Taking Care of Business: Diapers Go Green
Tina Butler, mongabay.com
April 2, 2006
Cloth or Disposable Diapers: Answering the Age Old Question
A baby has been described as an alimentary canal with a loud voice on one end and no responsibility on the other. A couple from Australia, Jason and Kimberly Graham-Nye, are addressing the “end of the canal” with an innovative product—a “green” diaper.
Anticipating the birth of their first son back in the early 1990s, the Graham-Nyes were prompted to find a new kind of diaper after determining that disposable and cloth diapers did not work for them, their baby or the planet. So they bought the international rights (from a small firm in Tasmania) to the flushable-diaper design and began producing “g-Diapers” for Australian babies.
Years of work and research followed, and the Graham-Nyes eventually decided to expand and go global, starting a company in Portland, Oregon. gDiapers finally became available on US soil in 2005, almost 15 years after Australia. Besides the size of the American market and its status as the number one consumer of disposable diapers, the Graham-Nyes also were attracted by Portland’s reputation as a home for “green” or environmentally friendly businesses.
In a landfill, a single traditional disposable diaper can take 500 years to biodegrade. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in the past year alone, about 20 billion disposable diapers were dumped into landfills throughout the United States, creating approximately 3.5 million tons of waste. That’s a lot of baby poop and even more plastic, which will be around centuries after each producer is grown and gone.
gDiapers provides a faster, less-polluting solution. Instead of throwing a soiled, chemical-laden and largely plastic diaper into the trash—and ultimately the landfill—parents can simply and safely flush the gDiaper insert. The inserts are all natural and 100 percent biodegradable as well as highly absorbent—a happy marriage of functionality and intelligent design. (The insert fits into what is called the “little g pant”—more about that later.)
The Graham-Nyes believe their product has the potential to revolutionize waste management and alter consumer perception and behavior in regard to environmentally sustainable and responsible products. The introduction of gDiapers into the diaper market is significant in that there is finally a new alternative that incorporates the best and eliminates the worst aspects of the two existing options. gDiapers has the soul of cloth and the convenience of disposables; they offer a solution to the current diaper dilemma that causes grief for both parents and the Earth alike.
Disposable diapers still dominate the consumer market, particularly in the United States. Their convenience is undeniable, but so are their drawbacks—as anyone who has ever passed a casually discarded one can testify. Besides creating huge amounts of trash and some serious health risks, most disposables are made from materials whitened with chlorine. The bleaching process produces dangerous toxins such as dioxin, furans and other organic chlorines. Once released in the environment, these substances accumulate in both people and animals. Studies have shown a direct correlation between dioxin exposure and the incidence of cancer and birth defects as well as environmental and reproductive disorders.
Cloth diapers, the original “environment-friendly” alternative, leave a smaller footprint than their plastic competitors, but still make a sizeable impact. Typically made of industrial cotton, cloth diapers are part of an unpleasant agricultural legacy. Industrial cotton is the world’s number one crop in terms of pesticide use, accounting for 25 percent of such use in the United States and 10 percent internationally. Growing cotton also requires huge amounts of water.
And while cotton is a natural product, the sparkling white cloth used in traditional diapers doesn’t come naturally. Just as in disposables, the bleaching pollutes the environment. Organic, unbleached cotton is increasingly available, but comes at a higher price. What is more, washing cloth diapers requires significantly more energy and water than flushing small diaper inserts.
The Graham-Nyes have no illusions about the gDiaper’s limitations, particularly the fact that water is still used in flushing the inserts and washing the exterior pant made from cotton, but make a strong case for the product being the best current ecological choice. Putting human waste into the sewage system sends a potentially dangerous substance where it needs to go to be treated and returned safely to the environment. There is no risk, as there is with landfills, of bacteria and viruses from feces leaching into the local groundwater supply. And the gDiaper also gets rid of those smelly diaper bins in nurseries or restrooms—not to mention that objectionable item left on the seat next to you in the truckstop.
Once the gDiaper has gone through a treatment plant, most of its materials are easily reabsorbed into the environment as biosolids. This type of matter is often used in the forestry industry to help fertilize new trees; as inserts are made from trees on farms, this is a fitting end for this product’s naturalized lifecycle.
For the ecology-minded consumer who wants to know still more, the Graham-Nyes explain on their website that 90 percent of the gDiaper insert is made from sustainably harvested wood-fluff pulp—all-natural cellulose fibers dried in a way to heighten their absorbency. Cellulose rayon, a natural polymer, is used for the insert’s outer cover, instead of the conventional plastic.
Sodium polyacrylate, or SAP, accounts for the remaining 10 percent of the insert. SAP crystals can hold up to 100 times their weight in water. Because of this, these crystals are often added to compost and biosolids to increase moisture retention and enrich soil. Used in most disposable diapers and feminine-hygiene products, SAP has proven safe for human use. It’s chemically neutral and non-toxic and harmless to the environment.
Even the “packaging” for the inserts holds up to the principles of environmental sustainability. The outer diaper layer, known as the “little g” pant, is wholly reusable. Little g pants are made from cotton and are easily washed. They also have a sturdy, water-resistant, yet breathable liner that holds the insert. The nylon in the snap-in liner where the flushable insert fits is permeable to water vapor, yet waterproof to liquids, aiding in the prevention of diaper rash and overheating.
The gDiaper inserts can be composted; however, it’s strongly recommended that the “brown” inserts be flushed, because of health concerns arising from the bacterial concentrations found in fecal matter. Composting takes about 50 to 150 days for complete reincorporation into the soil. Earthworm-aided compost accelerates the biodegradation process, with complete composting averaging 70 days compared with 120 for traditional compost setups.
In flushing the inserts, there is a risk of clogging, but this risk is no higher than that of a regular wad of toilet paper in a sensitive or antiquated plumbing system. gDiaper inserts meet the Water Environment Research Foundation acceptance criteria, which involves the ease of bowl and trap passage. Additionally, the National Sanitation Foundation has given the product its blessing after the inserts successfully cleared six different types of toilet systems.
gDiapers has also received a prestigious “Cradle to Cradle Design Certification Award” from MBDC, a design consulting organization that stresses green design, for its inserts’ contribution as a biosolid. The diaper was the first packaged consumer product to be so honored, and was recognized for its use of biodegradable materials that pose “no immediate or eventual hazard to living systems” and that can “safely return to the environment to feed environmental processes.” The idea of “green” design is not just to be “less bad,” but to be ecologically efficient and generate products that give more to the environment than they take.
The Graham-Nyes take into account the whole process, not only creating a product that ultimately benefits the environment, but also running a company that strives to maintain sustainable and socially conscious ways of production. The fluffed wood pulp used in the inserts comes from softwood plantations that are typically harvested in 10- to 60-year cycles depending on species and use.
The gDiapers company works with timber suppliers who adhere to third-party certification of sustainable cultivation practices, including protecting wildlife habitat, preventing soil erosion, providing stream buffering and replanting trees. The company also works with China Labor Watch to monitor the mill in Nanjing where workers process the tree pulp, to maintain good working conditions, fair treatment and compensation.
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
By William McDonough and Michael Braungart
The Graham-Nyes believe gDiapers is a model for what many future companies will look like. They recognize the importance of quality, functionality and economy and have been able to translate this principle and their vision into a profitable product. Unlike many companies however, this one wants its profits to be shared among people and the planet.
But Jason and Kim Graham-Nye aren’t totally serious and “corporate” about what they do. They have a sense of humor about the nature of their product and they’ve maintained an Australian touch, explaining on their website that “people, planet, profit equals fair dinkum,” which means “being generous and real with everyone you meet.” And finally they have one of the catchiest slogans in modern advertising: “Fashion and function on one cute bum.”