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Cloth Diapers Hoping for Comeback

February 23, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The cloth diaper industry, hoping to get the help of environmentalists, said Wednesday it plans a yearlong campaign aimed at convincing parents to stop using disposable diapers and turn to the traditional cloth variety.

Representatives of the National Association of Diaper Services said the campaign will include lobbying state legislators and local officials in an effort to curb disposable diaper use because of concerns about the plastic diapers’ impact on the environment.

Carl Lehrburger, a waste management expert, said a yearlong study shows the quantity of disposable diapers put into landfills each year has been underestimated.

He said that last year, about 18 billion disposable diapers were purchased and 90 percent of them were later buried in a landfill, accounting for about 2 percent of the total waste buried.

Perhaps no other product has had such an impact on child rearing as the plastic and cellulose disposable diaper, which became widely used in the 1970s. Disposable diapers now account for about 85 percent of all diapers used, according to Lehrburger.

Lehrburger’s study was commissioned by the National Association of Diaper Services, which represents about 80 diaper service companies around the country. But he insisted the association had no editorial control over the study.

Ann Beaudry, a spokeswoman for the group, told a news conference that the release of Lehrburger’s study was ″a kickoff″ of a ″broad national public education campaign″ about the environmental problems caused by widespread use of disposable diapers, which do not decay when buried.

She did not provide specifically how much money the group plans to spend on the campaign, saying it will be ″less than $100,000″ and involve all 50 states. The manufacturers of disposable diapers spend an estimated $50 million a year on advertising alone.

Lehrburger said parents should be encouraged to shift to cloth diapers. Beyond that, he suggested governments consider a tax on disposable diapers and at the same time provide tax incentives for the diaper service industry to encourage such a switch.

But participants in the news conference acknowledged that the disposable diaper has widespread acceptance among parents because of its convenience.

Georgette Valle, a state legislator from Washington state, said she has waged a crusade against disposable diapers being buried in landfills in her state for 12 years, but has not been able to convince fellow legislators to go along. None of her bills has yet to emerge from a committee, she said.

″Disposable diapers seem to be a fact of life,″ she said, adding that she is optimistic about legislation she is pushing that would promote the development of diapers that could be recycled.

Disposable diaper manufacturers have disputed the claim that soiled diapers pose a health hazard and have suggested the impact of disposable diapers on the landfill problem is being exaggerated.

But Lehrburger said he hoped that his report, which concluded that the disposal of plastic diapers costs taxpayers $300 million a year, will be ″the beginning point″ for a public policy debate over the benefits and drawbacks of a product many parents of young children consider indispensable.

″As a society we have been sold on the idea of ‘disposability’ without full recognition of the costs associated with this convenience,″ said Lehrburger,

He acknowledged that changing parents’ habits may not be easy. ″Fundamental to the issue is convenience and the disposable diaper manufacturers really have the upper hand on that,″ he said.

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