Dear Umbra,

I have a baby on the way. Due to prodding by my wife, I have begun to think about things such as diapers. Babies make a lot of boom-boom, and wrapping it all up in a bundle of plastic diaperness, tossing that in a plastic sack, and then tossing the lot in a landfill seems eco-unfriendly. And reusable diapers are definitely parent-unfriendly, insists my wife. I have seen some all-cotton and paper disposable diapers, but at $1 a pop, I’d have to sell the child to pay for the diapers. Besides, I can’t imagine anything biodegrades 100 feet down in a landfill.

Since my wife has completely vetoed reusable cotton, what are some options to lessen the impact of my baby’s bodily functions on our Earth?

Denver, Colo.

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Dearest Jason,

What about no diapers?

Going au naturel.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The disposable vs. reusable diaper fight is in a stalemate for the foreseeable future. (And it sounds as though mom-to-be has negged the reusable route anyway.) I’ve heard tell of special diapers designed in Sweden, which, like so many things from Sweden, are socially and environmentally superior. Thin, with cornstarch film in place of plastic, and largely compostable, Nature Boy & Girl diapers were designed by an entrepreneurial mother — and they’re now also manufactured and sold in the U.S., for considerably less than a buck a piece. But they’re still single-use objects, and you’re right that not much biodegrades in a landfill.

The no-diaper idea is not mine to claim. People around the world who have no access to diapers manage to raise children, and a small group of parents in diaper-rich countries have decided to follow their lead. Around here, it’s called “elimination communication” or “diaper-free.” The concept is logical and simple: Infants give recognizable signs of imminent peeing and pooping; it’s possible to learn your infant’s signs; infant pee isn’t frightening; and if you train your kid to ignore their outputs, you’ll just have to go back and retrain them when traditional potty-training time arrives.

Diaper-free parents and caregivers learn the telltale signs of elimination and give their own signals of recognition in return. My local experts Dana and Sarah noticed that their daughter squirmed in a particular way when pee was coming. They would say “pee-pee” and hold her over the toilet or sink — this was their go-ahead. The child learned as an infant to refrain from peeing or pooping until these signals had been exchanged. When she started sitting up, they would hold her on a potty; at about 15 months, she went to the toilet on her own. Yes, they missed some pee, but it’s basically water, so they just washed her pants. They’ve never had a problem seeing a poop coming far ahead. (And they did occasionally use diapers while traveling.)

I asked Dana about what kind of parents would be likeliest to succeed with this mind-blowingly logical technique. Her response: Parents and caregivers need to be able to pay close attention to the child, hold him or her most of the time, and — obviously — be comfortable being unusual. If you think you might fit the bill, there are gobs of resources on the web for this retro cutting-edge environmentally friendly scheme. Check out for starters. Be the first in your neighborhood!


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