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The city’s diaper diversion ruse

November 17th, 2015 · No Comments

Disposable diapers get taken out of green bin, sent to landfill

By Terri Chu

When people see my little one in a cloth diaper, I inevitably get questions about how I like them, what kind I use, and how eco-friendly they really are. While I try to answer most of them with grace, there’s one that’s been getting my goat and the City of Toronto really needs to educate new parents better.

Not one, but no less than FIVE moms have recently asked me some variation of “why even bother with cloth diapers when you can compost disposable ones now?” The first time I heard it I just thought someone wasn’t thinking this through, but by mom number five, it became clear there’s a big misconception out there.

Yes, Toronto allows diapers in the green bin.

No, plastic, toxin-filled diapers do not compost…even if they did, you probably don’t want to use them on your vegetable garden.

When they moved garbage from weekly to bi-weekly garbage pick up (alternating with recycling), there was some resistance, particularly from parents having to keep soiled diapers for two weeks. As a compromise, Toronto allowed diapers into the green bins so that residual household waste could then move to a two-week cycle. Toronto is one of few (if not the only) municipalities that has this quirk. Other municipalities just put up with stink for an extra week (this goes for cat litter and animal poop too).

Allowing diapers in the green bin does NOT mean that we have magically found some way to compost plastic. While the poop and the cotton lining might get separated out, the plastic and the absorbent chemicals are immediately sent to landfill. Diapers still end up in landfill, now just with a two-step process. (What is incomprehensible is that the “diverted” diapers also count toward the city’s waste diversion targets, as do a few other things, but that’s a whole other article.) Toronto giving in to complaining is part of the reason we have notoriously low quality compost. Poop from carnivores doesn’t make great compost.

Somehow in the decade since instituting green bins, moms in Toronto have been misled into believing that disposable diapers are somehow “green” because they go into the compost. One mommy blog went as far as describing the process of separating out diapers from other trash as a “good cause” worth the effort, whereas in reality it just means more work for someone at the receiving facility. It’s one thing to choose disposables for a litany of reasons, but being misled into thinking that they are “green” should not be one of them.

I fully understand the allure of disposable diapers. A lot of parents are also doing it solo, and a little one is enough of a handful without adding loads and loads of diapers to the mix. Disposables are convenient and great at preventing diaper rash, as these petrochemicals are fantastic at doing their job. No cloth diaper can possibly compete no matter how much arrowroot flour or cornstarch you throw onto a baby’s bum. There are legitimate reasons to use disposables and not everyone is an environment freak. What’s important to me, though, is that people make their choices based on accurate information.

Whether they intend to or not, the city accepting diapers in the green bin with little explanation of where it goes from there has misled moms for the past decade. The city needs to fix this misconception so moms can make the decisions for their family with the best available information.

This can be as simple as an information graphic on the annual waste management calendar that tells families what day their garbage and recycling will get collected. A simple diagram explaining that diapers get fished out and sent to landfill would suffice. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect all moms to understand the nuances and complexity of our municipal solid waste system. Diaper mass also shouldn’t count towards the city’s waste diversion targets. If Toronto wants to be a green city, it needs to fix this smelly problem.

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy use, and help distinguish environmental truths from myths. Send questions, comments, and ideas for future columns to Terri at terri.chu@whyshouldicare.ca.

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