Convenience versus Environmental Responsibility

Convenience versus Environmental Responsibility

photo: Gerd Altmann

I often wonder how much the conveniences we choose today will inconvenience our children in the future. It seems we have become a throwaway society and though it may be years before our landfills reach their capacity, our choices of disposable items can harm our environment in other ways. Disposable items are seldom green products,

Take for example the disposable diaper. This is the third largest consumer item in our landfills today. It is true that cloth diapers may eventually end up here also, but they will have been used and reused many times before they do. A disposable diaper is used only one time, before it is added to the piles of garbage we generate everyday, where it will lay, doing what it was designed to do (absorb water, for 250-500 years before it decomposes. A cloth diaper will decompose in only six months. At first glance, washing diapers may appear to be more abusive of our strained resources than throwing disposables away. However, in studies, one of which is “Disposable nappies: a case study in waste prevention.” by Ann Link, it has been shown that it cost only $17.00 for the water to wash the diapers for one child for two and a half years and this water is a renewable resource. By making green choices in the products we use for laundry, we can further minimize the harm we do to our earth.

But as I said, there are more ways disposable items harm us than using up our landfills. The wood pulp needed to manufacture disposable diapers cost us one billion trees a year. This represents a huge loss of habitat for many animals, each of who have their own place in our eco-chain of life. It might be worthy of note that these trees will no longer be able to clean our air. But these are not the worst of the damages. It is what is done to the wood pulp in the process that so endangers us. Bleaching the wood pulp with chlorine gas to make them a more desirable white, produces organochlorines, which are very toxic chemicals. Michelle Allsopp in “Achieving Zero Dioxin: An Emergency Strategy for Dioxin Elimination”, states that the worst of these is dioxin.

Dioxin is one of the most toxic substances know to man. It was one of the components used in the making of Agent Orange. It is released by manufactures into our air and water, during processes such as the bleaching of wood pulp, for no other reason than to make it white, when the same results can be obtained by hydrogen-peroxide bleaching. It is definitely linked to cancer, though just how bad the situation is, is not fully known at present. Some of this chemical is still present in the diapers when purchased by consumers. Some countries have banned the practice of using the bleaching process that produces dioxin. However, in the United States it is not banned.

I would add also that though many users of disposable diapers do flush the fecal matter before discarding the diaper, many do not. This fecal matter then reaches our landfills and has been known to leach into the ground water.

I think the following quote, by Ann Link of the Women’s Environmental Network, about a study done in Europe, sums up and answers the “which is better”  dispute. “Thus the Landback study shows that disposable nappies use 3.5 times as much energy, 8 times as much non-redeemable raw materials and 90 times as much renewable material as reusable nappies. They produce 2.3 times as much wastewater and 60 times as much solid waste, and require between 4 to 30 times as much land for growing natural materials as reusable nappies.”

Having said all of this, I believe the best thing we can do to be responsible toward caring for our planet is to educate ourselves and our children about the trade off between convenience now and a safe thriving planet later. Going green does not have to be painful and time consuming. It is about making smart choices. The more you practice it, the better you get at it, until it becomes your way of life.
Written by: Pamela Kay