February 10, 1997 in Nation/World

Diaper Fight: Cloth Wiped Out Disposables Reign As Makers Launch Rash Of Anti-Guilt Ads

New York Times

The cloth diaper is almost extinct. New York City, with 8 million people, has no diaper service company based within the five boroughs. The Dydee Diaper Service, one of two cloth-diaper companies left in the Boston area, closed in December. The National Association of Diaper Services has only about 90 members, down from 200 in 1991.

Whatever happened to the great diaper debate? As the millennium booms to a close (3.9 million babies were born in the United States in 1995), what drove parents to reject the old-fashioned cotton rectangle, in favor of its supposedly leakproof, paper-and-plastic adaptation?

The debate reached its fevered peak right after Earth Day 1990. Disposable diapers, which have been used by millions of parents since the introduction of no-pin Kimbies in 1968, became the target of environmentalists.

Critics claimed that acres of forests were being mowed down to manufacture the disposable diapers, which were then adding up to 5 billion pounds a year to the nation’s already overtaxed landfills. Lawmakers listened: that year about half the states considered some ban or tax on disposables.

But now there is almost no debate to be heard. The biggest factor in the attitude change was a huge public-relations offensive by the two principal American disposable-diaper makers, Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark. They generated studies - disposables took up less space in the landfill than was originally thought, the corporations maintained, while cleaning and transporting cloth diapers spewed all sorts of pollutants into the air and water - that made people feel less guilty about using Pampers and Huggies.

Now an estimated 80 percent of American babies spend their days and nights in disposable diapers - a market the two giants essentially control between them.

“They lulled people into a sense of complacency, even though their premise was wrong,” says Judith Enck, with the New York Public Interest Research Group in Albany, N.Y.

“It’s quite clear that there are enormous environmental benefits to using cloth diapers. Otherwise we’d all be walking around in disposable clothing.”

But there were also prominent environmentalists who said disposables were not necessarily bad. “The pediatric dermatology clearly seemed to favor disposables, while the environmental issues were murky,” says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose refusal to support a ban on disposables led some colleagues to equate him with the skipper of the Exxon Valdez.

But Dr. Marie Sanford, an attending pediatrician at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, says there is no real health difference. “It’s a parent preference,” she says.

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