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Disposable Diapers in Landfills

Posted by Bryana on 2/11/2009 to Cloth vs. Disposables

There are many types of disposable diapers available in today's market for our convenience-conscious society; while concern over landfill space has pushed for "greener" alternatives, disposable diapers are still disposable.Disposable diapers promoted by manufacturers as all-natural, earth-friendly, plastic-free, chlorine-free, and even at times, compostable, are filling up landfills.A disposable diaper with a plastic exterior lining is no different than a 100% plastic-free disposable diaper once it has been tossed into a plastic household trash bag and dumped into a landfill.Plastic is plastic.

Do Disposable Diapers Take 500 Years to Biodegrade?

Cloth diaper advocates often write about the length of time it takes for a disposable diaper to break down within a landfill; 500 years seems to be the most frequently cited time frame.Since disposable diapers have not been in existence for 500 years, this is obviously a projection, but based on what evidence? There simply is no firsthand evidence of the decomposition rate of disposable diapers.Juliet Lapidos describes how scientists estimate the length of time it takes trash to decompose."To make long-term estimates of this sort, scientists often use respirometry tests. The experimenters place a solid waste sample…in a vessel containing microbe-rich compost, then aerate the mixture. Over the course of several days, microorganisms assimilate the sample bit by bit and produce carbon dioxide; the resultant carbon dioxide level serves as an indicator of degradation." (1)Lapidos goes on to explain how Respirometry tests are effective for products like newspapers and banana peels, but not plastic bags. Plastic bags are synthetic and not recognized as food by the microorganisms trying to "eat" them.In other words, plastic cannot biodegrade.

Photodegrade, Not Biodegrade

Standard, polyethylene (plastic) bags cannot biodegrade, but instead, they are promoted as photodegradable."When exposed to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, polyethylene's polymer chains become brittle and start to crack. This suggests that plastic bags will eventually fragment into microscopic granules. As of yet, however, scientists aren't sure how many centuries it takes for the sun to work its magic." (1)Plastic requires the sun to photodegrade. If it is able to photodegrade, the polymer molecules become small, microscopic bits of inorganic toxins (2).While some news sources say this could take 500 years to decay, others project 1,000 years.And again, that is with sun exposure.A disposable diaper, all-natural or not, placed in a plastic bag and dumped in a landfill does not get the necessary exposure to ultra-violet light it needs to photodegrade.It sits there - with all the other inorganic and organic trash.

Biodegradable Plastic Bags

The biodegradable "plastic" bags made using natural materials like cornstarch are said to be renewable, energy efficient, and emit less greenhouse gases, but even if they manage to breakdown buried in a landfill, will their contents?"Typically in landfills, there's not much dirt, very little oxygen, and few if any microorganisms", says green consumer advocate and author Debra Lynn Dadd. She cites a landfill study conducted by University of Arizona researchers that uncovered still-recognizable 25-year-old hot dogs, corncobs and grapes in landfills, as well as 50-year-old newspapers that were still readable." (3)If an organic substance has difficulty biodegrading, then an inorganic, synthetic disposable diaper is going to sit for a long time.

Cloth Diapers are NOT DISPOSABLE.

Landfills are a concern, and when it comes to diapering, cloth diapers are the best answer. Reduce impact by reducing personal waste; diaper your child with cloth and re-use the diapers over and over again.Read between the lines. Just because a product is advertised as "…okay to toss" because it is "biodegradable" does not mean it will biodegrade; it means it "can" under the right circumstances.And landfills?They don't offer the right circumstances.

1. Lapidos, Juliet. "Will My Plastic Bag Still Be Here in 2507? How scientists figure out how long it takes your trash to decompose." Slate 27 June 2007.
2. Ransford, Matt. "New Plastic Bags Biodegrade in Four Months" Popular Science 17 April 2008.
3. Staff, infoZine. "EarthTalk: Does Anything Biodegrade in a Landfill?" Kansas City infoZine, 13 September 2006.