The Problem With Diaper Composting

CC BY 2.0. Inga Munsinger Cotton

Shipping boxes of dirty diapers across the country seems inefficient and unnecessary.

When I had my babies, I knew I wanted to use cloth diapers – not because I was concerned about the environmental impact (I had yet to become a professional TreeHugger!), but because it would save money. Sure enough, those diapers lasted for three children and hung to dry most days. As my environmental views advanced along with my parenting, I felt relief at the choice I'd made. It was deeply satisfying to have a 'closed loop' diapering system. Nothing entered or left my house except natural laundry detergent, my kids had an endless supply of clean, dry diapers, and I never worried about running out.

So naturally I was curious when I saw an article called "Diaper Composting: Is This New Service Right for Your Family?" I'd never heard of diaper composting before. This could be a good solution for so many families that don't want to take on the extra work associated with cloth (even though it's not as bad as it seems). Alas, this diaper composting turned out to be less eco-friendly than I'd hoped.

It involves a partnership between a disposable diaper company called DYPER, which appears to make some of the 'cleanest' disposable diapers on the market, with bamboo fibers that are free from chlorine, latex, alcohol, perfumes, PVC, lotions, and phthalates, and TerraCycle, the recycling service that will recycle pretty much anything you send in. But in order to take advantage of it, parents who are already receiving a regular DYPER subscription must opt in to the (very expensive) REDYPER service and ship their boxes of poopy diapers to TerraCycle for proper composting in an industrial facility.

This is spun as a profoundly green act by DYPER's CEO Sergio Radovcic, who told Earth911, "It wasn’t easy to develop the most fully compostable diaper ever created. But we are thrilled that our partnership with TerraCycle will make it easy for families to keep their used diapers out of landfills." It sounds great, but it left me scratching my head.

The environmental impact of shipping disposable diapers to parents, and then shipping them – wet, dirty, and heavy – across the country to TerraCycle for composting, struck me as absurd and wasteful. So I reached out to Terracycle's CEO Tom Szaky for comment. He explained that the REDYPER program is coordinated with UPS, "one of the most sustainable and efficient shipping companies in the world. When the waste is returned to TerraCycle's various distribution centers for industrial composting the shipments are bundled into existing routes that UPS is already driving." Furthermore, DYPER purchases carbon offsets on behalf of its subscribers. Szaky went on:

"Transportation is absolutely an environmental effect, but typically not the driver of environmental benefit or harm [when it comes to the debate over] recycling vs. composting [and] reuse vs. disposal. The typical drivers are the reduction in need for virgin materials (as extracting or farming virgin materials is the major cause of environmental impact in most products) and the processing used to cycle the diaper (i.e. washing for reusables)."

DYPER has some good things going for it. Its design is progressive, made from fast-growing bamboo with minimal synthetic chemicals, which contributes toward that initial driver of environmental damage that Szaky mentioned – a decrease in resource extraction. Furthermore, the company says its diapers can be composted in private backyards, so long as they don't contain poop. (This is huge news, and quite possibly the bigger, greener story here.) And Szaky added that the shipping option opens a door to the ~97 percent of Americans who do not have access to curbside industrial composting.

But I remain unconvinced that it is a good idea to ship dirty diapers around the country for industrial composting, even if they are synced up with other UPS deliveries. (We have far too many superfluous packages criss-crossing the country anyway and could do to reduce our online shopping habit.) What I dislike about the REDYPER program is that it clings to a culture of convenience and perpetuates disposable, single-use products at a time when we should be challenging people to adjust their style of consumption and embrace reusables. We've written about this a lot on TreeHugger within the context of food and drink packaging, saying, "We need to change the culture, not the cup."

What are the alternatives?

The logic about changing culture, not cup, applies to diapers, too. We can redesign for compostable and recyclable packaging (or diapers) in order to assuage the guilt associated with using disposable products, but the fact remains that there are much simpler, greener, and more affordable solutions right in front of us, if you're serious about reducing planetary impact. They just take a bit more work. In the case of food, these simpler, greener solutions are reusable mugs and food containers. In the case of diapers, it's cloth (preferably thin, flat diapers that wash and dry quickly without covers attached) and other practices such as disposing of poop in a toilet or bokashi composter, thus making it feasible to compost a disposable such as a DYPER or to do laundry in cold water.

Parents could also put in the effort to do early potty training, a.k.a. elimination communication, which has the primary benefit of reducing the number of poopy diapers. These options are more efficient at reducing one's waste footprint, but considerably less glamorous than signing up for a diaper subscription.

The composting idea deserves further exploration, but I think it would be preferable for municipalities to spearhead the initiative, offering diaper composting alongside local organic waste pickup. That way, the waste wouldn't be travelling beyond our own towns and cities to be composted. I don't think anyone anywhere should be shipping their waste to other places if it can be avoided. We've learned this the hard way with recycling, so why extend it to human feces?

The goal of the REDYPER-TerraCycle service is well-intentioned, but I fear it is misplaced. Closed-loop diapering is a worthy pursuit, and industrially composting diapers does achieve this, but there are more efficient ways of diminishing one's footprint without relying on dirty fossil fuels to push them around the country. We need to get serious about what's green and what's not (there's good reason why the island nation of Vanuatu banned disposable diapers outright) and to continue challenging ourselves to do a better job every day.