The Right Diaper – Part 2 : Disposable vs. Reusable

A matter of much debate are some general aspects of that whole diaper business such when to use disposable diapers or reusable ones and certain practical and environmental considerations that go with it. The facts, however, are difficult to grasp. In order to arrive at an objective comparison one would have to do some heavy digging on the various factors such the overall resource usage of producing and using a diaper, no matter whether what it’s made of or how people actually wear them. Since many of these facts remain elusive and obscure, I guess we’ll heave to wait until Greenpeace or the WWF do a study on it and some sociological research can explain why some people prefer one type over the other. Unfortunately I also have no first hand experience with modern cloth diapers, so I can’t gauge it first hand. The only kind of cloth diapers were the ones when I was a toddler in the 1970s, or more to the point, my mum spending lots of time washing my younger brother’s cloths. So this is going to be a bit theoretical and dry, but if you have other thoughts on the matter, feel free to comment.

One of the major issues I see with cloth diapers to me is the cost associated with them and how you never may recover it. Talking about the specific variety that is shaped like a normal nappy and wraps around your crotch, held together by velcro or click buttons, this becomes a simple matter of math. For a reasonable use cycle I would need at least two per day and since I don’t want to have my washing machine running all the time and some would always be in the laundry or hanging to dry, I would need like six to ten of them. Multiply that with a cost of 49 Euros per piece and then you already arrive at a hefty sum. The water, electricity and washing agent of course also cost money, so my working theory is that you have worn out your cloth diapers from the extensive washing before you ever break even.

Additionally, I can’t imagine using them in my specific situation – it’s one thing to wash out urine, but a different thing to get rid of brownies. Depending on which material they are made of, cloth diapers may also present you with a hygiene issue if you cannot wash them at at least 60 degrees Celsius to get rid of certain bacteria. From roaming around respective forums it also is evident that those diapers do not nearly hold enough as much urine – to match what some disposable diapers can soak up, you’d literally have to have pads thick as a rolled up towel and you can imagine that this would be far from practical or discreet. So in summary, there are definitely limitations here. I still plan on getting some, though as an additional layer for holding up my disposables (there will be another part on how to best fix your nappies later) and somewhere inside me there’s a little Adult Baby that enjoys some of the colorful patterns and colors they come in. ;-)

Disposable diapers for one time use have reached a level of technical sophistication, they are almost tiny miracles. You realize that the first time you actually wear an extra soaking one and wonder where all that liquid went like I do when watching those extra long movies at the cinema so I don’t need to fight over a free spot when everyone rushes to the toilet during breaks or after the end. ;-) That said, there are additional advantages. Most obviously it can be a matter of hygiene. A pooped diaper is nothing you may want to touch too often, so it’s convenient to simply be able to roll up your used diaper, put it in a bag and throw it into a trash bin. The latter part can be an exercise in itself, since in many public toilets a suitable container is often nowhere to be seen, but that’s another matter and we might at some point later discuss how the public may be (not) prepared with these special requirements of impaired people.

The other big advantage of throw-away nappies is that they are actually more effective overall with certain kinds of incontinence. I already mentioned their almost magic sponge qualities, but this also extends to containing odours. Since the padding will absorb any kind of humidity, including your sweat as well as your excretions this minimizes the opportunities for bacteria that are responsible for the smell to multiply. Many brands also have extra inhibitors worked into their fibres, which improve this even further. Unfortunately this is (aside from possible fit problems) one of the few downsides as well. Wearing diapers can dry out your skin and potentially cause skin irritations, so you may have to compensate for that by using skin care products. One more good thing about disposables are their traveling logistics. When you are on the road, it’s easy enough to have a few spares in your back pack or car trunk and on longer trips you can always find a pharmacy store or similar where you can pick up more or order them within 24 hours if you are not dependent on specific brands and don’t mind that they may be slightly more expensive than at home. Not needing to carry around an extra suitcase and pay extra baggage fees will compensate for that enough, if you get my meaning.

There is of course undeniably a dark side to disposable diapers when it comes to their environmental friendliness. They are made of paper, cellulose fleece, plastic foil and a few extras like the adhesive tapes and all those things have to be produced and transported. Trees are felled using Diesel powered machines, the logs are transported to the sawmill and shredded into cellulose fibers, paper is produced using heat and water, the foil is produced from oil etc. and in some factory it all comes together, is printed and packaged nicely and then again transported. All of these steps inevitably cause some form of pollution, be that the use of energy, smoke and gases from vehicle motors or the dirtying up the water. However, while calculating an actual environmental footprint is beyond the scope of my writing, I tend to think that it’s actually not that bad. At least here in Europe countries like Finland or Sweden, where a lot of the wood comes from, make great efforts to only use trees that grow relatively quickly and their forests can be recultivated. They also have a healthy self-interest to not pollute their waters and keep their nature intact to attract tourists, so in my view that part is not worse than any other process producing paper. Just think about how much paper is used for packaging, papers or promotional flyers and that sort of thing!

Similar things could be said about the foil, but considering how much plastic we throw away every day, often wrapped in extra plastic bags (irony!), I would say this is not that much of an issue, either. Doing my own crooked math, a pack of 18 foil coated diapers probably does not contain more plastic than those thin plastic bags at the grocery store where you put your vegetables in. Even so, many manufacturers have switched their product lines to use more paper (if you use specific heat treatments and pressure, the fibers will look and feel almost like a foil and be just as stable and impermeable for water) and light synthetic fibre fleece for the outer shell as well, so in the future this should be even less of a problem and in addition the manufacturers can market those diapers as “breathable” or “cotton feel”. ;-) That only leaves the adhesive tapes as being “tough” plastic, but once again, if you were to put the tapes of 1000 diapers together in a line it would not be more than a roll of duct tape. To that you would then only add the shrink wrap of the whole package and the printing colors. Arguably you are using more colorfully printed plastic elsewhere every day.

Finally of course you need to get rid of the used paper underwear and, without trying to sound like an apologetist for using disposable diapers, here again I’m looking on the bright side. Since they are made of paper and a bit of foil it is easy enough to burn them in an industrial furnace where they simply turn into water steam and carbon dioxide, with potentially dangerous gases being filtered out. Some of them can even be used for making compost or biological gas reactors, if they don’t have certain chemicals in them.

Does that mean things couldn’t be better? Naturally, there is always room for improvement, but it’s a thin line between providing the protection you need, hygienic aspects and those environmental considerations. In the end it always comes down to responsible use and the best way to improve matters is to use as few diapers as you possibly can and that’s true for every kind. It begins with picking the right package in the first place and then simple things like not prematurely changing your padding up to trying to go without it if possible…

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