Anatomy of a Disposable Diaper

Ever wonder what a disposable diaper is made out of?

The “breathable” outer layer is typically made of polyethylene, a thermoplastic.  Inside that you’ll find a blend of cellulose pulp (in most brands, wood pulp is bleached with chlorine) and absorbent polymers.  You may also find Velcro or adhesive tabs, chemical “wetness indicators” that change colors to show when the diaper is wet, and scents or lotions.


Check out this website for more detail on how a disposable diaper is made.

Most diaper companies do not use recycled materials to make their diapers, so the wood pulp is derived from freshly-harvested trees.  The polymers that keep disposables dry on the outside and absorbent on the inside are petroleum products, but in the future manufacturers could try making these layers out of recycled milk jugs.  (I am not a chemical engineer, so someone correct me if this idea isn’t feasible.)  Even Seventh Generation, who makes a chlorine-free disposable diaper, does not use any recycled materials for the poly-wraps on their diapers and training pants.  Their website says they plan to “upgrade this to 50% recycled content” in 2008.  We’re not sure if they accomplished this goal or not!


These superabsorbent polymers come out of a disposable diaper in a science experiment.

Now, it’s great that Seventh Generation avoids using chlorine bleach, but they are no more biodegradable than other disposables.  Their diapers are made from the following ingredients, according to their website: chlorine-free wood pulp fluff, sodium polyacrylate (also known as SAP or absorbent gel), polyolefin nonwoven fabric, adhesives, polyolefin film, synthetic rubber elastic strands.  For a biodegradable disposable, look into gDiapers.  Their diapers are biodegradable and compostable, although they still use absorbent gel and tree-farmed wood pulp.

While it’s no secret that we love our cloth diapers here on the Green Baby Guide, we realize that disposables are here to stay.  Our hope is that manufacturers–especially eco-conscious ones like Seventh Generation–keep working on creating disposable diapers using more recycled content and fewer non-biodegradable materials.

Comments

  1. As much as I hate to admit this, we have used the seventh generation disposables and discovered that they work really well.

    I planned to cloth diaper, but decided for that first week of our son’s life we would use disposables. Having a first baby was overwhelming enough without the still-somewhat-of-a-mystery cloth diapering. Also, we didn’t want to collect dirty diapers at the hospital to take home and wash, and I didn’t want to worry about the meconium staining all of those little cloth diapers.
    It turns out that last concern was not necessary since our little guy wasn’t going #2, and we had to take him back in for a barium enema when he was 3 days old (trust me, handing your little tiny baby over for that is really hard). It turns out all was in the clear and his system just needed a jump start. Needless to say, all of the meconium was flushed out in that one swoop, so we never had to change a single tar-like diaper.

    But still, I have to admit that the disposable diapers did make things easier, and I love how the little unbleached diapers look on a newborn. After that first week, we switched to cloth.

    When we have another baby, I’d like to skip on the disposables altogether. I’ve also thought about trying the Gdiaper liners with our diaper covers for the hospital stay. I suppose we’ll deal with all of that when we get there.

  2. Great point! While it would be great if everyone used cloth diapers, we know this is an unlikely scenario, whether its due to busy schedules. intimidation, or something else entirely. Hopefully, Seventh Generation, as well as other disposable diaper companies, will start using more materials that are healthier for the planet!

  3. I think it is a matter of pressuring the diapie companies. some, like pampers, actually have reduced the amount of material it takes to make a diaper. there must be some material that is part of the waste stream of some other manufacturing process that could become a component, and perhaps a biodegradable one at that, of disposables. remember tho, even if disposables went biodegradable, they would still need the presence of oxygen and aerobic and anaerobic microbes to break down, something in short supply in landfills. not to defend them, but disposables compromise only 1% of the municipal waste stream. there are better ways to make a disposable for sure, the bright idea just hasn’t seen the light of day yet.

  4. Esme, you make some excellent points. The overall amount of material in disposable diapers has decreased drastically over the years. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) this is due to the SAP, which can absorb huge amounts of liquid.

    You are definitely right that even “biodegradable” diapers would not break down in a landfill. Some “greener” diaper companies claim to make 70% (or something) biodegradable diapers, and I really don’t understand the point. Really, it’s just a marketing ploy.

    Disposable diapers may make up only 1% of the municipal waste stream, but, most of the harm disposable diapers do to the environment is actually in their production–not disposal. Trees have to be cut down, pulp made, synthetic materials developed . . . and then all of the various diaper components get shipped all around the world, made into diapers, and shipped all over to stores, where people drive to get them.

  5. Your idea of using recycled materials is a good one, especially milk cartons. I’m sure that something like that is not too far away, especially since diaper companies are looking for ways to lower their landfill presence and become more biodegradable.
    Jordan MGH

  6. Stephan Heumann says:

    There is a problem with using recycled paper in manufacturing disposable diapers: There is a lot of bisphenol-A (BPA) in the paper waste stream, due to the practice of using BPA in thermal paper (e.g. most cash register receipts) at milligram levels apiece. This is a factor of a million above the nanogram levels that leach out of polycarbonate baby bottles. BPA, which is a known endocrine disruptor that may be partially responsible for the dramatic increase in early puberty among girls (along with obesity), is already getting into TP made of recycled paper. Until receipts stop being made that way, or the public is educated to never recycle receipts, let’s keep making diapers with virgin pulp.
    Just google “BPA receipts” (without the quotes). Here’s a very recent link:
    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/61764/title/Receipts_a_large_%E2%80%94_and_largely_ignored_%E2%80%94_source_of_BPA

  7. Amy Graham says:

    Sometimes it’s not possible to use cloth diapers.
    I really wanted to use cloth diapers, but a few months before our son was born his father died.
    We had to move to a very small appartment (1 bedroom) with a shared laundry room, and I had to work fulltime to pay my bills.
    My son was in fulltime daycare, the daycare did not accept cloth diapers, and I couldn’t afford a sitter that did accept cloth diapers.
    I don’t think my neighbors would have liked it if I washed my little boys dirty diapers in the same machines they washed their stuff in. I’m not sure about our appartment complex, but I know some shared laundry rooms have rules about cloth diapers and don’t allow them.
    I did not have any room to air-dry cotton diapers so they would have to be machine dried (not good for environment or the diapers)

    I’m happy there is the possibility of ‘enviromental friendly’ disposable diapers, too bad they are so expensive.
    I used Seventh generation diapers with my son, but it was very expensive, luckily I already saved tons of money by ‘smart shopping’ (I skipped the bedding set, swing, expensive toys, expensive bottles, playyard, big stroller etc, I didn’t have room for it anyway)
    Breastfeeding saved me hunderds of dollars eventhough I had to invest in an expensive breast pump (loved my medela)

    I bought about 3/4 to 1/2 less babystuff compared to the other mothers I know, and my son and I never missed it. So in our way by using ‘eco friendly sposies’ and buying less stuff we helped the environment a lot.

  8. Amy,
    I commend your conservation efforts during a very stressful time in your life. Sustainability certainly applies to the environment, but as new parents we also have to make choices that are sustainable for our sanity. While mourning the loss of your son’s father, everyone would understand if you didn’t have the energy or time to implement green parenting choices. Still, you managed to make eco-friendly choices under tough circumstances. Good for you that you were confident enough to reduce your purchases (most people buy loads of baby gear just because they’re afraid that they’ll need it) and that you invested your limited resources on greener disposables. I find your efforts and commitment to eco-friendliness truly amazing. You’ll get no judgement from us!

  9. Cloth diapers have been used by women for ages, especially women on the low end of the economic scale for money reasons. It’s funny how middle class women are “getting back to roots” that have always been there!
    I’m not opposed to having a spare disposable diaper on hand for when I’m out of the house, but I don’t like the materials diapers are made of for regular use. At the same time I’m not going to beat myself up about being 100% cloth. There is a brand called gDiaper that biodegrades in 150 days. I haven’t used them yet. Any opinions?

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