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Cloth Diapering and Wastewater Treatment
By Marc Pehkonen
Originally published at Fuzbaby
Fall 2005

Cloth diapering is an activity with interesting implications for how we deal with waste, and in particular human waste, both personally and as a society.

Out of sight. . .

When our wastes are carried easily to a distant place, out of our immediate sight, we assume that they have vanished, that any harmful characteristics they may have are somehow neutralized, and that their impact on the environment is negligible. This probably explains why many people give no thought to pouring solvents and oil down the drain and casually tossing disposable diapers into the garbage. But the fact is that wherever our waste goes, it has to be processed. Our apparently efficient, centralized systems for dealing with waste remove the sense of consequence that goes with the generation of the waste.

Connecting to a natural cycle

In contrast, the disposal and recycling of our own waste reaffirms our connection to a natural cycle (the nitrogen cycle) and our biological relationship to all other living things on earth. This is a connection that has largely been hidden by the disposable, isolationist consumer lifestyle promoted in the west. Large corporations and a cult of experts have inserted themselves between us and the consequences of our actions. The widespread use of disposable diapers is a good example of this.

Many people, realizing that breaking this waste connection has led to pollution and fragmentation of communities, are looking for alternative approaches. By choosing cloth diapering you have already made a contribution to the environment. You are preventing some 4,000 - 6,000 disposable diapers per baby from going to landfill.

But, what about disposable diapers?

Some argue that in dry areas disposable diapers are the best choice for the environment. This is a narrow view. To make a realistic comparison, we must consider not just the post-use impact, but the impact along the full life of the product from manufacture through use and waste processing.

The manufacture of disposable diapers consumes far more water and other resources than even non-organic cotton, which is itself one of the least efficient fibers to grow from both an agricultural and an environmental point of view. And the disposal of so-called disposable diapers results in millions of tons of human waste being sent to landfill where, by most reliable estimates, little or no biodegradation actually takes place.

Those who argue that recycling disposable diapers may be an environmentally-friendly option are not telling you about the energy and resources required for manufacturing the diapers and for processing the wastes. Energy and resource consumption in the lifecycle of a disposable diaper remain much higher than in the lifecycle of reusable cloth diapers.

Lower your impact on the environment

Switching to cloth diapering is an excellent start to lowering your impact on the environment. Washing and reusing diapers results in baby's waste being treated in a facility designed for wastewater treatment.

If you are already cloth diapering, why not consider alternatives to the current usual method of wastewater treatment? In general, the goal of treatment in a large conventional system is to produce effluent that can be discharged into a convenient body of water--a lake, river, or ocean. This practice is contributing to the eutrophication (when there are too many nutrients present) of water sources and nutrient-depletion of the land. Such imbalance could be successfully remedied if more treatment occurred close to the source of waste generation, and if the effluent was discharged (in a controlled manner) onto the land, which needs replacement nutrients, rather than into bodies of water, which do not.

Sense of consequence

The sense of consequence becomes more real if an alternative method of wastewater treatment, close to its point of generation, is adopted. Alternative systems often send the waste stream to an area of growing vegetation. Most people have at least some experience growing plants. Plants are constantly changing, growing faster or slower, responding to the inputs they receive to their systems. If those inputs are controlled by us, we redevelop our connection to the growth and decay cycle. We monitor the inputs (some people fanatically so) to best nurture the plants under our care. An awareness that our household waste is headed straight for the garden forces us to reconnect with our immediate environment and think about the consequences of our actions. We would be far less likely to pour paint stripper or sodium polyacrylate (the absorbent gel used in disposable diapers) down the drain if, at the other end of the drain, was our tank of ornamental carp.

We choose cloth diapers for a lot of reasons--maybe they look good on baby, maybe they are cost effective. If you want to consider your impact on the environment in the broadest terms, what is the best reason for choosing cloth diapers, particularly hemp or organic cotton diapers? You and your baby will be using far less energy and resources at every point in the life of your 2 - 5 dozen diapers. You will be making a choice to be conscious of your impact on the earth, rather than stashing 4,000 - 6,000 plastic diapers in landfill or sending them to a recycling plant to become park benches. And, if you choose a small, alternative method of wastewater treatment, you might even be returning nutrients to your immediate environment. Isn't that a nice lesson to teach baby?

article copyright © 2000-2006 Fuzbaby

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