By Keith R | July 2, 2007
In May a Mexican multinational, Grupo PI Mabe (better known as “Mabesa”) announced the launch of a new, “environment friendly” premium disposable diaper brand to be known as “Bio Baby.” They plan to focus first on the Mexican baby market, but hope to soon offer it in the other 35 countries they operate in, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, and perhaps even Portugal and Spain.
Mabesa says that it has invested 10 years and over 100 million pesos in developing and testing the Bio Baby diaper (or “nappy,” as my British friends call them). What makes it different from the regular disposable diaper?
Characteristics of the Bio-Baby Diaper
Well, the part enveloping baby’s bottom is made with organic cotton. The layer is treated with oils of ylang-ylang, geranium, lavender and chamomile.
The impermeable plastic layers (to keep — ahem, stuff — from escaping the diaper) are made with polylactic acid (PLA), the biodegradable polymer made from corn starch, sugarcane, potatoes or other highly starchy substance. Mabesa says that the two impermeable layers are biodegradable in either aerobic (with oxygen) or anaerobic (without oxygen) conditions, meaning that it should degrade even in landfill conditions (the plastic used in most disposable diapers would take hundreds of years to degrade under the best conditions, which one cannot find in landfills). According to Mabesa, tests show that the internal impermeable layer will biodegrade in 3-6 years (depending on conditions), and the outer layer within three years.
Mabesa does not say what else is in Bio-Baby diapers, but my guess would be that it includes some of the bleached cellulose and super-absorbant sodium polyacrylate gel that most disposable diapers use these days. If not, I would be interested in knowing what else they use.
The Pluses and Minuses
The Clear Pluses. First off, let me say I’m pleased that Mabesa, a 100% Mexican owned enterprise, saw enough of a market in Mexico for an environmentally-friendly product that they invested 10 years and over 100 million pesos in developing one. Lord knows I have heard many people, Mexican and non-Mexican, that claimed that the Mexican market cannot yet support a true green product. Maybe Mabesa will prove them wrong.
Second, I’m also happy that they believe there is a similar market to be tapped elsewhere in Latin America. That is encouraging.
Third, I appreciate that at least for the parts of the diaper not concerned with impermeable barriers, elastic and closures, some (Mabesa reports are careful not to say all) is made from organic cotton instead of paper products. If the cotton is truly, certifiably organically grown, then substituting it for bleached pulp probably is a net environmental plus — although I have not seen the life-cycle analysis to assure me that is so.
What “Biodegradable” Signifies and Doesn’t Signify. Which brings us to the biodegradability claim. Mabesa claims that Bio-Baby is 50% made from natural materials or biodegradable, whereas ordinary disposable diapers are only 20-25%. If you heard that claim in passing on the radio or read it quickly in the press, you might come away thinking that they are saying that half of their product is biodegradable. No. Note the “or.” Either natural or biodegradable, but not both. The precise percentage that is actually biodegradable is not revealed. Clever phrasing on their part makes “50%” stick in your mind, when it’s actually less so.
But even if we take 50% as biodegradable for the moment for the sake of argument, that still means that at least half of every soiled Bio-Baby diaper that goes to the landfill stays there.
How serious a problem is that? Well, in the last waste composition figures for Mexico that include disposable diapers as a separate line item (SEDESOL, 1999, cited in my book), these diapers constituted 8.3% of municipal solid wastes (MSW) in landfills and dumps in Northern states, 6% in Center states, 5.7% in the Southern states and 3.4% in the Federal District — rates that rival plastic wastes and are higher than rates for disposable diapers in US MSW during the same period. How much have things changed since then? Hard to say exactly, but the 2004 figures group disposable diapers with “fine wastes,’ a sub-category that during the 1990s was in steady decline to where they constituted 1/3-1/4 as much by weight as diapers — the 2004 data says that the new combined category in the 2004 data constitutes about 17%.
You do the math. My conclusion is that disposable diapers continue to grow as a percentage of MSW in Mexico.
As for the other countries in which Mabesa plans to market Bio-Baby, it’s hard to say what percentage disposable diapers are of MSW because none of the governments there treat them as a separate line item in waste composition studies. But I suspect that it’s roughly analogous.
What I am saying is, even if you cut that figure in half, you are only slowing the growth of disposable diapers’ share of the MSW disposal problem — you are not stopping it or reducing it.
Let’s go back to those biodegradable components for a minute. The PLA components, we are told, will biodegrade in 3-6 years, with or without oxygen. But they constitute a small portion, in weight and volume, of the diaper.
What about the organic cotton? Yes, it also will biodegrade, but the rate at which it does so varies considerably depending on conditions such as moisture, heat and presence of oxygen. Under ideal conditions, most cotton items will begin decomposing within weeks. Absent such conditions, it can literally take hundreds of years. Ask some of the garbologists who specialize in digging through old, closed landfills how many cotton clothes from bygone eras that they still find in recognizable shape, and you might be surprised.
But Can’t You Compost Them? Some disposable diaper advocates will likely by this point rise to point out that disposables are compostable. Yes and no. You can compost or vermicompost them, but because of the pathogens in human feces in soiled diapers, they should not be used in compost intended for growing food (it’s also why they really should not go into landfills either, where there may be a risk of contaminating surrounding water bodies). For this reason, they are usually not permitted in municipal composting programs where such programs exist (and in Mexico, frankly, are very few and limited at this point).
Cloth vs. Disposable Diapers. This is one of those longstanding, classic environmental battles, like choosing between paper and plastic carry bags at the supermarket. I’m not going to reiterate it here, and instead point you to some sites that discuss the state of that debate (here, here and here) in the industrialized world context.
Why do I phrase it that way? Because I have yet to see a solid cradle-to-grave life-cycle analysis (LCA) done on what is the best option in the contexts prevalent in most Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) nations.
How could the conditions possibly differ in any significant fashion, you ask. More than you might think. LCA’s on diapers that I have seen assume certain energy and water consumption rates, availability of sewage treatment, waste collection and disposal services, and other factors that can differ significantly in the LAC context.
For example, when a study assumes a certain usage of the household clothes washer to launder cloth diapers and the average water and energy efficiency those washers have, what happens in places in LAC where many households do not even have a washer, and if they do, they have an older, less efficient model? Or what is the risk of water and air contamination from soiled disposable diapers in LAC nations where uncontrolled dumps are the norm rather than sanitary landfills? Or can you assume it is environmentally preferable to remove fecal matter from diapers and flush it down household toilets (assuming they have a working one, not always the case) when the sewage in that city is not actually treated, or is treated in only the most rudimentary fashion? How does the fact that the household may only have running water and working electricity a few hours in the day (as in many parts of the Dominican Republic) affect the calculations?
My own intuitive guess is that in most circumstances, a complete LCA would find reusable cloth diapers environmentally preferable to disposables, even partially biodegradable diapers with organic cotton in them, except in areas where water conservation is a significant concern. But I don’t have the data to back that up — not yet, at least.
Meanwhile, I would probably recommend to anyone who asked to use cloth diapers during the day when baby is at home, and perhaps biodegradable diapers such as Bio-Baby at night or during travel (when, ahem, containment is more of a concern) or in contexts such as day-care centers (if they are like the States or the kindergarten my kids attended in the DR, they will require disposables, no choice allowed).
Yes, it’s not easy remaining green while caring for baby. Take it from the father of twins.
— Keith R
Tags: aerobic, algodón orgánico, anaerobic, Argentina, Bio Baby, biodegradable, biodegradável, Brazil, chamomile, Chile, cloth diapers, Colombia, compostable, compostável, desechos, diapers, disposable diapers, geranium, Grupo PI Mabe, landfills, lavender, life-cycle analysis, Mabesa, Mexico, nappies, organic cotton, pañales desechables, PLA, polylactic acid, residuos, sodium polyacrylate gel, Uruguay, waste, ylang-ylang