Carolyn Cooper: Changing Dirty Diapers On Earth Day


Carolyn Cooper defends the Earth in his latest column for Jamaica’s Gleaner.

Last Monday was Earth Day, and one of the big issues environmentalists took up is the foul problem of disposable diapers. We really do have to go back to the good old days of reusable cloth diapers. Remember those bright white nappies on the clothes line, fluttering in the breeze? We’ve given up on them and progressed to throwaway diapers. Sometimes, what looks like progress is pure backwardness.

Washing dirty diapers is not a pretty job, especially if you have to do it by hand. Women usually end up doing the smelly work. Men have a nasty way of getting out of unpleasant domestic duties. But when you see the statistics about the environmental impact of disposable diapers, you quickly realise that recycling diapers is the smart thing to do.

According to an Earth Day special on YouTube, the average baby spends two and a half years in diapers, using four or more each day. This amounts to approximately 3,796 diapers per baby. If you take into account the prospect of ‘once a man, twice a child’, you also have to add adult diapers at the other end of the cycle.

It takes about half a pint of crude oil to make the plastic lining in each disposable diaper. That comes to 1,898 pints of oil and 715lb of plastic per child. The pulp of four and a half trees is needed to make the soft inner padding for two and a half years’ worth of disposable diapers. Eighteen billion disposable diapers are added to US landfills each year, and they take 500 years to biodegrade.


Then there’s the cost. Reusable diapers are so much cheaper than disposables. And with the IMF breathing down our neck, we might soon have to dispose of even toilet paper. There are so many substandard brands on the market, we might as well stick to personal washcloths, the pedigree of which we can be sure about.

Seriously, though, in many cultures across the globe, water is used instead of toilet paper. It’s seen as much more sanitary. All the same, I don’t think Jamaicans are ready to give up toilet paper. But we certainly know how to ‘tun wi han mek fashion’. We’ve learnt to ‘upcycle’ newspaper, refashioning it as toilet paper. And since a lot of newsprint can quite easily be mistaken for you know what, this seems perfectly appropriate. Incidentally, newspaper with lots of coloured ink is not as good for the bum as classic black and white. Be observant.

In the brilliant documentary Songs of Redemption, set in the General Penitentiary, one of the inmates shows how newspaper is converted into a toilet. You squat, do your thing, and wrap it all up. This disturbing, yet hopeful film is part of the Africa World Documentary Film Festival at the University of the West Indies, which ends today. Eight films will be shown in the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre starting at 2 p.m. Admission is free.


Another devastating environmental issue is deforestation. No, this is not another warning about the proposed ‘development’ on Long Mountain. I hope sanity has prevailed over greed and those protected lands will remain undisturbed. The burning issue is charcoal. Why are we cutting down our forests to make charcoal for export? It would be bad enough for our own consumption. Why are we selling our children’s future to foreigners? Soon, Jamaica will be the land of dead wood and no water.

Then there’s the threat of mining in Cockpit Country, the heartland of Jamaica. It’s not over. A prospecting licence for an area that includes Accompong has not yet been revoked. There’s also the tricky business of defining the boundaries of Cockpit Country. It’s a vast expanse of land, about 500 square miles. If the ‘experts’ have their way, a relatively small area will be defined as ‘Cockpit Country’. This will make it quite easy to actually mine in Cockpit Country under the guise that this isn’t Cockpit Country, after all.

And as for our beaches! They are now disposable, just like dirty diapers. In Negril, morass has been drained, seagrass has been dug out, mangroves have been destroyed and sand has been eroded – all in the name of progress. We are now trying to ‘glue’ the sand back together with ShoreLock, an imported product. It’s a perverse cycle: cut down the trees and export coal; destroy the beaches and import artificial sand.

The environmental problems are also out at sea. Jamaica is one of the most overfished countries in the Caribbean. Proverbial wisdom comfortingly claims, “Massa God fish can’t done.” But this is one proverb we have to take with much more than a grain of salt. The Jamaican fishing industry is, in fact, ‘done-ing’ because we haven’t done enough to conserve our fishing grounds.

My friend, Dr Esther Figueroa, has made several compelling documentary films on environmental issues in Jamaica. They should be used in schools. I won’t say like Vybz Kartel’s book. Incidentally, there were 75 comments in response to that column, and I would bet my last sprat that not even five of those readers who questioned my sanity have read the book.

Dr Figueroa’s troubling films Massa God Fish Can Done and Protecting Pedro focus on fishery conservation. She’s also done an engaging film, Cockpit Country is Our Home, in which the flora and fauna of this magnificent place assume human form and talk about their endangered habitat. Esther also did an unsettling documentary on the ruination of Falmouth: wetlands dumped up, mangroves destroyed and the coral reef systematically smashed to make way for cruise ships. All of these videos and more are on YouTube.

Earth Day can’t be reduced to a solitary day of reflection on our ecosystem. Every single day should be earth (and sea) day. Deforestation, overfishing, sand erosion, pollution of rivers, destruction of mangroves and coral reefs, mining on protected lands – these must all become our everyday concerns. Environmental issues are not easily disposable. Like wasteful diapers, they don’t just simply biodegrade.

For the original report go to

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