A First-Hand Look at Disposable Diaper Studies


So...I  get an email from my dad recently with a link to an online article entitled "Recycling Myths Revisited".  Not being one to avoid a little controversial banter among my family - especially with holiday visits soon approaching (!) - I felt compelled to read the article.  It pretty much lived up to my expectations, but it also turned out to be a PERFECT case in point of how so-called "research studies" can contribute to the general misleading of consumers on important topics like disposable diapers and environmental impacts.


As it turns out, the majority of the article was based on a book written decades ago called Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage.  Sounds interesting, right?  That's what I thought too, until the article referenced a chapter in the book about disposable diapers.  For obvious reasons, I just had to read that chapter.  So, rather than having Amazon deliver a personal copy to my doorstep from Seattle, I chose to use a local resource to get the book...wonder of wonders...my local library!  I won't bother you too much with the details of the chapter, other than to provide my own summary of what I read.  But if you have the time and inclination, please read the actual chapter, and tell me if you would summarize it differently!  Basically it follows along the lines of...


"Gee...even though we (the authors) position ourselves as expert researchers on garbage...one of us has even run the "Garbage Project" at the University of Arizona for many years...we can't quite decipher what all the facts are in this running debate on reusable vs. disposable diapers.  So, rather than use the funding that has been provided to our research organization (more on that later) to try to find the truth, we are instead going to just say that this argument is too confusing.  We just can't make heads or tails of the facts!  So instead, I guess we'll just end the chapter with a few paragraphs on how disposable diapers are just so darn convenient, that we bet that most people will keep using them.  And there is no reason that anyone should second-guess that decision."


Really compelling "research" on whether or not to use disposable diapers, huh?  You might even say it reads like a justification for disposables, right?


But you know the thing that I find even more disappointing and misleading?  It's that the so-called "think tank" that published the online article established many of the "facts" and implied "credibility" of its own article by using footnotes to this book.  Most people aren't going to bother to trace the footnotes in an article back to the source, like I did in this case.  Most are going to assume that a "think tank" actually performs a function for society...that is, to think critically about evidence and data that is presented as such.  While I am NOT saying that the facts and comparisons between cloth (reusable) and disposable diapers are the simplest to find and to understand...I AM asking whether authors, researchers, and "think tanks" have a responsibility to society to do their best to deliver facts rather than conjecture.


Oh yeah, almost forgot.  I mentioned funding sources for the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona earlier.  Using the age-old advice of "follow the money" when trying to find the truth, I thought I should do a little foot-noting of my own!  Starting on page 248 of Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage is a running list of organizations and companies that have provided funding to the Garbage Project over the years.  Yes, there are some seemingly objective sponsors listed here...like the National Science Foundation, the US Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency.  But I have to say that I questioned the wisdom of these taxpayer-supported funders being involved with the Garbage Project when I read the list of "Private Industry" that also counts themselves as funders.  A few real gems from this list include...


  • Proctor & Gamble (makers of Pampers disposable diapers)
  • Franklin Associates (authors of a "study" funded by Proctor & Gamble to justify disposables)
  • Solid Waste Council of the American Paper Institute (national trade association for the forest products industry...which provides materials to disposable diaper manufacturers)
  • Unilever - Australia (former makers of Huggies disposable diapers)
  • Alcoa Aluminum (makers of aluminum used by the next two sponsors)
  • American Can (former member of the "Tin Can Trust", a quasi-monoply that produced a large percentage of America's tin cans, containers, and packaging)
  • Continental Can (ditto)
  • Chevron Oil (you know what they make, right?)


So what's my takeaway?  Just like my parents, grandparents, and teachers have always said...don't believe everything you read.  And if you have the time and inclination...dig deeper to find ulterior motives.  It seems like there is always some ulterior motive at play.  Even this blog post is suspect - I of course think that the design and materials that we use in GroVia modern cloth diapers more than quashes any potential "controversy" around whether using cloth is better than disposable.


But ultimately, the choice to use cloth diapers is YOURS to make.  Just please make sure you are reading and hearing facts...rather than "facts."