The Dirt on Diapers

‘Green’ diaper company wants to keep things clean
The life span of a disposable diaper is interminable. From the time one is thrown out and schlepped away to the nearest landfill, to the point when it has completely broken down can be up to 500 years. It will still be slowly rotting at the bottom of a toxic pit long after you, and your diaper-wearing bundle of joy, are gone.

According to Karen Nelsen, one of the founders of the EarthBaby diaper company, disposable diapers are the third largest single consumer item in landfills, preceded only by paper (Number One) and beverage containers. (Both of which are recyclable—go figure). The Bay Area alone contributes 375 million diapers to landfills each year, she says

“We put [a diaper] in our garbage can, it gets carted away and we forget about it,” Nelsen says. “Disposable diapers are really horrible things that we’ve become accustomed to in our culture. Single use and then into the landfill.”

Even diapers that claim to be “environmentally friendly” or compostable have the same drawn-out landfill fate if they are disposed of improperly. That’s where EarthBaby comes in.

The company, which launched in December 2008, is a compostable baby diaper service: it delivers compostable diaper products to clients’ doorsteps, picks up the soiled diapers once a week, and then has them professionally composted. EarthBaby has composted 29,220 pounds of diapers to date.

“We are providing the means to actually end the cycle, to do what these diapers were designed to do—break down into top soil which in turn enriches the earth,” says Nelsen. Whereas a diaper in a landfill will take three to 500 years to break down, a composted diaper does so in just three months.

EarthBaby founders Nelsen and Mark Siminoff were inspired to create a service-based diaper company that would alleviate the massive and toxic role of diapers in our country’s landfills. Because not only is the sheer mass of soiled disposable diapers stacking up at our dumps a problem, so are the chemicals and gases they release. Conventional disposable diapers are made from oil-based plastics and use bleached materials, a by-product of which—dioxin—is one of main chemical toxins in our groundwater. The company’s vision was to curb the congregation of diapers in landfills, and thus deter subsequent toxic soups from seeping into the earth.
EarthBaby diapers are made from corn-based plastics and wood by-products, and boast of looking, feeling and performing like regular disposable diapers.

The response has been huge, and in only seven months the company has gone from serving a small group of families in Mountain View (where they are based) to 17 nearby cities, including Santa Cruz. EarthBaby will launch in San Francisco next week.

Nelsen, who has lived in Santa Cruz for 16 years, says that one of the company’s main messages is to be wary of things labelled as “environmentally friendly.” She points to packaging on some disposable diapers that tag themselves as eco-this or eco-that but don’t promote proper disposal practices. She warns that, “We all want to be environmentally responsible … but we can still be led astray by labels on packaging.”

She compares this snag to the mandate in Santa Cruz that all to-go materials at restaurants be compostable. “Unless we’re composting it, and sending it to the right place, it also is just going into a landfill. It can’t break down in that environment,” she says. In the case of diapers, EarthBaby is making it easier for consumers of compostable baby products to finish out the environmentally responsible cycle; diverting two tons of compostable diapers a week from landfills to a facility where they can live out their destiny of becoming nutrient-rich top soil.

Nelsen receives a stream of e-mails from as far as the Deep South and East Coast pleading for EarthBaby to service their region. And if their growth in their first few months is indicative of the demand for their product, it is likely they will someday reach the rest of the country. But for now, says Nelsen, the company is taking baby steps, and simply “changing the planet, one diaper at a time.”

Contributor at Good Times |

Elizabeth Limbach is a writer and editor based in Santa Cruz, Calif., and the former Managing Editor of Good Times Weekly. While at Good Times, she won six California Newspaper Publishers Association awards including First Place in the category of Best Writing for “Learning to Love Autism” (2011) and “Breaking the Silence” (2013). Her freelance work has been published by,, American Way, Ms., Sierra Magazine, E – The Environmental Magazine, Edible Monterey Bay and Edible Silicon Valley, among others. Find her online at

To Top