Disposable Diapers: Bad News for Babies and the Planet

The world produces millions of everlasting diaper bombs, a stinky mess with an easy alternative
By Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of “Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family.” A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net
September 4, 2021 Updated: September 9, 2021

A popular baby shower decoration is to make a three-tiered cake out of disposable diapers.

“They’re one of my favorite gifts to take to a baby shower because they double as a decoration,” Jennifer, owner of The Craft Patch, wrote on her how-to blog about diaper cakes. “They’re a handy gift that you know every new mom will be able to use.”

The global baby diaper industry was valued at nearly $53 billion in 2019 and, according to Allied Market Research, will reach $68 billion in the next six years. Part of the reason that the market, which includes both disposable and reusable diapers, is growing so quickly worldwide is that “disposable diapers are convenient, safe and time-saving,” and “a boon for working women,” according to an Allied Market Research report.

Indeed, the diaper industry has done direct-to-consumer advertising for years to convince parents that plastic, single-use, throw-away diapers are the easier and best option.

But are they really? 

Jamie Syken and his wife Melissa owned an eco-friendly baby store called Growing Green Baby in Ashland, Oregon, for many years. They have three children: Jonathan, who’s 12 (and attended the same learning pod as my 11-year-old in 2020); Theo, who’s 9; and baby Evelyn, who’s just five months old.

The Sykens don’t think disposable diapers are time-saving, safe, or convenient. They don’t like single-use diapers for two main reasons: the negative health effects and the inconvenience. Instead, they’ve used cloth diapers for all of their kids.

“I think it’s honestly easier,” Jamie Syken said. “You don’t have 20 dirty diapers sitting in a trash can at your house.” 

When you’re running low on cloth diapers, you simply do a load of laundry, the Sykens noted. But if you run out of plastic diapers and you’re alone with a small baby, it becomes an emergency. They don’t think there’s anything “convenient” about putting a baby in a vehicle, making sure you have enough gas, driving to the store, taking the baby out of their car seat, purchasing diapers, strapping the baby back in, and driving back home again.

How Many Diapers Are We Talking About? 

Every baby is different, but most newborns urinate between 6 and 10 times per day, if not more, and defecate at least 3 times per day. Since single-use plastic diapers can hold a lot of liquid, most parents don’t change a baby every time they pee. Still, you’re likely to go through an average of six to eight diapers per day. That means a baby soils, on average, more than 6,000 diapers during the first two years of their lives.  

According to a 1991 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, an estimated 20 billion plastic diapers are added to U.S. landfills each year, creating about 3.5 million tons of yearly waste.

The same EPA report notes that disposable diapers run the risk of introducing pathogens into the environment via human feces, which have the potential to pollute both the soil and the groundwater, a concern echoed by the American Public Health Association.

“It’s a biological hazard to throw the poop into the trash,” Melissa Syken said. “You’re supposed to shake the solids into the toilet, but most people don’t even know to do that.”

Plastic Diapers Aren’t Actually “Disposable”

When my oldest brother was born in 1959, cloth diapers were the only choice. By the time my mom had her second baby, not quite two years later, the first throw-away single-use diapers were available for purchase. 

Those diapers, invented by Victor Mills in 1961 in Illinois, were a bulky and uncomfortable product. So when my third brother and I came along in the late 1960s, lured by the advertising, many U.S. families were switching over. Still, my parents used a cloth diaper service for all four of us. 

“People say, ‘Take the trash out,’” my mom, a prominent microbiologist and noted environmentalist, said years ago when I asked her why she objected to plastic products. “Out where? Where do you think it goes?”

My mom’s question had teeth: Experts estimate that a plastic diaper takes between 100 and 500 years to decompose. But no one really knows. That means that every diaper that has ever been soiled and thrown into a landfill since 1961 has yet to disintegrate.

Single-Use Diapers Off-Gas

Jamie Syken also objected to how bad plastic diapers smell. Open a package and you’ll get a whiff. He told me that he doesn’t think “off-gassing of … plastics 10 inches from your baby’s face” is healthy.

Indeed, several studies show that single-use plastic diapers may be causing or exacerbating asthma, a condition that’s now being diagnosed with increasing frequency in very young children. According to the American Lung Association, asthma affects more than 6 million children in the United States, and it’s the third-leading cause of hospitalization for children younger than 15. 

In one study, “Acute Respiratory Effects of Diaper Emissions,” which was published in the Archives of Environmental Health, rodents exposed to different brands of plastic diapers suffered from eye, nose, and throat irritation, as well as from bronchial constriction akin to an asthma attack.

That study found that measurable amounts of various chemicals, including ethylbenzene, isopropylbenzene, styrene, tolune, and xylene, off-gassed from the diapers, leading the researchers to hypothesize that they were the cause of mice’s respiratory distress.

“Disposable diapers should be considered as one of the factors that might cause or exacerbate asthmatic conditions,” the researchers wrote.

Evelyn Marie Syken, 5 months old, has been wearing cloth diapers since birth.
Evelyn Marie Syken, 5 months old, has been wearing cloth diapers since birth. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Syken)

Too Hot?

In addition to concerns about asthma, single-use plastic diapers are likely more unhealthy for boys than for girls. In order to keep sperm healthy, male genitalia must stay at a cooler temperature than 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why the male reproductive organs are outside the body. But disposable diapers keep the genital area hotter than is healthy for sperm production and mobility, especially when not changed frequently. 

According to a German study of 48 healthy children that was published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, scrotal temperatures are significantly and consistently higher in boys wearing disposable diapers than in boys wearing cloth. 

Male fertility rates in Western countries have been declining rapidly, according to an extensive analysis of the existing data and trends, which was published in Human Reproductive Update in 2017. 

The overuse of disposable diapers, the team of German scientists concluded, may be a reason for the ongoing decline in male reproductive health. 

“The physiological testicular cooling mechanism is blunted and often completely abolished during plastic nappy use,” the scientists wrote.

A scientific review, published in 2012, further implicates disposable diapers in male infertility, as well as asthma and other respiratory problems, cancer, and liver damage.

Pollution in the Pacific

J. Maarten Troost, author of “The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific,” detailed how disposable diaper waste has even reached a remote island in an atoll in the Republic of Kiribati, 5,000 miles from anywhere. 

Troost described how disposable diapers are littered around his house, sticking to the coral reefs, and stinking in the sun. The pollution on Tarawa is so bad that most of the coral around the island is dead. But one day, when Troost was out diving he unexpectedly found some live coral: a “few splashes of color on an abused reef.” 

Unfortunately, Troost lamented in his book, “Elsewhere on the island the color was provided by those with advanced degrees in marketing and package engineering. There was rubbish everywhere, cans and rags and diapers listlessly swaying the current … it was disheartening seeing what was being done to their habitat.” 

More Sustainable Than Single-Use: Cloth Diapers

Gone are the days of flat diapers and pins (though some retro-chic parents still use those). Now there are dozens of different reusable diaper systems, including cloth diapers—usually made from cotton, hemp, or wool—that use Velcro or snaps to fit snugly, pocket diapers, and all-in-ones. All-in-ones, which are popular and easy to use, are reusable diapers that have the cover and the absorbent material inside attached together. You can find them with boldly printed covers decorated with U.S. flags, monkeys-and-hearts, sailboats, and any other pattern of which you can think. 

When it comes to environmental questions, researchers caution that it’s difficult to do an accurate cradle-to-grave analysis. The National Wildlife Federation points out that conventional cotton is a crop grown with a lot of pesticides. And industry-funded studies have shown that more water is used to clean cloth diapers than to generate plastic ones, which can be a problem, especially in drought-prone areas. 

Still, reusable diapers keep thousands of tons of trash out of the landfills, end up costing less to the consumer in the long run, and also seem to be much gentler on babies’ sensitive skin. According to the Real Diaper Association, reusable diapers are more ecologically friendly, more affordable, and healthier than single-use plastic diapers. They’re also a lot cuter.

Making the Switch

Parents who love fluff are happy and eager to help newbies, share advice, and get you started with some hand-me-downs. There are online chat groups and demo videos, and diaper experts abound.

Kaila Dawson, a mother of three who lives in Pierson, Florida, switched from plastic to cloth diapers when her oldest, Micah, was four months old. She made the change because single-use plastic diapers gave her newborn diaper rash.

“Cloth diapering was really easy,” Dawson insists.

That said, when her third baby came along, Dawson used a combination of cloth and more expensive, more natural single-use diapers. 

“The only reason I really took a break was that we moved, and it took a while to find the cloth diapers when we were unpacking,” she said, noting that she had a poor-quality laundry machine that made it hard to get the diapers clean.

Cari Shagena, a mother based in southern California, also used cloth diapers with her daughter, Farrah, who is 6 1/2 years old now. Shagena’s favorite reusable diapers were pocket diapers, which consist of a washable diaper cover with a pocket. 

Cari Shagena (R) and young daughter Farrah. (Courtesy of Cari Shagena)
Cari Shagena (R) and daughter Farrah. (Photo courtesy of Cari Shagena)

“You stuff the inserts inside, snap it on baby, and you’re good to go,” Shagena said. “They fit just like a disposable diaper but are harder for littles to remove on their own, which is very helpful.” 

Shagena was very happy using cloth diapers with Farrah.

“I loved that they were more comfortable for my baby,” she said. “I loved that I was helping keep the environment healthy and not adding to the landfills. I loved that I knew my baby had only natural fibers against her skin without any harsh chemicals or toxins. … And the adorable fabrics and patterns made it so much fun. She looked dressed up even in the summertime when she refused to wear clothes.”

There are so many things to love about reusable diapers.

“‘Blowouts’ are also mostly unheard of with cloth diapers. That was partly a deciding factor to switch to cloth,” Shagena said.

Going Diaper-Free

How fast children learn to use the potty is another factor: Disposables are so absorbent that babies don’t feel the wetness when they pee. The average age of potty training has continued to go up in the United States, where it isn’t uncommon to see a 4- or 5-year-old still wearing diapers. While part of that may be due to the rise of special needs in children, it’s much harder to learn to use the potty without physical cues. Children wearing cloth diapers tend to learn more easily.

Some parents help their babies potty train from an early age by reading the infant’s cues and teaching them to associate a sound (like a soft grunt or a whoosh noise) with elimination. Inspired by Christine Gross-Loh’s book, “The Diaper-Free Baby,” my husband and I did that with our youngest. When we thought she needed to go, we simply took off her diaper and held her over the toilet or a little white bowl. When she peed, we made a sh-sh-sh sound. She learned to associate peeing with that noise and started peeing only when her diaper was off. Our fourth baby never had a diaper rash and barely ever soiled a diaper.

While going diaper-free may seem strange to U.S. parents, it’s common in many countries around the world.

Potty Pants

Sean Wang and his wife have a diaper-free system to help toddlers learn to go in the toilet and not in their diapers or pants. Wang said his wife and he tried everything to potty train their toddler in their Brooklyn apartment, but their son refused to go unless he was wearing a diaper.

“Just as we were about to give up, I called my parents for advice, and they reminded me that I was potty trained at 15 months old … in China and told me about these Chinese split crotch pants,” he said.

Wang was inspired. An engineer by training, he immediately made a prototype. 

To his surprise, within minutes of wearing them, his son went to sit on the potty and peed for the first time on his own.

“That’s when we knew we had something that could help him and other children to potty train,” Wang said.

So he started a business, PottyPants, which makes crotch-less pants for U.S. children.

“I want to tell parents out there who are struggling with potty training to keep an open mind and give ‘non-mainstream’ methods like PottyPants a chance.”

One way or another, that tiny newborn in your arms will be out of diapers before you know it. Instead of leaving a legacy of trash off-gassing in the landfill, why not try cloth diapers or go diaper-free, choices that are gentler for the planet and better for your baby.

Jennifer Margulis is the author of “Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family,” which includes a chapter on diapering. She’s also a frequent contributor to The Epoch Times. Sign up for her weekly emails, read her articles, and learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net 

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of “Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family.” A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net