper education. Participants were asked to write about diaper lies and real diaper facts. See the list at the bottom of this post to read the rest of the carnival entries.

Please understand that I have no desire to offend any consumer of disposable diapers; this post is a response to outrageous corporate behavior.

Pampers recently launched a campaign against cloth diapers as a response to public outcry due to (and a distraction from) chemical burns and other skin damage in infants wearing their DryMax line of products. Note that this is a highly contested issue and the center of at least one lawsuit; however, I know several mothers (through BabyCenter) whose infants suffered the burns -- and I assure you the heartbreaking photos are of no common diaper rash.

Regardless, Pampers' "Myths and Facts" page is ludicrous and deserves some response.

Pampers' "Myth" #1: Cloth diapers are better for my baby.
Pampers' "Fact": Disposable diapers like Pampers were developed to offer babies benefits that cloth diapers could not meet. That goes beyond convenience to helping keep babies' skin dryer and more comfortable by reducing leaks and locking wetness inside the diaper in a way that cloth doesn't. As a result, doctors and parents simply don't see the same level of diaper rash that used to exist before disposable diapers.
No, doctors and parents DON'T see the same level of diaper rash that used to exist before disposable diapers: according to a FAQ at Jillian's Drawers (a cloth diaper store; perhaps not an unbiased source), "The rate of diaper rash has increased from 7% to over 78% since 1955, comparable with the increased rate of disposable diaper use."

As for the claim that disposable diapers keep babies' skin dryer and more comfortable, it may be outmoded to assume that cloth diapers do not. Cloth diapers can and most often do feature stay-dry liners of wicking fabrics, so that babies feel dry. Even if babies can feel wetness with cloth diapers, there is some anecdotal evidence that the experience can be beneficial to earlier potty learning. Also, cloth diapered children are customarily changed after every wetting; this is not always the case for disposable diapered children. I feel that the hygienic benefits of disposable diapers are largely mythical.

For what it's worth, I have used cloth feminine pads for years due to sensitivity to the paper ones: I am dryer in them, and indisputably more comfortable. All of my family has appallingly sensitive skin, and that's the fundamental reason I am choosing cloth for my baby.

Pampers' "Myth" #2: Cloth diapers are better for the environment than disposables.
Pampers' "Fact": In October 2008, the United Kingdom's Environment Agency published an update to its 2005 Life Cycle Assessment study on cloth versus disposable diapers. The update confirmed the earlier study's findings that there is no clear winner in terms of environmental impacts between disposable and cloth diapers in the U.K., once all factors such as water, energy, detergent, and disposal are considered.
This "fact" is entirely misleading. These studies were highly flawed; disposable products were greenwashed therein, and the laundering methods described are not typical of modern methods. If you're interested in wading through an angry dismissal of the horseshit factor, please click the link and read up.

Anecdotally, I can assure you that the majority of the HUNDREDS of cloth-diaper-using families who participate in the BabyCenter cloth diapering forums use "green" detergents with low environmental impact, and very many indeed use low-energy, low-water modern machines. Here's the skinny: it takes special care to keep reusable diapers absorbent, non-water-repellent, without smelly buildup, and hygienic. That said, the answer is LESS chemical intervention (and hotter water, to be sure): enzymes, softeners, optical brighteners/UV enhancers, whitening enzymes, essential oils, fragrances, and some say borates all damage the efficacy of cloth diapers. What CAN people use? Generally speaking, surfactants and pH adjusters, hot water, and sunlight: lower-impact ingredients. Additionally (and anecdotally again), many if not most cloth diapering households are at least semi-"crunchy" and want to reduce their environmental impact, and choose low-impact, natural products and methods accordingly.

Finally, and I know this is gross (but we ARE talking about diapers): these studies do not factor for washing of extra linens, children's clothes, and adults' laundry as a result of leaks and "poop blow-outs" -- which are extremely common with disposables and extremely uncommon in cloth diapers. (This tendency alone would convince us to use cloth diapers with our baby!) Diapers (and cloth wipes, etc.) constitute about three wash loads of diapers per week for most families and can reduce "emergency" laundry.

Pampers' "Myth" #3: Developing countries prove that cloth diapers are better than disposable diapers.
Pampers' "Fact": Our product provides key benefits in terms of skin health, dryness, and even sleep. In China, for example, we've learned that babies and parents are frequently awakened during the night each time the baby soaks the bed, because the baby has no diaper or a very thin piece of cloth. As a result, studies have shown that a disposable diaper can help a baby there get a better night's sleep. In another test, we have also seen less fecal contamination spread around the home using disposables versus cloth or nothing.

Clearly, we have a lot to learn about how to help with basic hygiene needs in countries that have very different access to clean water to wash with, and how to best dispose of products after use. We've also learned about hygiene for older children through our Always feminine care business – where in many parts of the world girls are forced to miss school one week each month during their period because they don't have enough pads or fresh water.

We are working in those regions to better understand what they do with products after use, and how to work with local agencies and other businesses to ensure the best long-term system to manage it.

In China, it is common to potty train children from birth with a practice known as "elimination communication" in the U.S. Infants there are using toilet facilities (obviously not unassisted nor reliably, yet) at ages as young as several weeks to several months of age. The entire process is different. Of COURSE a diapered infant will sleep better than one that awakens wet: that said, stay-dry cloth diapers seem to work well to promote sleep, just as disposables do.

As an anthropologist, I grit my teeth when I hear about hygienic "needs" in other cultures. Paternalistic! From a corporation, vulpine! As a skeptic of corporate propaganda, I twitch when I hear about their own "tests" (also, re: fecal contamination, see "blow-outs" above. Ugh!) Biased! Crazy! But it is the height of offense to claim to be finding "the best long-term system to manage" purely wasteful products forced upon other cultures who had their own means to cope with life's challenges, at the expense of cultural heritages, particularly when our own means to cope with diaper waste are so incredibly inadequate in the U.S. Sheesh!

Back to fecal contamination for a moment (I know, I'm sorry.) I read an article yesterday and cannot find it today, in which a researcher tested washing machines in the U.S. by washing a sterile washcloth in them and then measuring fecal bacteria. 1/4 of our washing machines have fecal bacteria; 1/5 of them spread e coli. The researcher's conclusion was that we take inadequate care with our laundry, particularly in terms of water temperature. So, let's not pick on China right now. Everybody go run an empty load of HOT water and a little bleach, right now. Better.

Pampers' "Myth" #4: Disposable diapers are harmful to the environment.
Pampers' "Fact": All of the component materials in Pampers diapers are gentle to consumers and safe for the environment. Pampers diapers are made of materials that are also frequently used in a wide range of other consumer products. We are committed to continuing to reduce our environmental impact. For example, Pampers has decreased its diaper weight by one-third and packaging weight by two-thirds. And innovative technologies, raw materials, and product design improvements have led to significant reductions in energy, water use, emissions, and waste at our plants. We are working so that our diapers in the future will have less impact on the environment than even today's diapers.

All respect to those parents who choose more responsible disposable or partially disposable diapers (gDiapers systems, diaper liners, unbleached paper diapers, etc.) Please understand that any figures I cite below are for the average American disposable diaper, not these more responsible choices. However, even these more responsible choices may have hidden environmental tolls.

Part of the problem is not the manufacturer's fault. Regardless of what kind of diaper is chosen, we are all supposed to scrape/rinse/dump the poop off of the diaper before proceeding to deal with it (through laundry or discarding). We are NOT supposed to discard waste directly into the trash and our landfills. However, virtually no disposable-diapering families actually do this. All cloth diapering families do. The reduction in raw sewage sent directly to our landfills is significant, even if other factors were not.

One child in disposables will use 20 trees and 420 gallons of petroleum, and generate 1 ton of landfill. These figures do not include transportation or manufacture. It takes 3/4 cup of petroleum to make a single disposable diaper. Even if we weren't talking about the ecological environment, disposable diapers would not be good for our geopolitical one.

The nutshell: Cloth diapers are reusable. Disposable diapers are single-use. I don't care how much you try to reduce your packaging, weight (and this is disingenuous: adding ingredients such as sodium polyacrylate are part of the process of making diapers lighter), and emissions -- reusable vs. single-use says it all.

Pampers' "Myth" #5: The materials that make up Pampers diapers are depleting our forests.
Pampers' "Fact": The pulp used in our diapers comes from well-managed forests in North America. In some cases, we source our pulp from scrap wood chips from lumber and saw mills. Our pulp suppliers are required to be certified by an independent third party as practicing sustainable forestry. Certification includes standards and criteria for replanting trees, protecting biodiversity, water, air and soil, and for obtaining broad stakeholder input into the forest management plan.

Doesn't sentence #1 of the "Fact" above confirm the hypothesis? "The pulp comes from forests." Yeah.

Am I not supposed to give a shit because they are in North America? We have rainforests on this continent, too. And other types of forests also matter to the species that inhabit them, to biodiversity, to our air quality, and to future generations.

Okay, on a less snarky note: this "Fact" is the reason I am writing about this issue today. Specifically, the phrase that triggered my political Tourette's is "In some cases."

HOW MANY CASES? I would like to know. Just saying.

Also, the last phrase: "for obtaining broad stakeholder input into the forest management plan." This one makes me see red. Think about stakeholders in management plans in other arenas of American life: do you know what effect the meat, milk, and sugar super-lobbies have had on our guardian committees and dietary guidelines? How about the gutting of organic standards due to Monsanto's (and other corporations') alumni personnel infesting the monitoring organizations and committees? This is setting the fox to guard the hen-house, and it is happening in all the parts of your life. Be watchful. Be wary. Don't believe that "third-party" means "objective."

But really, we're back to those first and second sentences. "We use wood from forests to make trash with only a single use. Sometimes we use wood with less impact (although it arguably creates impact to deplete it for this unnecessary use), but we won't tell you how often."

Okay. No more myths and facts. Back to your regularly scheduled program.

I encourage you to make up your own mind after careful research. And please be aware, I am not criticizing those of you who make the choice to use disposable diapers; I don't live your life, don't know what the right choice is for you, and would not presume to tell you how to choose. But I know what the right choice is for me. And I know when I'm being fed a line of horseshit from a brutal mega-corporation trying to distract people from another serious issue with a lively puppet show.

Cloth diapers are easy to use, but they're not easy to KNOW how to use. For instance, I've been washing my towels with fabric softener for decades. In the course of learning how softeners affect absorbency, I figured out why my towels were retaining scents and becoming less effective. I washed them without a couple times, and now -- boom! Big, fluffy, fresh, absorbent towels again! Like new! Try it! But that's the benefit, if there is one, of being unemployed and obsessed with learning about something new: I can research things endlessly and weed the sensible from the storytime. Not everyone has the luxury of that time, and there's a lot of misinformation out there.

If you want the benefit of my research, you know who to ask.

But don't just take my word for it: here are other posts at the Carnival:


Anika said...

You go girl! That was very well written, with excellent points.

Ducks said...

Aw, thanks! And thank you for stopping by, Anika! :)

PMS_CC said...

I would like to thank you SOOOO much for doing this research and making things easy on me.

LazyCrazyMama said...

Wonderful research!!! Great points! Awesome!!!

Ducks said...

Thank you! It's so great to have new visitors, too. :)

Heather said...

Great points. My favorites were the anthropologist's perfect critique of corporations disrespectfully insulting a culture and introducing an unnecessary product that will only cause more problems for said culture... You said it better. My other favorite part was when you pointed out WHO really would be the "stakeholders" involved in the plan. Too few people recognize this stuff. Thanks for writing about it.

Ducks said...

Aw shucks, Heather -- thank you! I felt weird about such a sustained critique post, but... well, felt it needed saying. You touched on the key points that really resonated emotionally with me. I think we're kindred spirits. ;)

Heather said...

Ran across this quote today - thought you might like it given your post (maybe they were reading?): "In short, the business of diapering in the next decade is the classic international chess game of carefully cultivating a nascent potential "need" using relevant local cultural vibes to create a new baseline of progress that includes a highly profitable product people seem to be doing fine without." from:

Mama said...

Lovely! Going to run that washer right now...

Ducks said...

Mama - I know, right? That's what I did, right after I read it. And that's not cloth-diapering American families, that's all of us. Yeesh.

Heather - that article you linked is phenomenal! Thank you so much!

Catherine said...

That was a very well written post. I have read through the other ones on the carnival and many seem to have word for word quotes minus quotations to the point I wonder where the information was coming from. That being said I am a newly cloth diapering mama. Two weeks down, many more to go!

Ducks said...

Thanks Catherine! I tried hard to give sources where I recognized them, but oh, I know I must have missed some. Nothing I have is first hand, because I'm still expecting that first baby.

It's so hard to attribute all your sources on a subject like this, where you learn with a passionate and political community and discuss details; it becomes community knowledge.

john smith said...

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