Closing the Poop Loop

Solving the diaper dilemma, sustainably.

Leah Zerbe July 10, 2012

Inspiration often comes in unexpected ways. In Mark Siminoff’s case, gazing at his curbside garbage one morning caused him to suddenly feel the guilt of fatherhood—not for bringing two children into the world, but for the amount of waste they created in the form of dirty disposable diapers. “I wasn’t living a sustainable lifestyle,” he says. “As a daddy, I wasn’t being responsible.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average child goes through 8,000 disposable diapers during early childhood. Determined to avoid landfill-bound disposables, Siminoff and his wife tried other options, including reusable diapers with flushable inserts. (Let’s just say that didn’t agree with the plumbing).

Failing to find a satisfactory alternative, Siminoff joined forces with Stephen Wahl, a design-savvy dad also looking for suitable diapering methods. Together they formed Earth Baby Compostable Diaper Service, a San Francisco Bay–based business that collects the used diapers of nearly 1,250 families. Parents pay $30 a month plus the cost of the diapers, which are made of wood pulp (a paper-manufacturing by-product that has been certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council) and non-genetically-modified corn.

EarthBaby delivers the diapers and wipes, and then picks up the soiled diapers once a week and transfers them to a professional biosolid composting facility. There, bacteria break down the diapers and baby waste into compost. Pathogens are wiped out as the temperature of the compost pile rises and remains hot for several days. After about 16 weeks, the finished compost is ready to be used as fertilizer on golf courses or sod farms. It is not used to grow food, Siminoff says.

“Composting these materials is a great way to recycle carbon and nutrients for soils,” says Sally Brown, Ph.D., a research associate professor at the University of Washington. “There is likely no downside to compostable diapers.”

Illustration: A. Richard Allen

“We as a society need to begin viewing and treating all waste as resources,” says Dan Sullivan, managing editor of Biocycle magazine. “If there is something we are doing that renders our organic material as unrecyclable—e.g., we are ingesting something that renders human waste toxic to the earth—then we need to tackle the problem at its source, not curtail the process of recycling organics back into the soil.”

So far, EarthBaby has kept more than 1 million pounds of diapers out of landfills. While similar diaper-composting services are peppered around the United States, they are few and far between. But smile, baby, you have options! 

Cloth Diapers
There’s been extensive diaper debate over what is better for the environment—cloth or disposable. It takes a lot of energy to manufacture disposable diapers, and the soiled end product sits in landfills for hundreds of years, potentially leaching chemicals. On the flip side, the repeated washing of cloth diapers uses both water and energy. If cloth is your choice, wash in cold water in an energy-efficient washing machine, using a plant-based, fragrance-free detergent or nontoxic homemade soap, and then line-dry.

Less-toxic Disposables
Organic disposable diapers are becoming more common. Although they wind up in landfills, these diapers protect your baby from pesticides and bleaching chemicals while promoting sustainable farming methods.

Hybrids
Some companies, such as gDiapers, offer plastic-free, reusable cloth diapers with compostable, flushable, or throwaway inserts to lessen the impact.

Elimination Communication
Variations on this method have been used by different cultures for centuries. The goal is to tune in to your baby so you know when the baby is about to go to the bathroom. For more information on this method, visit diaperfreebaby.org.

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