SFGate Article on 'Diaper-Free Babies' Craps Out Debunked Notion that Diapers are Overwhelming Our Landfills

Categories: Environment, Media
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But the cute bear wants me to buy disposable diapers...
Like many of you, I was more than a bit amazed at an article yesterday on SFgate, in which a woman with the Marx Brothers-worthy name of Willow Lune explained her raison d'etre: Pushing a diaper-free lifestyle in which one's infants can be trained, not unlike dogs, to indicate when they wish to be held over a toilet, trash can, or your boss' hat.

I am not going to pass judgment on this, shall we say, alternative method of child-rearing -- though I do think it deserved more than just a passing mention in the article that Lune is also a practitioner of Qigong healing. This is a mystical belief in which "healers" claim they can treat patients' physical ailments by harnessing the natural -- and scientifically undetectable -- "qi" within all of us. If your mechanic told you that malevolent spirits had infested your carburetor, you might be less inclined to take his automotive advice. But I digress.

What was most bothersome about this story is that the author of the Web article unquestioningly repeated a claim that disposable diapers constitute fully one third of the non-biodegradable waste in American landfills -- and links to a book called "Diaper Free" by Ingrid Bauer making this statement. Bauer is pushing the same potty training starting on Day One line that Lune is . A little Web searching in hopes of verifying her claim almost exclusively traced back to Bauer's book; this statement was only bandied about by those hawking a cloth diaper -- or no diaper -- lifestyle.

There's a problem with this claim. Like diapers themselves, it appears to be full of shit.

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Bill Rathje (with hat and sunglasses) excavates the Sunnyvale Landfill in 1988
Professor Bill Rathje founded the garbage project at the University of Arizona and also taught archaeology at Stanford. Over the course of more than a decade, he and his team excavated 21 landfills in North America. And it turned out that our preconceived notion of what's in our garbage dumps was, well, garbage.

Several decades ago, government and media members underwent a great deal of hand-wringing over concerns that disposable diapers were "clogging" our landfills -- that we were running out of space and would soon be up to our ankles in detritus. Government estimates actually fingered diapers for taking up between 12 and 32 percent of the space in our landfills. Yet Rathje's excavations found that disposable diapers never occupied more than 1.8 percent of the volume in North American landfills, and the average across 21 landfills was 1.2 percent.

Bauer couches her claim in the term "non-biodegradable" -- but this is problematic. Rathje points out that, "in a well-run dry landfill, newspapers aren't biodegradable and neither is paper or a whole bunch of other stuff." In his work, Rathje has unearthed thoroughly intact paper grocery sacks containing half-eaten vegetables and hot dogs from the era in which everybody liked Ike. Considering two-thirds of material in landfills is theoretically biodegradable, Rathje estimates that less than 3 percent of that by volume -- "maximum" -- might be disposable diapers.

But defining how much space diapers take up in landfill is rendered even more complicated by the notion that one must determine what, exactly, a "diaper" is. 

"Let's remember, you're not just dealing with infant diapers.  You're dealing with adult diapers as well. I cannot tell you what percentage in landfill are adult diapers -- but there are many adult diapers in landfills," Rathje says.

The archaeologist queries if Lune "wants to go to old folks' homes and train the old people to cry out when they need to make a bowel movement."

We'd say no -- but you never know.

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