Changing Diapers

During the garbage and packaging debates a decade ago, disposable diapers were targeted as garbage villains. Many environmentalists accused diapers of causing landfills to overflow and of destroying forests.

When the great diaper debate was raging, my children were long past the diaper-wearing ages. When they were, they used both types of diapers. At home, they wore cloth diapers from a diaper service. Cloth diapers were considerably less expensive than disposables (approximately $4 a week, if my memory is correct). And the diaper service brought the diapers to my house. What could possibly be more convenient? At the supermarket, I would see parents struggle with bulky boxes and bags of disposables and wonder why the inconvenience was worth the extra expense.

When we travelled out of town, we had no problem buying disposables for our babies. On the road, disposables were more convenient. The extra cost was just another travel expense.

The value of disposables became clear when we took our 6-month-old daughter to Colorado for my grandmother's 95th birthday. As she held my daughter, my grandmother smiled and said that in her day cloth diapers made it difficult to travel with babies.

Which is why I was delighted to read “Smaller” by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, Nov. 26, 2001. According to Gladwell, disposable diapers were reduced in size by 50 percent in the '80s, by another 33 percent in the '90s and will shrink even more during the next few years. Some of the reasons, such as an improved ability to absorb liquids and keep them away from the babies' skin, are obvious.

However, other reasons are not so obvious, but get to the heart of what causes less waste. These are cost and retail sales considerations. As Gladwell points out, size matters. Diapers have to be shipped from production plants to retail outlets. State and federal laws limit the weight of a tractor-trailer and its contents. Heavier, bulkier diapers “cube out” quickly, leaving empty space in the truck. By cutting the size of the diapers, more could be shipped in fewer trucks. And the smaller diapers required less warehouse space.

An even more important factor is found where diapers are sold. When diapers were at their bulkiest (remember the big boxes that annoyed me), stores had trouble finding enough space for them. As a result, customers looking for diapers wouldn't find them because the shelves couldn't be stocked quickly enough. By making diapers smaller, more boxes could fit into the same space as before. The manufacturers, the stores and the customer all were happier.

The New Yorker printed several letters in response to Gladwell's article. They denounced the evils of disposable diapers. Oh well, you can't please everyone. But the next time the EPA gives an award for the wise use of materials, I hope they include the disposable diaper industry in its candidate list. The reductions in size and weight exemplify why source-reduction is a no-brainer for most industries.

The columnist is director, state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: