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Are Natural and Biodegradable Diapers Really Better for the Environment?

by Regan

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Are Natural and Biodegradable Disposable Diapers Really Better for the Environment?

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You’ve seen them out there and may have even used them. Disposable diapers that claim to be all natural or biodegradable that have less potentially harmful ingredients than their conventional counterparts. It’s a fantastic marketing strategy. 

I used these for the first six months of K’s life. I was cloth curious at that time but hadn’t made the plunge yet and I felt better about using these than Pampers or Huggies. These diapers are fragrance-free and don’t use chlorine to bleach their wood pulp which makes them dioxin free. This is good news, but I still have a couple of questions.

First, let’s discuss the all natural or free and clear diapers.

Some of these would include The Honest Company, Target’s Up & Up brand (yes, really), Seventh Generation, Earth’s Best, Bambo Nature, etc. These diapers claim to be made from natural ingredients extracted from plants, minimally processed, and are free of dyes, perfumes, and chlorine. 

However, these diapers still contain sodium polyacrylate, otherwise known as SAP. This is the gel that soaks up hours worth of urine and gives wet disposable diapers their puffy look. But is SAP safe?

  • Most SAP is derived from petroleum. Petroleum, as in gasoline. It has been said lately that petroleum-based products could contain carcinogens.
  • Sodium polyacrylate can also be a contributing factor of staph infections. 
  • It is also a skin irritant since it can absorb the natural oils and moisture, causing dry skin.
  • SAP gel has been removed from tampons because it was thought that it may contribute to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) Note that there are sources now that say that isn’t the case. That leaving tampons in too long contributed to the growth of bacteria which may be the real culprit of TSS. It is up to you whether you want to trust that at face value or still wonder if SAP could have been a contributing factor even if it may not have been the cause. 

One of my favorite claims from Seventh Generation is that they don’t use chlorine to whiten their diapers. But did you know that they dye their diapers to be that light brown color to appeal to your subconscious? You see the light brown color and think, “Oh! They look so natural. How great!” Here is what they say about their dyed diapers:

While most designs on the market use pigments that result in a white color, we use a small amount of blended color pigments to impart a tan color to our diapers. The blend is proprietary to the supplier of the pigment. To the best of our knowledge, there are no known toxicity issues associated with the use of these pigments in our diapers. Without the addition of color pigments, these materials would be colorless, much like a plastic milk jug. We use brown pigments to help distinguish Seventh Generation Chlorine Free Diapers from others in the marketplace that are bleached with chlorine-containing substances. 

Well isn’t that lovely? To the best of our knowledge, there are no known toxicity issues associated with the use of these pigments”. But they really don’t know, do they? And neither do you.

Speaking of dyes and colors, The Honest Company didn’t exist yet when K was in disposable diapers but I do have to say, their diapers are really pretty cute. Of course I prefer my cloth prints, but if I found myself needing a disposable diaper I would probably choose these. I’m a sucker for a cute print, what can I say? But again, dyes and pigments.

honest diapers

What about Huggies Pure & Natural diapers?

Look at that packaging. It looks so fresh and green, doesn’t it?

Huggies Pure & Natural diapers

Don’t buy into it. It’s a deceptive marketing ploy and nothing more. The outer is made of organic cotton (maybe, they won’t disclose whether its certified organic or not) but it ends there. The inside that touches your baby is still made of bleached materials (ie: dioxin) and SAP. 

Diapers that claim to be biodegradable.

These would include Nature Babycare, gDiapers, GroVia, etc. These diapers are also fragrance and chlorine free. While they still contain SAP, they claim to use lower levels of it than conventional diapers.

Nature Babycare (my favorite diaper when I was using disposables) contains corn starch instead of wood pulp in their diapers. This is a fully compostable material, but please be aware that these diapers are only 60% biodegradable. I believe you would need to pull them apart and compost the compostable materials and throw away the rest. Better than the alternative of mainstream diapers, yes, but do not assume that you can throw this diaper in your compost bin as-is. 

This brings me to the most important point about “biodegradable” diapers. In order for these diapers to biodegrade, you really need to compost them. If you ball them up, throw them in a Diaper Genie device then throw them in the trash they will go to the landfill just like any other diaper. There they will sit…and sit…and sit for hundreds of years. You see, you put them in a NON-biodegradable plastic trash bag and put them in an airtight landfill. 

What Happens to Trash in a Landfill?

Trash put in a landfill will stay there for a very long time. Inside a landfill, there is little oxygen and little moisture. Under these conditions, trash does not break down very rapidly. In fact, when old landfills have been excavated or sampled, 40-year-old newspapers have been found with easily readable print. Landfills are not designed to break down trash, merely to bury it. When a landfill closes, the site, especially the groundwater, must be monitored and maintained for up to 30 years!

Source: http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/landfill7.htm

So, the bottom line is, in order for biodegradable diapers to be biodegradable you would need to compost them or flush them (the poopy ones cannot be composted). Note, when flushing an insert like a gDiaper, please don’t make the same mistake as I did. You need to pull them apart and dump out the inside material first, let it dissolve a bit, then flush the paper components of the diaper. If not, clogging may happen and it won’t be pretty!

So in conclusion, I don’t think that free & clear and biodegradable disposable diapers are as great as their marketing campaigns make them sound. However, while cloth is the far superior choice in my humble opinion, they are definitely a better alternative than the big name conventional diapers if you are unwilling or unable to use cloth diapers. 

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Melissa January 24, 2014 - 9:49 am

I also prefer my cloth but there are times when disposables are needed. I use G Dipaers or the Honest Company for disposables. When throwing them away I use biodegradeable dog poop bags and throw that in my trash. Like it states- biodegradeable is great..unless you put it in a platic trash bag!

Leela R. October 7, 2013 - 4:05 pm

Thanks for the info on the Target Up & Up brand. We occasionally use disposables when traveling when we won’t have access to a washer and dryer, and in the past have used the 7th Generation ones, but I hate buying a big box when we won’t use that many. Target ones come in smaller packages so they are perfect.

Lauren October 3, 2013 - 6:06 am

What a well thought-out and researched post – thank you. I love the term you use: Cloth Curious! We actually use disposable diapers for overnights, and your post helped to clarify a lot. I’ll be honest, my head was spinning when I was trying to research disposables, so I gave up and just reached for the easiest pack. We use one per day, so I’m not that committed 🙂

Regan October 3, 2013 - 10:07 am

A lot of people use disposables at night and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You do what you need to do to keep your kid dry 🙂 The Target Up & Up brand is what we used when we moved across the country and they are relatively inexpensive and are also chlorine, latex, and perfume free. Pretty much the same thing as the “free and clear” diapers at a fraction of the price.

Krystal October 3, 2013 - 5:55 am

I’m “cloth curious” as you say, but I did look into the Huggies Pure and Natural diapers. I’m like… so what is the difference?! Just a marketing ploy! Thanks for this eye opening article. I’m going to add it to my Parenting Board on Pinterest to spread the word!

Regan October 3, 2013 - 9:53 am

The Huggies Pure & Natural is the biggest joke of them all.

Jordyn @ Almost Supermom October 3, 2013 - 5:15 am

I’m a huge advocate for cloth diapers both for the environmental impact and health impacts of disposable. I think that biodegradable are the lesser of 2 evils, but IMHO nothing is as good as cloth 🙂

Regan October 3, 2013 - 9:49 am

I completely agree! I do understand that there may be times that a cloth family would prefer to use disposables though and if you have to, these would be the better choices if for no other reason than the stinky fragrances. I can’t even walk by the diaper aisle at the grocery store without wanting to hurl LOL

Sarah Jane October 2, 2013 - 8:18 pm

I completely agree. I used cloth diapers about 75% of the time, the other times I used disposable. I looked into the “natural disposable diapers”, but decided they were not green enough to spend more $$ on disposable diapers.

Regan October 3, 2013 - 10:11 am

Have you tried the Target Up & Up brand? I used them when we moved across the country and I didn’t know what kind of laundry facilities I would have access to. They are pretty much the same thing as the free & clear diapers. They’re chlorine and fragrance free and a fraction of the price of the other “natural” diapers. I chose them because they didn’t smell through the package and was pleasantly surprised to find that they also are chlorine free. I mean, isn’t that the biggest selling point of Earth’s Best and Seventh Generation? 😉

Suzi Satterfield October 2, 2013 - 3:09 pm

It’s the greenwashing trend. But, really, though, the petroleum bit? Petroleum is used to make lots of things. It goes beyond gasoline and motor oil. It’s in your ball point pens, your petroleum jelly in the bathroom, insect repellent, and a thousand other things in your home.

Regan October 2, 2013 - 3:21 pm

I love the term greenwashing.

Yes, it goes beyond gasoline but I don’t use Vaseline either. It is still a byproduct of crude oil. Whether it’s a carcinogen or not remains to be seen but it’s still not a sustainable product so to have it in a “natural” product is iffy to me.

Heather Johnson October 2, 2013 - 1:57 pm

I honestly do not think these “biodegradable” and “natural” products are any better than conventional disposables. The manufacturing process is way to similar. Plus there is still waste.

Regan October 2, 2013 - 2:11 pm

I wholeheartedly agree but some people who use cloth still use them at night or when they need to use rash creams. I think they are the lesser of two evils, but definitely not an equal choice to cloth.