Dirty Diapers Create…New Diapers?


There are few things as important to new parents as The Diaper.

While you may use organic cotton diapers on your baby at home, it’s not always practical in other settings. The disposable diaper is a convenient feat of modern science—and it’s traditionally been quite a caustic one, too.

Acrylate, the chemical used in the superabsorbent material in diapers, is toxic and produced en masse: billions of tons every year go into diapers (and eventually landfills). Made from propylene (from crude oil) the problem is that acrylate forms a polymer that resists breaking down, leaving them a toxic nightmare in landfills, leaching into waterways and the air, causing pollution and health problems.

But, there may be good news as scientists at Brown University have discovered a new way to produce the chemical with carbon dioxide and an acid, in essence taking a harmful greenhouse gas abundant in the environment, and turning it into a less harmful substance that will eventually go back to the landfill and…well, you probably get the picture, right? A low-impact production cycle that reuses its own byproduct…now that’s novelty.

Published in the journal Organometallics lead researcher chemist Wesley Bernskoetter used chemicals known as Lewis acids in creating the acrylate substance by opening the five-atom ring of oxygen, nickel and three carbon atoms in the molecule. It has proven so successful that scientists are hopeful that it could be scaled up to produce acrylate in industrial settings.

While there are no plans as of yet to produce diapers using the new technology, Bernskoetter is hopeful that it could happen relatively soon. But if you simply can’t wait until then to have a baby, look for environmentally-friendly disposable diaper options at your local health-minded shop.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Carbon NYC

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.