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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Product That Makes Al Gore Cry

A generous acquaintance with two year old twins gave us pairs of cribs, carseats, strollers, high chairs, and a changing table in anticipation of the arrival of our son. Along with this largesse came a Diaper Genie, a tall vertical diaper pail with a twistable dial on top. The Diaper Genie is a device with a dirty purpose, and it holds a dirty little secret.

I was dismayed to see it. I had heard of it, and knew the basic principle: the Genie contains a nearly-endless tube of plastic bagging. As each diaper is placed in the machine, a little mechanism lets you twist the bagging around it, sealing in the stench. Each stinkbomb is separated by a new twist of the plastic. When the pail is full, a little blade cuts the tube, you tie a little knot, and throw the long twisty thing away.

Here are the problems. Each diaper is now wrapped securely in a wasteful length of the plastic bagging. Once it reaches the landfill, it will remain seperate from other waste, unexposed to the air and bacteria that will break it down. Time slows for each diaper and its contents. How long will it remain there, untouched by the natural processes that would return the organic matter to the soil?

In a better world, baby waste would go the same place as adult waste. Sewer systems and even septic tanks ultimately follow nature's course: wastes are broken down by bacteria, and water and organic matter ends up back in the ecosystem. The advent of disposable diapers circumvents this process for baby feces: wrapped in plastic, absorbed by chemical gels and layers of padding, the cacapoopoo sits in the landfills. Thanks to the Diaper Genie, one extra layer of plastic seals it from the outside world.

Our generous friend gave us three of the plastic bag refill cartridges as well. We decided to use them up since they'd already been purchased. And here's the point in the story where Al Gore mists up.

The darn thing works. It works very well. There is no diaper smell in the nursery, only that wonderful roses-and-vanilla blend that scents baby powder and lotions. It's easy to empty and add the refill cartridges. We put a Curious George sticker on it, and now it's even cute.

Of course, the day came when we ran out of refills. Should we buy more, and join the conspiracy against smaller landfills? Should we turn in our Diaper Genie, our seductive environmental criminal who steals away the poopie-stinkies like a thief in the night? Has my "criminal" metaphor gone to far?

We bought more. So here I sit in my glass house, juggling two throwing-stones and a dirty diaper. I criticize the product -- an odorless diaper pail comes at a high environmental cost. Ultimately I criticize myself for accepting that cost.

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