Disposable Diapers Vs. Cloth Essay, Research Paper
Three distinct issues are at hand as we discuss the prospect of taxing the use of disposable diapers. The first of these is the environmental impact issue, supplemented by the general belief that the government is subsidizing the paper industry. The second issue is a compilation of convinces, health issues, and timesaving to the modern family and child care provider. The third, and most important, is the regressive nature of the tax. From all of the issues a recommendation will be made.
The Environmental Issue
There are two major claims advocated by environmentalist groups that need to be considered for this policy. The first claim is that taxpayers would support the disposable diaper industry with nearly $1 billion through hidden subsidies, if all U.S. children were to use paper diapers. These subsidies benefit the paper industry through cheap water for production and pollution control as well as under-priced wood supplies, and consumers of paper diapers through under-priced solid-waste disposal. This particular claim, however, is not entirely accurate. According to a non-profit organization, subsidies are given to the timber industry in general, not only to those who manufacture paper diapers. “$900 million is special provisions for timber companies, driving down the costs of virgin wood products .”(1) Also, subsidies pay for irrigation of crops, some of which is cotton. “Republican soft-money donor J.G. Boswell, is believed to have more land–as much as 192,000 acres under cultivation–than anyone else in America and is said to be worth half a billion dollars. Subsidized water helped make the man, and taxpayers all over the country still help pay to irrigate Boswell’s bountiful crops of cotton and alfalfa. Taxpayers also subsidize Boswell’s cotton crop; he and other irrigators who grew federally subsidized crops are, in effect, being paid twice for expending a valuable commodity on an unneeded product. Estimates of this “double dip” portion of irrigation subsidies range from $85 million to $800 million a year.”(2) Considering that subsidies are benefiting the paper and cotton industries, the environmentalist’s proposal of a 10% tax on paper diaper users only, should be carefully assessed. In the past cities have charged preferential rates to the largest user of water in their area. The citizen uproar over being charged more for water than the large and wasteful user has forced many water providers to charge equal rates. In the new rate structure in the City of Newport News they now charge one rate of $2.04 per hundred cubic feet consumed. In the summer there is a differential of 0.43 cents per hundred cubic feet consumed over the average of the winter consumption rates. Interestingly, this rate change has forced major user to modify some of their wasteful water use procedures or to stop their operations. One of the industries that has disappeared on the Peninsula is a diaper service.
The second issue the environmentalist group claims is that the disposal of solid waste has become a crisis of major proportions, so they want to reduce the volume of waste brought to the state’s landfills. To do so, they have proposed the 10% tax on disposable diapers. According to the EPA, 1.5-2.0% of municipal solid waste comes from disposable diapers.(3) With the introduction of gelling agents and better absorbtion material in disposables we may well see the amount of landfill space needed reduced further. “In many parts of the country, potential landfill space is abundant and we are in no danger of running out. All of the garbage Americans will produce for the next 1,000 years would fill an area 44 miles on each side and about 120 feet deep. A super landfill this size would occupy less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the surface area of the continental United States. [See Figure I.] (4)
Besides the amount of paper diapers being disposed in landfills, which is obviously not a crisis of major proportion, since there is plenty of open land, concerns have been raised on the issue of diaper degradation, and human waste leaking into the soil to contaminate drinking water. “For two-thirds of the nation’s landfills, (those without liners), it’s the products which degrade that pose a potential environmental threat. Degradation can lead to leaching, as chemicals reach the water supply and cause a health threat to fish, wildlife and humans. The other one-third of landfills are completely sealed and allow very little degradation. For those landfills, consumer choices regarding degradability do not matter.” (5) As of January 29, 1992, and July 29, 1992, all new landfill construction and expansion must have two liners and a leachate collection and removal system. A section of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) explains this requirement:
40CFR264– Subpart N–Landfills
(c) The owner or operator of each new landfill unit on which construction commences after January 29, 1992, each lateral expansion of a landfill unit on which construction commences after July 29, 1992, and each replacement of an existing landfill unit that is to commence reuse after July 29, 1992 must install two or more liners and a leachate collection and removal system above and between such liners. “Construction commences” is as defined in Sec. 260.10 of this chapter under “existing facility”.
(1)(i) The liner system must include:
(A) A top liner designed and constructed of materials (e.g., a geomembrane) to prevent the migration of hazardous constituents into such liner during the active life and post-closure care period; and
(B) A composite bottom liner, consisting of at least two components. The upper component must be designed and constructed of materials (e.g., a geomembrane) to prevent the migration of hazardous constituents into this component during the active life and post-closure care period. The lower component must be designed and constructed of materials to minimize the migration of hazardous constituents if a breach in the upper component were to occur. The lower component must be constructed of at least 3 feet (91 cm) of compacted soil material with a hydraulic conductivity of no more than 1 x 10 cm/sec.
(ii) The liners must comply with paragraphs (a)(1) (i), (ii), and (iii) of this section. (2) The leachate collection and removal system immediately above the top liner must be designed, constructed, operated, and maintained to collect and remove leachate from the landfill during the active life and post-closure care period. The Regional Administrator will specify design and operating conditions in the permit to ensure that the leachate depth over the liner does not exceed 30 cm (one foot). The leachate collection and removal system must comply with paragraphs (3)(c) (iii) and (iv) of this section.
(3) The leachate collection and removal system between the liners, and immediately above the bottom composite liner in the case of multiple leachate collection and removal systems, is also a leak detection system. This leak detection system must be capable of detecting, collecting, and removing leaks of hazardous constituents at the earliest practicable time through all areas of the top liner likely to be exposed to waste or leachate during the active life and post-closure care period.
The alternative to the use of landfills for disposal of the diapers is to use normal community sanitary systems to dispose of the feces and launder cloth diapers. The CFR also addresses the disposal of sewage sludge in great detail. Composting is the most used means of disposing of sewage sludge because when the sludge is mixed with organic cellulose materials such as sawdust or wood chips, the composting creates heat that will kill most, if not all dangerous microbes and organisms. The mixture is then used as a fertilizer. Here is a brief section of the CFR relating to sewage sludge:
40CFR258– PART 258–CRITERIA FOR MUNICIPAL SOLID WASTE LANDFILLS
Source: 56 FR 51016, Oct. 9, 1991, unless otherwise noted.
Subpart A–General Sec. 258.1
Purpose, scope, and applicability.
(a) The purpose of this part is to establish minimum national criteria under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA or the Act), as amended, for all municipal solid waste landfill (MSWLF) units and under the Clean Water Act, as amended, for municipal solid waste landfills that are used to dispose of sewage sludge. These minimum national criteria ensure the protection of human health and the environment.
Considering the two-thirds of landfills that do not have liners, we can be assured that disposable diapers will not be degrading anytime soon, since it takes over 500 years for them to breakdown. Also, “to date, no evidence of health care related waste (including diapers) causing disease in community water systems has been determined.” (6)
Modern landfills are being constructed much larger because of the requirements for monitoring and processing of leachate. This type of equipment is very expensive forcing private and municipal operators of landfills to create the largest landfills possible. When that is not feasible, or when additional landfills are needed, they are built adjacent to others to make use of existing equipment.
There are many groups and organizations that desire that a biodegradable disposable diaper be produced. With the construction of the modern landfill, there is little chance that there would be any biodegrading occurring. Nothing in the Code of Federal Regulations for landfills discusses the promoting of biodegrading.
Having considered the major paper diaper issues, an examination of cloth diapering is needed. From the environment’s standpoint, “cloth diapers consume–over their cradle-to-grave lifespan–six times more water than disposables; although the nonrenewable resource content of the two products is almost the same, cloth diapers require more than three times as much energy as disposables in their full life-cycle; and the production and use of disposables generates about a tenth of the amount of air and water pollution.” (7) [See figure VI].
The Family Issue
According to a study at Ohio State University, “Convenience is the major reason given by parents, particularly in dual-career families where time for cloth diaper care is limited.” (8) Although dual-career families have limited time for the use of cloth diapers, it should also be obvious that single, working parent families also would fit in this category. For the single parent the use of day (or night) care is almost mandatory. “Group day care restrictions requiring single use diapers by registrants also influence choice of diapering method.” (8). Children learn to like certain items, and if there is a change they often become unruly. Linus, in the Peanuts comic strip had his old blanket that he would not give up. Changing from a disposable to a cloth diaper at the end of the day could also cause problems with the child. The average use per day of disposables is 5.5 where the average use of a cloth diaper is 9.7. An additional 4 diapers are changed using the cloth diaper method. It takes almost three minutes to change either type of diaper, but with the disposable you throw it away while with the cloth you have to rinse the diaper in the commode and then place it in a diaper pail. At least every other day you have to do laundry. Cloth diapers are very time consuming.
“Families without access to home laundry equipment find care of cloth diapers burdensome.” (8) The single parent is the more likely to fit this description, and in addition to the burden of using a Laundromat, there is the consideration of taking the baby and other children along with the laundry. Cloth diapers also could interfere with the rest of the single parent, as they are changed almost twice as often.
The debate goes on and on as to the health issues related to the use of different types of diapers. Diaper rash is of major concern to most parents, not only for the discomfort that it provides the child, but also for the prospect of the introduction of infection into the child.
Diaper rash is related to excess skin wetness, and the length of time that the moisture remains in contact with the skin. While cloth diapers are very absorbent, they do not draw the moisture away from the skin. Modern disposable diapers draw the moisture away from the skin and form a gel. The child does not have the wet contact, and there is little chance for leakage with the gel material. “Studies show that super absorbent disposables, perform best in reducing skin wetness.” (8)
When making an estimate of the costs for diapers we need to look at all the factors combined. It is generally accepted that a baby will use about 5,000 disposable diapers during the 30 months they are required. Because of double diapering at night, and more frequent changes needed to prevent rashes about 9,000 cotton diapers would be needed. The costs for cloth diapers need to consider laundry and the depreciation on the washer and dryer as well as the use of the extra water additional sewage. Without the cost of labor to wash the diapers, the cost per week is approximately $10.00. The cost for a diaper service, if one is even available, (in this area there is presently no diaper service available), is between $10 and $15 per week. The cost of disposable diapers is from $12 to $15 per week. The maximum monetary difference per week is only $5.00. Over the diapering cycle that comes to an additional $390, or $156 per year. An additional cost of $5.00 to eliminate 28 additional changes per week is inconsequential. At five minutes per change the timesavings is over two and a third hours.
A brief survey of the use of disposal diaper use in a neighborhood in Denbigh Virginia showed some results that could well be considered typical. Of the ten people that changed disposable diapers, everyone wrap the feces in the diaper before disposal. Four of those observed then took the feces soiled diaper and placed it in a plastic newspaper bag or a plastic bag from the store. They then tied a knot in the top to seal in the odor. All of the participants then placed the diaper in a plastic lined trashcan. It became obvious during this survey that the main consideration was to get rid of the diaper and the smell. If the diapers were placed in a landfill that would allow decomposition, there would be two bags and the plastic on the diaper that would have to decompose. Not one of the diaper changers would convert to cotton diapers, and the only ones they had were used as burping clothes.
We recommend that the Senator oppose the imposition of a 10% tax on disposable diapers for the following reasons:
Citizen awareness of subsidized water for large industrial and commercial users, while they have been required to conserve and pay higher rates has forced the local waterworks to institute one rate for all users.
Trees for paper products are grown for that use. Virgin forests are not being cut to create the paper needed for the diapers.
Strong federal regulations and the correct enforcement of landfills has calmed the fears of most communities. In a recent election in Newport News one of the candidates for State Representative spent most of her funds and time emphasizing her opponents association with landfills. She lost horribly.
The tax is regressive. It is regressive because for the single parent with children in daycare, and holding a low-income job the imposition of the tax will take a very large chunk of their disposable income.
The tax is inequitable. The tax discriminates as the two-income family could better afford cotton diapers from a service, or even hiring a maid or nanny to assist.
The cost savings for cloth diapers are minimal and the inconvenience is great.
The additional water and electrical usage, as well as wastewater treatment add pollution to the environment in larger and more destructive ways.
The ultimate use of the tax is undefined.
(2) http://www.ccsi.com/ comcause/news/chadd.html#Like Water for Free
(3) Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1990 Update. (1990). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA 530 SW-90-042. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office http://ohioline.ag.ohio-state.edu/hyg-fact/5000/5503.html
(6) Lyman, F. (1990) “Diaper hype” Garbage: the Practical Journal for the Environment, 2 (1), 36-40.
(8) Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet, Textiles and Clothing, HYG-5503-90,
Joyce A. Smith, Norma Pitts