Call the numbers of the three diaper services listed in the Boston, Massachusetts Yellow Pages and you’ll get the same message: “The number you have called is not in service at this time.” Ten years ago, the disposable diaper was the soiled symbol of a throwaway culture; today, it’s the cloth diaper that has, well, bottomed out. Over the last few years, diaper services in the Boston area have shut their doors, leaving parents who prefer cloth scrambling for alternatives.
Boston is far from unique—what’s happening in the Northeast is representative of a nationwide trend. According to the National Association of Diaper Services (NADS), the 400 diaper businesses that thrived in the late 1980s have dwindled to about 50 today.
For years, people automatically assumed that plastic-and-paper disposables did more damage to the environment than reusable cotton diapers. By 1990, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, many states were considering legislation to tax or ban disposable diapers. That same year, sales in the diaper service industry reached a high of $200 million. In the Boston area, 16 competitors flourished; the biggest, Dydee Diaper, tripled its business in less than three years.
Facing a decline in market share, disposable companies launched an advertising blitz questioning just how “green” cotton diapers were, from the pesticides used to grow the cotton to the volume of water used to wash them. Procter & Gamble, makers of Pampers and Luvs, set the debate in motion when it ran an ad showing tree roots in compost, and a voiceover stating: “Ninety days ago, this was a disposable diaper.” (After several lawsuits based on the fact that there were no composting facilities for disposables, Procter & Gamble pulled the commercial.)
But the damage had already been done. By 1997, Dydee, along with three quarters of the nation’s diaper services, had folded its last diaper. “Disposables spent millions of dollars trying to muddy the waters,” says Brian Smithson of NADS. Most services, he says, are small, family-owned businesses, without the capital to buy billboards or pay for TV commercials.
Larry Martin, manager of the family-owned Tidee Didee in Portland, Oregon, says he’s never been able to afford advertising, and he adds that if his father-in-law didn’t own the business, he’d have to close up. “We’ve been able to absorb the loss of business,” he says. “Others haven’t been so lucky.”
Today, the disposable makers saturate the airwaves, hyping drier, more sanitary and more convenient products. Besides, washing diapers is a messy business, and without services to do the dirty work, many advocates of cloth diapers find their resolve weakening. And new mothers, torn between the different options, are often “started off right” with free disposable diaper packs in the hospital maternity wards and nurseries.
“I cleaned my own diapers because the service went out of business, and I couldn’t imagine switching to disposables,” says Boston mother Michele Daves, who notes with pride that her two sons (ages two and five) have never worn a plastic diaper. “But unless parents are personally motivated, this isn’t a realistic alternative.”
Crushed by the disposables monopoly, the cloth diaper industry has also been abandoned by the national environmental community. Once staunch defenders of reusables, conservation groups now argue that competing social and ecological concerns make it difficult to evaluate the environmentally correct position. “We’ve come to appreciate that downstream solid waste is only one of many public health and resource use issues associated with diaper technology,” says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. These include, says Hershkowitz, pediatric dermatology, adult incontinence, upstream resources, manufacturing impacts, an increase in women in the work force, and more out-of-home child care.
In addition to life-cycle analysis studies, Hershkowitz acknowledges that a kind of eco-fatalism is responsible for the cloth diaper’s fall from grace. “What options do we have on this issue?” he asks. “Nine out of 10 Americans with children in diapers prefer disposable diapers. Trying to find ways to subsidize diaper services is probably not the best way for a professional environmental advocate to spend her or his time.”
With friends like these, advocates of reusables are pinning their hopes on city and state officials who are alarmed at the enormous increase in disposable diapers as a percentage of solid waste in landfills. “We definitely think disposables are a problem,” says Peter Spendelow, a waste reduction specialist at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. “Think about all the attention that is given to plastics and bottle recycling. Well, there are now more dirty diapers in the landfill than rigid plastics combined.”
In Seattle, disposable diapers increased from 2.5 percent of all residential waste in 1988 to 3.3 percent in 1994-1995. In Portland, waste studies indicate that the number of diapers in the waste stream increased by 10 percent from 1992 to 1994.
Solid waste concerns have already jump-started a return to cloth diapers in Europe. The cities of Vienna and Munich now subsidize the cost of cloth diapers to offset costs incurred by municipal waste disposal, says Rick Froese, a cloth diaper manufacturer and exporter in Ontario, Canada. Since it costs hundreds of dollars for the cities to dump each ton of waste, notes Froese, “they save on the order of two tons of waste in the landfill site for every child who uses cloth, instead of disposables.”
Encouraged by figures showing that cloth diaper use in parts of Austria has gone from almost nothing to 40 percent in the last few years, several diaper service operators hope to set up similar programs in the U.S. In conjunction with several nonprofit organizations, Smithson’s Baby Diaper Service in Seattle hopes to win a grant from Seattle Solid Waste to subsidize the cost of diaper service for low-income families. There is also some evidence that cloth diapers may be gaining favor with a new generation of parents. “For the first time in five years, our numbers are up,” says Larry Martin, manager of Tidee Didee in Portland. And according to NADS, a couple of diaper services in the Boston area may soon rise from the ashes.
Ultimately, however, like the triumph of formula over breast milk, the travails of diaper services reinforce the dominance of packaging, synthetics and big money in the baby care business. But eco-mommies and daddies shouldn’t lose all hope. Ingenious entrepreneurs like Lyons Falls are already figuring out how to reclaim the fiber in used plastic diapers and make it into, of all things, recycled paper.