I remember the diapers—ripping open bag after bag of used diapers. It was 2014 and a friend and I had volunteered to help with a trash audit for the City of Cambridge as part of a to-be-piloted curbside composting program. Wearing Tyvek suits, surgical face masks, and rubber-coated gloves, we, alongside several other volunteers, spent a frozen morning in March combing through hundreds of trash bags, sorting out anything compostable for weighing. There were lots of compostables, as expected, and a disappointing volume of recyclables, but the biggest surprise was diapers. It seemed like every other bag was filled with dirty diapers.
At the time, babies weren’t a big part of my world, but I could do the conceptual math: lots of babies times multiple diapers per day times several years of diaper-wearing equals an enormous quantity of solid waste, a tiny slice of which I was seeing that day. In fact, a child goes through about 2,500 to 3,000 diapers in their first year, and a total of about 7,000 to 8,000 over their lifetime. The EPA estimates the quantity of disposable diaper waste (mostly from baby diapers) in the U.S. to be about 4.1 million tons per year, about 80 percent of which ends up in landfills.
I’ve been thinking about those bags of diapers again, several years later, now that I’m pregnant with my first child and learning about the care and gear associated with babies. In the months before becoming pregnant, after years of lapsed environmentalism, I found myself interrogating my lifestyle, trying to “do my part” while figuring out what my part even is, or could be, or should be, and why. Fifteen some years ago, as an environmental studies major in college, I learned about industry-driven problems such as Superfund sites and agricultural runoff, yet I was often most energized by consumer behavior change as a solution. Vote with your dollars, I fervently believed. If we each just changed our habits a little bit, industries would change in response! That isn’t not true, but it illustrates my idealism at the time. Throughout my 20s, my focus on consumer behavior seemed increasingly pitiful against a culture that could barely be bothered to recycle, let alone react—socially or politically—to a truly urgent climate crisis. Hummers were popular at the time. Ever larger McMansions kept appearing in the suburbs where I grew up. I maintained my eco-conscious habits, but I grew more cynical, lost the heart for environmental issues, and avoided thinking about climate change.
Today, though Hummers have mercifully gone out of style, the outlook for environmental concerns of all kinds remains bleak. Sometimes the idea of bringing a child into this world feels wrong, both from the perspective of the planet and from the perspective of the child. A friend once countered, “But won’t you be raising a good person who will help make the world better?” One certainly hopes! But let’s face it, that’s not why we wanted to start a family. We wanted our own—our own little world, with magic and intensity and impossible new depths of love. This feels like a selfish act. Although parenting will surely demand depths of selflessness that we’ve never had to summon before, choosing to become parents came from a craving, our personal sense of need.
While I am prone to occasional twinges of guilt about bringing a new person into the world, we’ve made the decision, the baby is jabbing at my belly as I write this, and my partner and I are deeply excited to meet her. So I now contemplate the practical and ethical questions downstream of that decision: diapers, wipes, toys, car seats, yogurt squeeze packs, and the myriad other products that will become a part of our lives as we enter American parenthood. Adding a baby to our household has the potential to greatly increase our waste output—both physical waste as well as pollution that comes from manufacturing, distributing, and disposing of it all. The irony is that this baby has the most to lose, entering a finite world where garbage is leaking into our oceans and climate change is rapidly gaining on us. She also has no say in the matter. We the parents, the adults, make the choices. We choose to bring children into this world, and, for a little while at least, we choose what they consume and how their waste is managed. Of course, there can be so much structural or cultural force behind certain “choices” that they hardly feel optional. So, more to the point: we follow norms, and we happen to live in a place where our norms create a profound amount of environmental harm.
Right now, my partner and I are in a luxurious phase, the first pregnancy, where we can dream about the kind of life we want to provide for our kid, and prepare accordingly. He wants her to take martial arts classes so she’ll be able to defend herself. I imagine walking with her in nature and identifying trees and birds. We both want her to be curious and kind. We both want her to love music. The dream is freighted with ideas about the kind of people we ourselves want to be, the kind of people we wish we had already been, and the kind of world we want to live in.
But then there is the day-to-day work of actually living, which is considerably more compromise-filled than dreaming. A friend of mine says he cringes every time he ties off a bag of used diapers. Such micro-shames are familiar to me, as I attempt to live in a vaguely environmentally responsible way in a world where almost everything is disposable, packaged, plastic, or most easily accessed by car. I’ve come to see these guilty pangs as tiny externalities of our economy, private and fleeting. But if all that guilt were somehow collected and channeled, it would probably matter.
My partner and I can try to make a tiny dent. We can use cloth diapers, and cloth wipes, and make our own food for the baby—and that is my plan. And these choices, if not mainstream, are not uncommon, especially because they tend to save money. The challenge, according to the zero waste blogs and Reddit threads I’ve consulted, is that every single task takes more time and planning than the disposable option. You have to assert and re-assert your way of doing things against what is expected and already furnished—all when you may be at your most depleted. The refrain from almost anyone who actually has kids is “just wait.” Just wait until you’re actually a parent, and you’re exhausted, and your ideals go out the window, and the best you can do is plead with your child to eat part of a hot dog while placating them with an electronic device. You’ll forget to bring your homemade snacks, or you’ll be too tired to make them. Your daycare will only accept disposable diapers.
While the concept of sustainability has gained ground, worrying about waste remains out of step with the American mainstream. Diaper waste in particular seems almost embraced as a parenting rite of passage. “Babies can go through up to ten diapers a day!” my pregnancy app gleefully reminds me, prodding me to buy some diapers. Diaper cakes, a supposedly adorable baby shower gift, are now a staple of my targeted online ads. In many parenting resources, disposables are assumed to be your choice, while cloth diapers are either ignored or suggested for “parents concerned about the environment.” This presumed binary insults everyone. It is possible to, like many people I know, choose disposables and be concerned about the environment. And as someone interested in cloth for primarily environmental reasons, I feel like I’ve received a dismissive pat on the head. Run along you, and good luck with that thing you think is such a big deal!
Billions of diapers end up in landfills every year and do not biodegrade, meaning that nearly all of the disposable diapers ever used are mounded somewhere, leaching methane and microplastics. How does everyone feel okay about this? I bitterly wonder, again the naïve environmental studies college student, pedantically focused on behavior change. In wiser moments, I remember this is a systemic problem that will not be solved at the individual level.
Plenty of articles argue that cloth diapers are only marginally better for the environment, if at all, due to the energy costs and pollution entailed in manufacturing and laundering them. It’s true that the devil is in the details. The energy efficiency of your laundry machines, the materials in your diapers, and the water availability in your area, among other details, all figure into the question of which is, environmentally speaking, a better choice for a given situation. Most resources don’t go into this level of detail, and few people would make a decision based solely on such an analysis anyway. Do what works for your family is the final recommendation of most comparison articles, implying: you’re not going to be saving the planet either way.
Yet I can’t seem to accept this permission. The articles usually acknowledge that practices such as line-drying and reusing cloth diapers on multiple children give cloth a more definitive environmental (and cost) advantage over disposables. But, in my opinion, these sources too often hand-wave away those qualifications, rather than emphasize their relevance. To me, this approaches a bothsidesism that underestimates the intentions and intelligence of the readers. The assumption seems to be that parents would rather be reassured about the status quo than be nudged to consider the environmental impact of their choices. But why assume this? Kids are inheriting this planet and its problems, and parents—in a multitude of other ways—look out for their kids’ futures.
It may be partly explained by another, widely-held assumption: disposables are convenient and easy, while reusables are time-consuming and lots of work. This is so baked into our collective understanding of diapering that I and just about everyone I know simply accepted it as fact. But after recently attending an online workshop on cloth diapers, I’m not so sure. Or at least, I’m not so sure that the difference in convenience is so significant as to account for the enormous difference in popularity. The workshop instructor only briefly mentioned the environmental and cost advantages of cloth, but raised other benefits I hadn’t considered. For example, she explained why cloth diapers, properly fitted, prevent “blowouts”—something my partner and I hadn’t heard of but were suddenly highly motivated to avoid. She reviewed modern innovations that separate cloth diapering today from what our grandparents did. Above all, she demystified the actual amount of work involved in using cloth diapers, so that attendees could make an informed decision about what fits their lifestyle, budget, and laundry situation.
We were already committed to trying cloth, but the workshop made us almost giddy about it. That evening I overheard my partner on a Zoom call, eagerly explaining blowout prevention to his friends. I’ve since found myself excited about diapering, which, despite what this essay might suggest, was an aspect of parenthood I had been dreading. I had bought into the idea that one route is easy and the other is hard, and I was prepared to take the harder route because it meant something to me. It still does. But it never occurred to me that the day-to-day experience of the two options might not be so far apart, or that I might derive something other than dread—maybe even joy—from diapering. This, I realize now, is what one friend was trying to communicate to me when she enthusiastically showed me her cloth diapering system after learning I was pregnant. “It’s very doable,” she assured me.
There is a social privilege associated with having the time or resources to weigh diaper choices (or other consumer choices) against one another in such detail—to attend a cloth diaper workshop in the first place, let alone, say, to do two extra loads of laundry every week. But those of us who have such privilege should probably use it, because we also tend to take up more space on earth. The assessment alone, whatever decision it leads to, is a form of environmental stewardship.
Like in most households, my trash and recycling fill up quickly with packaging. When I’m at the grocery store or the pharmacy, I sometimes see the aisles as being full of future trash. This makes me sad, and it makes me feel small. Waste has bothered me ever since I was a dorky fifth grader, when I enthusiastically latched onto the concept of the three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!). The problem always seemed so simple and tangible: you can see trash piling up, and we know the earth is finite.
But maybe this problem only ever seemed simple and tangible to me because I happened to be obsessed with it. And there’s actually more to it than just the math problem, the piling up of solid waste and where to put it all. Like most environmental issues, this one is connected to a web of horrors that may not be well known or necessarily intuitive, such as environmental carcinogens, greenhouse gas emissions, and drinking water safety. Then again, many of these complications flow from the ominous imbalance that I perceived as an elementary schooler.
Disposable diaper usage is expanding globally, but at the same time, the disposables industry is getting greener, incorporating more recycled and compostable content into diapers while using less material overall. I appreciate the progress. Yet the premise of these innovations is still that disposability must be preserved, because maximum convenience is what the market wants. As our society technologizes toward guilt-free convenience, I find that my eyebrow remains stubbornly raised. These solutions may mitigate the damage we cause, but they do not challenge our cultural relationship to trash, or disposability.
We teach kids about caring for others and for nature, but through culture we convey that once an item becomes “trash,” it is no longer our problem. Landfills are vaguely construed as distant, inert mounds where we can safely send waste to die. This distorts our sense of consequence, allowing the false impression that things can disappear. While we love nature—as mountains, as lakes, as hikes, as TV programs about wildlife, as nursery themes—we do not care for it as an integrated part of our culture. Our country was, after all, largely built through the systematic seizure of land, labor, and lives. Stewardship, in mainstream America, has never been cool.
There is a brief, hopeful age when as schoolchildren we are taught the importance of caring for the planet. We grow bean sprouts in the classroom, and paint cute murals of animals and trees. Eventually we learn concepts like the nitrogen cycle and the interconnectedness of life forms. But those lessons get swept away and drowned in a sea of cultural messaging that tells us we can and should have whatever we can afford.
Addressing the environmental crises of our day with the urgency required is, by far, in the hands of industry and governments, not individuals and their product choices. Without extensive large-scale solutions, we simply will not be able to steer the giant ocean liner of our consumer culture fast enough to save ourselves from climate change. Full stop. But so long as the solutions facilitate the way we already live, they won’t change how we think about consumption, which, as I see it, is really about our relationship to nature.
It is through this relationship that I believe we as individuals, especially those of us with a hand in raising upcoming generations, have agency. We can connect to nature through acts of stewardship, which implicitly recognize the power that humans have on earth, and the responsibility that comes with it. We can show that to our kids. We can unlearn our sense of futility against the system—even when it’s a balm for our guilt. Stewardship affirms our place in the world, our capacity to matter as individuals, precisely because we are a part of a larger system.
I am still learning what this means in practical terms. Right now, it feels like a fun challenge that brings my fifth-grade self to the table with my competing adult priorities. I know that I want to reduce my reliance on plastic-packaged items and avoid baby-related disposables when possible. As my daughter gets older, I imagine teaching her about composting, modeling efforts to save and reuse, and taking public transit even if we have a car. Maybe we’ll go on a family field trip to a waste management facility, volunteer to water a street tree sapling, and participate in climate marches or other environmental advocacy. I hope to reinforce, through our household culture, the school-taught lesson that humans are a part of a complex ecology. I hope to show her the joy in stewardship, the joy that once came very easily to me and that I am trying to get back.
Maybe these fantasies will all be devoured by the realities of parenthood. My partner and I have little control over how exactly this new person will change our lives, and we don’t know how any of our ideals will hold up against the new family dynamic. We can only guess at how the culture is changing around us, what it will be like in five or ten years. The best we can do is to remember the dream of the world we want our child to live in, and to fight for that in whatever measure we can manage. I am pretty sure that is what parents do.
Image: “Pañales” by Daniel Lobo, licensed under CC 2.0.