Ideas of Convenience, Environmentalism, and Diapers

As I was reading Clare’s last post, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a recent series of conversations I had while in Bolivia. About diapers.

Let me explain. Miguel & I are expecting, due around Christmas. Since this is our first kid there are lots of decisions to be made: breast or bottle, co-sleeping or separate room, natural childbirth or the best drugs money can buy, and of course, disposable or cotton diapers. The last pairing took me by surprise, as I’d always expected to use disposable diapers. The extent of my reflection on this issue ran to thinking of maybe the unbleached or more natural kind, but still firmly within the disposable category. To me, it was a foregone conclusion, since no one uses cotton diapers any more, right? They’re more prone to leak, more work, and generally outdated, there’s no good argument for them!

Not exactly. While we were visiting family in Bolivia in June, my pregnancy was a frequent topic of family discussion (babies are in the air in Miguel’s family — Miguel’s cousin and his wife are due the day after we are, also with their first kid, family conversation often orbited around pregnancy and babies). A few times, one of Miguel’s aunts asked us what we were planning to do – breast or bottle feed? Disposables or cloth? I usually launched into a pro-breastfeeding argument, letting everyone know we would be doing that, but that we would use disposable diapers, causing to a raised eyebrow or two at the mention of disposables.
At one family meal, Tía Lea started talking about the benefits of diapers for babies. Without specifying, she said that one kind of diaper is “unsanitary,” “bad for the baby,” and otherwise just bad for the health of the baby and the family in general.

I assumed that she meant cotton diapers. I was wrong. She looked at me after I said this, and said no, disposable diapers were the ones that were unsanitary because they often get thrown in the street and are hard to dispose of, so waste accumulates in your house. Furthermore, with disposables she thinks that babies don’t learn when they are wet so toilet training is harder, they get more diaper rash, and are exposed to all sorts of absorbent chemicals, meaning they sit in their waste longer than they otherwise would. All of these factors, to her, are bad for the baby and bad for the family, since the baby isn’t learning what it should when it should. To say nothing of the added expense of buying disposables, which to her is bad for the family budget and inconvenient. Most of the family members there — including her son, who had just completed a rotation in obstetrics — agreed with her.

This rattled my preconceptions, to say the least. After returning to the U.S., Miguel brought up the diaper debate again. He said in his family they’ve always used cotton diapers, even after they moved to the U.S., so he’s very comfortable with how to fold them properly so they don’t leak, how to clean them, and so on. I then did some poking around online, and found impassioned arguments for cloth diapers, as well as plenty of families saying that disposables work fine for them. But it seems that the simple diaper + diaper pins of our infancy have been improved upon. Now there are snug, breathable and washable covers that ensure you fold them accurately and reduce leakage, flushable liners that helps reduce clean-up, even “starter packs” that come with everything you’d need (see

The point here is that the attitudes I ran into in Bolivia about something as ubiquitous & pedestrian as diapers flags something profound regarding orientations towards what “convienence” or “sanitary” means, to say nothing of our responsibilities as family members, parents, and perhaps even global citizens. Here in the U.S., we are often told that disposables are better, more sanitary, and more convenient, just as we are similarly convinced of the benefits of bottled water, for instance. What does this say about our attitudes towards “convenience”? Are we too short-sited environmentally? Can we rework our ideas of what is “convenient” to better incorporate factors like the impact on a very local enviroment (i.e. your home), your baby’s perceptions and development, and so forth? It seems that a big problem contributing to the disproportionate environmental impact per U.S. inhabitant is precisely this short-sighted, immediate-gratification, and, most notably, individualistic definition of convenience. But taking Lea’s (as well as many other relatives I spoke to) attitudes towards diapers into account means that we need to understand the plurality of ways that “convenience” “sanitary” and “benefit” can be defined.

PS: We’ve decided we’ll give cloth diapers a shot, at least at first. We might combine with disposables, especially while visiting friends or family for a weekend, but the arguments for using cloth (at least sometimes) are convincing.


One Response

  1. This reminds me of another set of conflicting ideas about sanitation that I discovered while conducting research on food in La Paz. While most gringos and upper-class Bolivians assume that restaurants were more hygenic than street-food, I found that street-food vendors and their clients claimed that their food was healthier because it was always cooked fresh, and never kept from one day to the next.

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