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November 13, 2005

Sustainability into the wee hours

I learned at the university of Cincinnati last week that 98 percent of all US households containing babies use some disposable diapers, and that an American child can run through 8,000 to 10,000 of these products before becoming fully toilet trained at age three or later. This is in contrast to a baby born in East Africa where poor families use zero disposables and and "dryness is accomplished by five or six months". The context for this discussion is that disposable nappies (as we call them in the UK) are not "disposable" at all. As a classic 1988 article by Carl Lehrburger and Rachel Snyder in Whole Earth Review explains, "we throw about 18 billion of them away each year into trash cans and bags, believing they've gone to some magic place where they will safely disappear - when the truth is, most of the plastic-lined "disposables" end up in landfills. There they sit, tightly wrapped bundles of urine and feces that partially and slowly decompose only over many decades. What started out as a marketer's dream of drier, happier, more comfortable babies has become a solid-waste nightmare of squandered material resources, skyrocketing economics, and a growing health hazard, set against the backdrop of dwindling landfill capacity in a country driven by consumption". Several people from Procter and Gamble, who were involved in our discussion in Cincinnati, acknowledged that this should be a live issue for their company as it gears up to market these products to billions more families in China and India. So we addressed the question: would it be possible to replace the manufacture of diapers with a service to help parents toilet train children much earlier? Strictly speaking, one is supposed to talk about "toilet learning" these days, but the key lesson seems to be that yes, such a change would be possible - especially if we learn from other cultures, such as the East African Digo, where parents use something called a "nurturing conditioning" approach to achive exactly this result. Insofar as western experts have studied different approaches (which is not very much) they "do not find any problems associated with earlier toilet training except that it took longer". And there's the rub: The main obstacle to the replacement of polluting diapers with a toilet learning support service, enabled by P&G, will be time. Nurturing conditioning, in plain English, means the constant presence and attention of a parent - and that time is what modernity has squeezed out of the equation.

Posted by John Thackara at November 13, 2005 10:41 AM


Here are some images I took of the sustainable NON-use of diapers in PRChina where infant potty training (IPT) is practiced. Unfortunately, more and more people there associate the use of diapers with affluence and this IPT is being edged out.

A confident father understands his baby's needs A confident Grandma understands her granddaughter's needs

Closeup A of tushie-free pants
Another closeup of tushie-free pants

Here are some articles about IPT.

NYTimes article on Infant Potty Training

A useful how-to guide

More potty training for under-ones

Posted by: Debra Solomon at November 13, 2005 02:59 PM

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