Are you destroying the world with your children? Sure your perfect little noodle of an offspring is contributing their chunk of carbon to our disposable, single-use, landfill culture, but in what other more sinister ways might they be contributing to our ultimate downfall as a species?
Children are the future but what kind of future will it be? Here’s my alarmist rundown, starting with the most obvious offenders:
6. The Diaper Extinction Event
For my Number Six End of The World Scenario Precipitated By Common Baby Products, I present: The Baby Toxic Waste Dump. In the Future of the Baby Toxic Waste Dump, landfills around the world act as both breeding grounds for and storage centers of super pathogens and deadly diseases. You don’t exactly have to build a public park or a nature preserve on top of a landfill (although we do) to risk introducing an antique or souped-up pathogen back into society: contaminated soil and water do the trick just fine. What baby product is driving us ever closer to this disgusting nightmare? Diapers.
The king of planned obsolescence, the captain of throw away industry: disposable diapers are a no brainer to bringing about the end of humanity. The US alone uses about 20-30 billion disposable diapers per year. Each baby uses 10,000 diapers before they are toilet trained. That’s ten thousand bundles of human waste filled plastic bundles per child, the third largest taker of space in our landfills. Disposable diapers sit atop their gigantic mound of a throne, poised to overthrow us.
And what do those bundles contain? (Love. Joy.) Why, feces and urine, of course. You name a kind of pathogenic organism passed through human waste and it’s forcing its way down into the soil and water supply with the leachate. Also, dioxins, organic compounds that form other compounds to make up common environmental pollutants, exposure to which is “highly toxic and able to cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.” But I don’t even have to go into dioxins or dioxin-like compounds to construct this particular baby-pocolypse. We’ll stick with communicable disease here.
William Rathje (RIP), of the Garbage Project, famously said that you can still read the print on a fifty year old newspaper excavated from a landfill. In fact, archaeologists often work from the landfills of the past to reconstruct life in ancient societies. Oxford researchers are still working on piecing together writings over 2,000 years old found in Egyptian trash in 1896 by other, now dead, Oxford researchers. We throw away things that we’ve made, bought, eaten, and used. We throw away disposable diapers.
But are they? Disposable? If a fully biodegradable paper product is not breaking down in the weird, anaerobic conditions of a landfill, what is happening to that festering disease and carcinogen stew (the disposable diaper) that we put on the stove in the 1950s? Diapering is a huge industry. We basically spend $3.5 billion dollars per year to create semi-permanent, leaky time capsules of human waste and dangerous chemicals. Great, so what are we storing in there for future generations of grad students to uncover?
Well, for starters, antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Researchers studying E.coli (Esherichia coli) in landfill leachate propose that landfills containing human and animal waste, dirty diapers, etc. as well as various types of medicines may pick up antibiotic-resistant properties during their long landfill incubation. Over 80% of the E.coli tested in one study was found to be antibiotic-resistant. It was also found that anaerobic landfill operations (most landfills: tightly compacted, lacking oxygen) had greater resistance to antibiotics as compared to semi-aerobic landfill operations. Yikes. We’re creating bacterial gymnasiums to go beef up and check out the competition before having to hit the streets.
Also, live viruses, like polio, from childhood vaccines. A 1978 study of enteroviruses in 21 US and Canadian landfills found polio virus in one landfill (a not-exactly statistically significant revelation). Though the Americas have been polio-free since 1994, it’s worth noting that Israel recently discovered polio virus in their sewage, despite being polio-free since 1988. Oral (live virus) polio vaccines haven’t been used in the US since 2000 (but are still in much of the world), so fingers crossed that all of the diapers containing waste from babies having received live virus vaccines or been carrying random viruses (another study: “babies are the most effective carriers of enteroviruses”) have been handled properly by landfill managers. Many are quick to point out that if diapers in landfills were a problem for nearby people, almost everyone would be dead already. True, that hasn’t happened yet.
It’s estimated to take $300,000 per acre to prepare landfills for contact with people. From waste water treatment to leachate collection, to barriers to keep out burrowing animals, to settling, it’s an expensive and time consuming process. You should be very concerned about this direct mingling of sewage waste into the environment. In my alarmist scenario, a couple of economic downturns later, no one is spending the money to maintain these areas. No one is remediating them. Animals are getting in. Sludge is getting out. Maybe a few careless Ph.d candidates start poking around for research. Then BOOM! Super disease explosion.
I’m just saying, it’s a thing that might happen because of disposable diapers.
Please Save Us From Our Tiniest Selves
The good news? Oyster mushrooms. When are mushrooms ever not the answer? Mycoremediation, performed in this case by Alethia Vázquez-Morillas of the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City and her Pleurotus ostreatus, exploits the cellulose degrading enzymes to break down 90% of the materials in a disposable diaper in two months’ time and degraded them completely within four months. The better news? The mushrooms are edible! According to Vázquez-Morillas, (who has apparently eaten them!), they are “cleaner than most of the vegetables you can find in the market, at least in Mexico.” You heard that right: do not travel in Mexico.
About those pesky diseases that might be found in the diapers? The oyster mushroom team steamed the diapers, which contained only urine, to kill any pathogens.
Other fungi are getting press for breaking down plastics. The endophyte, Pestalotiopsis microspora, found in the Amazon by a team of Yale researchers, demonstrated its ability to break down polyester polyurethane, both aerobically and anaerobically.
Even so, if you or anyone you know has a baby, it might be time to start stock-piling canned goods.
By The Way
If you’re feeling smug about your cotton diapers, know that cotton production is water-, pesticide-, and bleach-hungry. If you’re satisfied knowing that your pure white nappies are responsible for the creation of chlorinated organic compounds, estrogen mimickers that disrupt the functioning of life on earth in ways we are just beginning to understand, then be my guest. Go ahead and use those cloth diapers.
Part 1 of 6
© 2013 The Futurist Episodic
- Molecular Biological Detection of Anaerobic Gut Fungi (Neocallimastigales) from Landfill Sites (American Society of Microbiology) I didn’t use this one. Just a kind of cool study on gut fungi found in landfills.
- Your Green Life: “Little Neetchers” (northlandsnewscenter.com)
- What Goes into Bay Area Landfills (infotainmentnews.net)