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Diaper Services: A Convenient Option
by Angelique Mullen
February 2005

A generation ago, when a woman got pregnant, she might expect a really helpful gift at her baby shower: a paid diaper service. Often, families and friends of a mother-to-be would each contribute a small sum of money towards the gift, paying for a week or perhaps a month of the service. This would be a welcome gift, often supplying the new parents with months of fresh, clean diapers for the first several months of a baby’s life.

Alice Lucas of San Francisco remembers getting such a gift when she was expecting her third child back in 1975. Her aunt, mother, and mother-in-law pitched in and paid for three months of a diaper service. She said that gift was, “… very helpful, especially considering that I had two children in diapers and one in kindergarten.”

Today, while this kind of gift is still popular among cloth diaper enthusiaists, giving the gift of a diaper service is not possible in places where diaper services no longer exist. Once a booming business in the United States, diaper services are on the verge of becoming extinct. Diaper services have dwindled so much in the last fifteen years that there are fewer than 90 businesses left in the United States. Jack Shiffert of the National Association of Diaper Services (NADS) says they had 400 diaper service members in 1989, but now have only 15.

In today’s market, diaper service companies are shutting down in high numbers. In many states, there are only one or two diaper services left. As just one example, in Minnesota fifty years ago, there were eight diaper service companies in the Twin Cities area alone. Now, there are only two services in the entire state. In some states, there are no diaper services left at all. Not only is this sad for the consumer, but it is unfortunate for the business owners as well. Diaper services, even the larger ones, are often family-run businesses, and some have been around fifty years or more.

In addition to the closing of these larger businesses, Shiffert says there are probably a lot of smaller, family-owned businesses with only a handful of customers, and his statistics do not keep track of these smaller operations. There is no way to tell how many of the smaller operations have been able to remain in business.

Only 15 years ago, things seemed quite different in the cloth diaper industry. The environmental movement was at its peak in popularity, with a greater cultural emphasis on recycling and reusing. Disposable diapers became the symbol of gross, excessive waste. Diaper services then were experiencing a serge in business, and the owners of those services were buying extra equipment and supplies to keep up the demand. With so many new customers, the late 1980s was a prosperous time for cloth diaper services.

Then, a swift backlash occurred in the early 1990s, one that the industry has not completely bounced back from. Procter and Gamble, a major manufacturer of disposable diapers, sponsored an analysis on the lifecycle and waste of both types of diapers, and showed that manufacturing cloth diapers wastes 6 times more water. The study was highly criticized at the time as being flawed and full of scientific and mathematical errors. One important criticism was that the data used in this study was not independent data, but rather, was collected by disposable diaper companies. NADS and various environmental groups did similar, even more comprehensive studies looking at the entire lifecycle of both types of diapers, from production to disposal. One of these studies, the Landbank Consultancy Report, showed that 2.3 times more water was wasted in the manufacture of disposables.

It was during this time that Procter and Gamble, the makers of Pampers and Luvs, launched a very effective advertising campaign that targeted the cloth diaper industry and confused the public. In one of their ads, they claimed that their diapers were partially biodegradable and could be used as composting fertilizer, even though most states did not have diaper-composting facilities for single-use diapers. In other advertisements and press releases, they questioned all aspects of the reusable diaper industry: for example the chemicals and pesticides that were used in growing cotton, the water used to wash diapers, and even the gasoline used by diaper delivery trucks. This media attack greatly harmed the diaper service industry. Says Shiffert, “Disposable diaper companies had money to conduct research and promote their product, and the diaper services could not fight them”.

This backlash has had a lasting impact on the mainstream consciousness in the U.S. As a result of this continued campaign by the disposable diaper industry to create the illusion of equality, most parents in the U.S. do not think there is a difference between cloth or throwaway diapers when it comes to environmental impact. The market has changed, and diaper services are not as popular a choice. There are many reasons for this. The throwaway diaper industry has a massive advertising budget, while surviving diaper services usually have no budget for advertising or promotion. Disposable diaper makers have television spots, print ads, and access to new parents in hospitals, doctors’ offices, and supermarkets. Very few hospitals encourage new parents to use cloth diapers, and it is unheard of for supermarkets to carry them. Also, because so many diaper services have gone out of business, it is often a challenge for the remaining services to adequately meet the needs of their existing customers. When diaper services go out of business, the delivery areas for the remaining services get larger. This can often mean that prices increase to those outlying areas.

Unfortunately, it is possible that the main reason diaper services have lost popularity is that most people do not see an environmental difference between cloth and disposable diapers, and they view disposable diapers as the more convenient option. According to Judy Aagard of Tiny Tots, the biggest challenge facing diaper services today is a misconception that single use diapers are more convenient. “Many consumers seem to think that because a diaper is more absorbent and can be thrown away, it is easier. Disposable diapers need to be rinsed prior to disposing since it is unsanitary to throw human waste in landfills and it is unsanitary for babies to sit in a solid diaper through several urinations, but they tend to because of the super absorbency of the chemically induced disposables,” Aagard says.

The throwaway diaper industry has soared, which means the price of disposables has gone down, making them more affording to the average consumer. Of course, the price consumers pay does not cover the whole cost. There are long-term social costs from waste, short-term social costs from environmental devastation at the site of manufacture, and other costs are borne by all of us in a variety of ways. Each year, there are 27.4 billion disposable diapers that are consumed every year in the U.S. alone. How long can this level of consumption continue?

Diaper services are a convenient gem in the cloth diapering world, and there are many benefits to using one. Mark Stief, owner of Baby Diaper Service in Seattle, says, “We keep one million diapers a year out of landfills. I don’t know what industry does more for the environment”. He describes his eco-friendly washing formula which he spent eight years perfecting. He uses industrial washers and dryers, and natural chemicals. Although bleach is used, he says it is only about two cups for every 250 pounds of diapers. “It’s not much”, he says.

Laundering and sanitation are checked by NADS on a regular basis. Jack Shiffert says that diaper service members of NADS follow high standards of cleaning specified by NADS. These include random bacteria checks, meticulous laundering procedures, and high temperature dryers. Shiffert believes diaper services, “… get the diapers cleaner than someone who washes diapers at home.”

For parents who want to use cloth, diaper services can be very convenient. For people like Julie Tonroy of San Francisco, washing her son’s diapers was not an option. “Unfortunately, our 100 year-old flat in San Francisco is not equipped with a washer and dryer.” Not wanting to wash the diapers at a laundromat and not wanting to use disposables, Julie looked for a local diaper service and was pleased to find Tiny Tots. She likes using the service not only because they deliver fresh diapers each week, but also because they have other helpful services. “The video library has been invaluable. Upon my request after having my son, the diaper service sent (for free) video tapes on nursing and diapering which were extremely informative,” Tonroy says.

Another benefit to diaper services is that diapers usually do not need to be dunked, soaked or washed. Diapers from a service can go through as many as fourteen stages of cleaning before they are dried. At Tiny Tots, they use a cleaning “tunnel” that is divided into ten modules, each with a unique function in the cleaning process. All of these steps make discarding a soiled diaper as convenient as using a throwaway diaper. As Julie Tonroy says, “Diapers simply get put in the pail, they are taken away once a week, and we receive our new delivery of fresh clean diapers. How convenient is that?”

Unlike Julie Tonroy, most people across the U.S. have no diaper service available to them. But this can change if the demand for cloth diapers increases. Shiffert says in order for cloth diapers to gain popularity, “There needs to either be a reawakening of environmental awareness or something bad to happen as result of using disposables.” While we hope this is not the case, it is nevertheless important for parents to be educated about all of the options available to them, and to understand the benefits of cloth diapering. All supporters of cloth can be part of this educational movement and work together in making new parents aware of their choices. Diaper services are our partners in this mission. Judy Aagard says, “We’re always happy to hear of people who do their own diapers! We don’t think of them or other diaper services as competition but rather allies.”

Sources:

  • Aagard, Judy. Telephone interview. 25 Jan. 2005.
  • Baker, Linda. “Bottoming Out: Why Are Diaper Services Disappearing?” E: The Environmental Magazine. Sept/Oct 1998.
  • Braun, Janna. “Local diaper dynasty weathers Huggies Herd.” Los Angeles Business Journal: 13 Oct 2003.
  • The Landbank Consultancy Limited. A Review of Proctor & Gamble's Environmental Balances for Disposable and Re-useable Nappies. July 1991.
  • Lehrburger, Carl. 1988. Diapers in the Waste Stream: A review of waste management and public policy issues. 1988. Sheffield, MA: self-published.
  • Lehrburger, C., J. Mullen and C.V. Jones. 1991. Diapers: Environmental Impacts and Lifecycle Analysis. Philadelphia, PA: Report to The National Association of Diaper Services (NADS).
  • Lucas, Alice. Telephone interview. 26 Jan 2005.
  • McConnell, Jane. “The Joy of Cloth Diapers.” Mothering. May/June 1998.
  • Reinan, John. “Disposable Business.” Minneapolis Star Tribune. 28 Aug 2004.
  • Shiffert, Jack. Telephone interview. 13 Dec 2004.
  • Stief, Mark. Telephone interview. 6 Dec 2004.
  • Tonroy, Julie. Interview. 8 Dec 2004.
  • “The Politics of Diapers: A Timeline of Recovered History.” Mothering. Jan/Feb 2003.


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