A Conversation with Tim about Cloth Diapers and the Earth

When the Sparling family invested in Tiny Tots Diaper Service in 1966, it was safe to say that they likely were not motivated by concerns over the environmental impact of single-use disposable diapers. Speaking to one of the current owners of Tiny Tots, Tim Aagard, you can really start to get a sense of when cloth diapering grew in popularity in the states. Though the conversation regarding disposable diapers and landfills has been going on for decades, there was definitely a “golden age” for cloth diapering. Curious about when Tiny Tots made the move to a commercial washing house from their roots on Railway Avenue in Campbell, I asked what motivated the move in the early 1990’s.

“We had piles of diapers encroaching in on Sam Cava. Just huge piles of bags of dirty diapers waiting to be counted. We were just pushing the limits on the size of the building and the inventory we had to run through here.” At this time, Tiny Tots was servicing over 15,000 households a week.

Such a shocking amount of consumers used cloth compared to nowadays. It seems so interesting considering how much more information is available now regarding the lifespan of single use diapers and the waning space in our landfills globally. Tim attributes the 90’s cloth diaper boom to the conversations that were being had openly at the time regarding this global issue. “That was when the media nationwide was pushing the huge waste problem in America, and that paper diapers were a large percentage of that in terms of the consumer choices being made… and so they talked about it a lot.”

Tiny Tots was happy to be a part of the conversation, leading the Diaper Service Industry in innovations to make the process more environmentally sound and utilize the least amount of resources necessary. For their efforts, they won 1st place in the State of California for the best Resource Reduction Program when they switched to using continuous batch washers to launder diapers. These washers reduced water use and increased efficiency by reusing the water several times in the wash process, and using heat reclaimers to preheat the water in the washing system so it does not have to be heated as much or as often during a cycle.

They were also early to the table regarding conversations being had around Chlorine Bleach. They long ago made the switch to using oxidized bleach to launder the diapers. This bleach activates at a much lower temperature, meaning more efficient use of energy to heat the water - plus it is less harsh for the environment or to be in contact with. Though not without limitations and challenges - such as more effort spent pre-treating stains on the diapers - it was a more healthy choice overall so they went for it.

"It is also a very efficient use of water. We can wash a days worth of diapers in the amount of water that it takes to flush the toilet once."

Running a business can have it’s share of challenges, and a diaper service has some really unique hurdles. Curious about how the drought has been affecting the laundering process, I asked about the water issue. “Well I think one thing,” Tim starts, “is people think that we use a lot of water. So, it’s consuming the water. But the water is never consumed. It just returns back to the environment. It gets cleaned, and gets reused again. It doesn’t go to some giant water landfill - never to be used again. It is also a very efficient use of water. We can wash a days worth of diapers in the amount of water that it takes to flush the toilet once.” Working at a diaper service, a good deal of time can be spent arguing semantics over things like water use vs. landfill use, but to Tim it all comes down to one very basic concept: Source Reduction. “Reuse is a huge step forward in source reduction… To simply wash something is one of the simplest things you can do to reuse it! Reusing something is in so many ways a far better use of resources over and over again versus sourcing materials, manufacturing materials, distributing materials, selling materials, buying materials, and then garbaging the materials.”

Though this concept seems quite straightforward, it is one that the general population has a hard time getting behind. People who know about the effect of disposable diapers on the environment will still choose them for the convenience, and politicians who make it a point to advocate for environmental protections and resource management, won’t put their support behind the Cloth Diaper movement. “It’s been hard for us to understand why it seems to us that city and county and state officials who also believe in conserving the environment don’t give the cloth diaper industry any support when they are promoting reduce, reuse, recycle. They will not mention the diaper issue – they leave it off the list.” When Tiny Tots and other Cloth Diaper Industry advocates sunk over $10,000 into lobbying MediCal to cover cloth diaper service for incontinent adults, they had few politicians willing to take up their cause. Here, Representatives were presented with a meaningful way to decrease pollution in a rapidly expanding market of adult incontinence products and nobody rose to the occasion.

The topic of compostable diapers came up. Recently, Tiny Tots started offering a compost diaper option along with it’s cloth service. Tim of course hammered home the Reuse vs. Single Use point one more time, and settled back to address the convenience of disposable diapering. “A lot of people say ‘Oh, we feel guilty using paper diapers’ but they wouldn’t have to feel guilty if they would just be willing to invest a little extra time. 30 to 40 seconds per change. That’s all.”

Like many other industries, there are lots of misconceptions regarding cloth diapering, and lots of misinformation.

Like many other industries, there are lots of misconceptions regarding cloth diapering, and lots of misinformation. It is going to take work from passionate Cloth Diaper Advocates like Tim and the crew at Tiny Tots to keep pushing the benefits of reuse. To him, it will first take a shift in consumer awareness about the actual costs associated with something like a single-use diaper. “The true cost of throw-away diapers is not realized by the consumers, because everyone shares the cost of their disposal. There is no cost for their disposal that they are not already paying.” With emerging models such as the compost service where consumers pay for the diapers and the associated cost of composting them, we may see more people start to recognize the responsibility we should have in disposal of things once we have finished using them. We can all be more aware of our environmental footprints, and our diapering choices are just one of many ways to start this conversation this Earth Day.