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Reassessing costs of keeping baby dry.

Reassessing costs of keeping baby dry

Because human feces may contain many disease-causing organisms, environmental engineers worry about the long-term safety of burying disposable diapers in landfills. To investigate the threat, researchers have now exhumed a total of more than 200 diapers from landfills in New York, Florida and Arizona. They tested fecal samples from each soiled diaper for a host of common childhood intestinal pathogens, including rotoviruses, hepatitis A virus and the protozoans Giardia and Cryptosporidium. After an average of two to 10 years of burial, none of the diapers showed evidence of viable pathogens, reports Charles P. Gerba of the University of Arizona in Tucson.

A report released last month offers environmentally conscious parents further license to consider the convenience of disposables. Consultants with Franklin Associates in Prairie Village, Kan., compared all costs associated with disposable diapers against those for cloth diapers. Their environmental audit considered not only the costs of diaper production, packaging and disposal or washing, but also those of products used with cloth diapers, such as pins and plastic pants.

Per year of diapering, the team found that disposables require about half as much energy as cloth diapers (the equivalent of about 53 gallons of gasoline), use one-quarter as much water (2,570 gallons), produce half as much air pollution (16 pounds of combustion products) and generate about one-seventh as much water pollution (3 pounds). Solid waste was the one category where disposables did not come out ahead: They send four times as much garbage to landfills.

The overall comparison lumped commercially laundered cloth diapers with those washed at home. Yet even these differ on several environmental measures, the team found. Home washing consumes 19 percent less water but requires 79 percent more energy and contributes twice as much air pollution, according to their calculations.

Makers of disposable diapers remain concerned about public perceptions of their product as an environmental nuisance, with disposable diapers now constituting 1.5 to 2 percent of all paper products in U.S. landfills. Procter & Gamble Co. announced this fall that it is developing full "compostable" diapers and will commit $20 million to advancing municipal composting worldwide. The Franklin Associates audit indicates that if other makers follow suit, the new compostables will beat out cloth diapers on all environmental counts -- provided the throwaways end up in municipal compost systems rather than in landfills.
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Title Annotation:safety of burying disposable diapers in landfills
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 1, 1990
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