Can You Compost Dirty Diapers?

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Disposable diapers are one of those things that most greenies love to hate. But they're still a common element in many people's household waste—even many reusable diaper advocates will occasionally use disposables for the sake of convenience. To add to the complication, every now and then somebody trots out a statistic to argue that disposables are as green as reusables, once you factor in energy and water use for washing, drying and manufacture. This got me wondering, what if there is a better way to dispose of disposables?

Cloth vs. Disposable Diapers
I can't pretend to have a complete answer to the argument, outlined in this ABC News story, that disposable diapers have comparable impact to reusables—and I know that cloth advocates argue vehemently that reusable diapers still come out on top. As I noted in my post about claims that plastic bags are greenest after all, Life Cycle Analysis is an immensely complex and imperfect science—and many commenters to that same piece reminded me that you can't distill all environmental questions to a mathematical equation.

Reusables Offer More Opportunity for Improvement
In general, as a parent myself, I have made the assumption that even if the current impact is the same—because reusables can be washed using renewable energy, in efficient machines, using minimal water, and because they can be line-dried and passed on to others when your child is done with them—as an imperfect solution they have more potential for improvement than their counterpart. Landfill just stays in landfill, whichever way you look at it—and the idea of recycling disposable diapers for their paper and plastic content always seemed bizarre. (I should note that despite my pre-baby enthusiasm for diaper-free babies and elimination communication, it never quite took hold in our house...)

Can You Compost Diapers?
But discussing the matter last night, it did occur to me that disposable diapers could have one key advantage from an environmental point of view—because in some ways they are the ideal accessory for composting human waste. Now, before I get a chorus of disgust, I'm not suggesting anyone go out and start putting dirty diapers into their regular compost—most compost bins carry a warning to not do exactly that.

But given the fact that successful composting is about creating the right balance of carbon to nitrogen, and given the fact that dirty disposable diapers are essentially a large bundle of carbon (paper product), containing a much smaller deposit of nitrogen (poop and pee), I wondered if anyone has created a "baby composting toilet"—essentially a separate compost pile for the disposal of disposables.

Municipal Diaper Composting
Granted, this is probably an unlikely scenario. Anyone keen enough on going green to be composting their diapers is most likely using reusables and/or going diaper free. But it does seem like there could be a community-scale effort to at least keep dirty diapers out of landfill. A quick Google search brings me to a New York Times article about Toronto's program to compost diapers, animal waste, kitty litter and sanitary products:

Toronto collects diapers and other organic items and sends them to a processing facility. The resultant compost gets distributed to farmland and parks. That's right: Canada's babies and toddlers, for all their messes, are helping Canadian crops to grow. The program, called "Green Bin," also accepts animal waste, kitty litter and sanitary products.

Safety Remains a Concern
Of course questions remain about safety and sustainability. The high temperatures achieved in municipal composting almost certainly mean that fecal matter is rendered safe (a home-scale composting effort would do well to read up on general humanure guidelines), but what about bleaches and other chemicals in the products themselves? Either way, this seems like one step in the right direction—and given that disposables are likely to be around for some time to come (I'm not just talking about their inability to decompose in landfill), it seems sensible to figure out what to do with them. In the meantime, I need to figure out this potty training thing.