No one likes change but babies in diapers,” once said Barbara Johnson, American literary critic and poststructuralist professor at Harvard University who died in 2009.
But change is exactly what is coming down the pipe for babies with soiled diapers in the Capital Regional District (CRD) this year. The Solid Waste Advisory Committee (SWAC) and the Environmental Sustainability Committee will be addressing the issue of disposable diapers in landfills and the potential for a cloth diaper subsidy in the CRD.
“There is a natural parenting culture that is emerging — it’s big on the West Coast,” says Rachel Aube, a cloth diaper advocate who works in the industry. “So we’re lucky to be in Victoria because there already is a larger percentage of people that use cloth diapers. The second best place is Montreal. But they never really stopped cloth diapering there — they are a traditional culture, and they have subsidies there. They truly are a model for the rest of Canada.”
Local businesses, retailers, health and safety advocates and environmentalists are working together to set a new precedent in western Canada, starting with southern Vancouver Island. The push for a cloth diaper subsidy is seen as one way to reduce the waste flow of disposable diapers, which are extremely toxic and very slow to break down. Those calling for a cloth diaper subsidy are calling it a win-win situation for everyone involved.
“Generally these things start as a pilot project . . . If there is a clear line forward and it’s all green lights, it would be in the form of a pilot project for all sorts of stakeholders to engage,” says Jane Mendum, chair of SWAC, vice-chair of the Environmental Sustainability Committee, and mayor of the Victoria Highlands.
“We look forward to having this come forward to have a good dialogue on it. Staff have been arranged to investigate it and will be putting together a report,” says Mendum.
Cloth advocates armed with a petition and a Facebook page are gearing up against the three million diapers sitting in the Heartland landfill, at a sum of 3.28 per cent of total waste according to the 2011 Waste Composition Study. Advocates plan to present their case to the SWAC and the Environmental Committee this spring.
“I think there is probably three big reasons that people choose to go with cloth,” says Stephanie Baird, owner of Abbey Sprouts baby store on Gosworth Street. “One, of course is cost. To use disposable diapers on a child can cost more than $2 000 over two years. And that’s to say that they are potty trained at two, which kids aren’t nowadays.”
“And number two is health. There are all sorts of chemicals and perfumes in the child’s diapers that you don’t exactly want against a child’s skin. I mean there are dioxins, which was taken out of tampons for toxic shock syndrome. And the third is the waste and ecological impacts. Not necessarily in that order.”
Abbey Sprouts opened their doors in June of 2011, but was an online retailer of eco-friendly toys, and cloth diapers since 2009.
“The margin on [cloth] diapers is less than any other product in here,” says Biard. “I’m not sure why they don’t make it so they are more expensive, so that there is a larger profit margin because then more retailers would carry them. A lot of retailers will look at them and say, oh no I won’t sell that, there isn’t enough money in them, so you really have to believe in them to want to sell them,” she says sitting in front of a wall of monkey-, butterfly-, and heart-patterned cloth diapers. The store is littered with eco-chic products for toddlers and young kids.
“Many people have the misconception that cloth diapers are the old style of diapers, with the pin, that takes longer . . . It will just be about mis-education, and people not understanding. I had a mom in here the other day and she was telling me that at her prenatal class the nurse was telling her about cloth diapers with pins and rubber pants. How bad is that?”
Baird hands me a crowd favorite in the cloth diaper options and it’s so soft, I find myself wishing it were my pillow.
In Saguenay, Que., the municipality has $100 subsidies for the purchase of 25 cloth diapers. In Coaticook, Compton, Lac Megantic, Lambton, and Magog, Que., there is a 50 per cent off subsidy of cloth diapers up to a maximum of $200. In Essex, England you receive a £10 refund for every £10 or more on washable nappies, liners or wraps. And in Dundee, Scotland parents receive a £25 discount voucher towards a purchase of real nappies, or a laundry service. Similar programs are in place in Sweden, Finland and Ontario — where parents receive $200 towards cloth diapers.
“One of the things I am receptive to is getting ideas from people that want to provide solutions for a problem,” says Victoria City Councillor Lisa Helps. “Awesome. Show me the economics. It’s a reorganization of resources to benefit people and the environment. The best place to do it is with the CRD, and I’m in favour of that. I think it’s a really important regional issue.”
“I was lucky. Most of my cloth diapers were gifted to me from my mother,” says Janaya Honka, a mother of two who is balancing family, children, and a small business, as well as cloth diaper activism. She is a daycare provider who offers cloth diaper services. “That’s what she used, and knew. But many families have to rely on disposable diaper donations,” she says.
“When it comes to low-income families, it’s mainly that they are less educated. And they don’t realize that using cloth diapers would be a lot less expensive for them,” says Baird. “But then I think the other major hurdle is that cloth diapers are expensive up front. $20 a diaper, and you need 15 diapers, bare minimum up front, I would think. And that’s exactly where a subsidy would come in.”
After the Second Word War the increased desire for freedom from washing cloth diapers and drying them gave birth to a heightened demand for disposable diapers. And the industry that is famous for the rivalry between Kimberly Clark’s Huggies and Proctor and Gamble’s Pampers was born. This industry, that emerged in the ’50s and boomed in the ’60s and ’70s, has led to an average of 27.4 billion disposable diapers used in the U.S. annually, producing 3.4 million tons of used diapers in landfills every year.
The push for alternatives to disposable diapers has flared since environmental consciousness has become common sense again. But the recent lawsuits filed against Proctor & Gamble’s Pampers for chemical burns or “severe rashes” caused by their “Dry-Max” technology has brought the debate home for a lot of parents and public health safety officials. In June of 2011, according to settlement papers in a Cincinnati court, Proctor & Gamble will have to pay $1 000 to each of the 59 parents who filed in the case, cover their $2.73 million in shared legal fees, and spend $400 000 to fund pediatric training programs designed to educate on how to treat diaper rash.
“If we can get 10 per cent more people or 20 per cent more people to cloth diaper because there is a subsidy in place, that means there is going to be less in the waste stream,” says Aube. “It means there is going to be more people patronizing our local business — our female, for the most part, owned business — so it’s good for small business, minority businesses, the Victoria community, and the biggest part is that it’s all within the CRD. We’re not going online and buying diapers from China and shipping it here.”
“We’re mompreneurs, and we’re lucky that [cloth diaper companies] are great female-led businesses,” says Mary Lucas, co-owner and operator of HipBaby on Johnson Street. “People need to come to cloth diapers on their own. I’m here to provide people with information. But I always ask, would you rather wear plastic underwear, or organic cotton underwear?”
Lucas offers information and training programs for parents new to cloth diapering, and is also in favour of a cloth diaper subsidy in the CRD.
“It’s exciting because it makes sense,” she says. “Parents would be doing such good in diverting waste from the heartland landfill. I think some flexibility with the subsidy would be best. Either a voucher, or something they could bring in and I could get reimbursed from the CRD. It’s important for parents to come in and see and touch things.”
Lucas points out that parents are realizing the impacts of how they parent, and that in the choices parents make, diapers are the most wasteful. Traditionally newspapers are the number-one waste product in landfills and diapers are a close second.
Michael Ziff, a.k.a. Cloth Diaper Dad, who guides information sessions and cloth diaper workshops in Vancouver, says “I think we’re going to have to turn up the crank a little bit this year for a subsidy. There is plenty of interest, but you really need to push it . . . for parents, it’s a little more up front, but with a huge payoff in the end. Especially if your kids are potty trained earlier because of cloth diapers.”
Ziff expressed concern with the fact that human waste is a banned substance in landfills in light of the 7 220 tons of disposable diapers in Vancouver Metropolitan landfills each year — about one per cent of the landfill.
“For myself, there was a few times when I used disposable diapers. But knowing that human waste is a banned substance in landfills, I would always put the waste in the toilet. And I think people need to do that even if they are using disposables,” says Ziff.
“It’s hard. We all have families, and kids, and run business, and trying to be activists as well,” says Rachel Aube.
In 2011 a Guinness World Record was set for the most cloth diapers changed with 5 026 participants in 127 locations in five countries. The cloth diaper advocates are closing in on this spring for the Great Cloth Diaper Change on April 21, where various cities will gather their poopiest poopers and set their crosshairs on the previous record. With some luck, not only will they change the most diapers, but the diapers themselves will change.