“Would you wear paper underwear?” That was the slogan on a van I saw this week in my neighborhood. It belonged to a diaper service, a company that handles cloth diapers, delivering clean ones and picking up soiled ones to be taken back and laundered. (I’m giving that explanation in case there are young people who think babies have worn disposable diapers from time immemorial.)
When our first child was born, someone presented us with a gift of free diaper service for a certain period of time. We continued it for a while after the gift time expired, but then we purchased a washer and dryer so that the diaper service money went toward paying for the new appliances. Every baby we knew wore cloth diapers in those days.
But one day something new arrived in the mail: a free sample of Pampers® disposable diapers. Sacramento, California apparently was a test area for these new things. My friends and I thought they were nice and continued to purchase them once the samples were gone. But we used them only for travel or when taking the baby with us to a friend’s house for the evening. It never occurred to us that a time would come when babies would spend their entire infancy and early childhood in disposable diapers. Or that the things would become a major problem for sewage systems and municipal landfills.
Today, 95 percent of babies in the U.S. wear disposable diapers, according to an article in The Atlantic about Marion Donovan, the woman credited with inventing – and manufacturing – the first disposable diaper. The reason she had to manufacture them herself is because none of the men heading the large companies she approached could see a need for such a thing.
Today, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimates Americans throw away 18 billion disposable diapers a year. A timeline in Mother Jones gives 2500 as the year when today’s disposable diapers will finally finish biodegrading.
“Green America,” an online publication of greenamereica.org, outlines the pluses and minuses of cloth versus disposable and shares conclusions of UCS: “After analyzing the results in their latest edition of “The Consumers’ Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, UCS encourages people not to ‘waste a lot of time or energy trying to decide which type of diapers to use based on environmental considerations,’ since the differences aren’t particularly dramatic. If you live in an area with landfill issues, choose cloth, and if your community suffers water shortages, choose disposable, they say.”
Well, what to do in Los Angeles? We have both landfill issues and water shortages. It’s enough to make a person’s mind spin. Fortunately, I’m past the point in life where such decisions must be made. The kinds of decisions I must make are concentrated at the other extreme of life. Which is why I appreciated a slogan on another van, this one from a retirement home delivering a resident to the doctor’s office. It read “Caring never gets old.”
Nice, huh? But, no, I wouldn’t want paper underwear.