Legislature to Decide Diaper War Proposals : Ecology: A lawmaker wants to encourage use of cloth diapers because of environmental concerns. Some business giants oppose the idea of warning labels on the disposable variety.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's cloth vs. disposable. Environmentalism vs. convenience. Manufacturers vs. delivery services.

The Diaper Wars are heating up in the Legislature.

Assemblywoman Lucy Killea (D-San Diego) has introduced legislation--bitterly opposed by such industry giants as Proctor & Gamble--to encourage parents to swaddle their babies in reusable cloth diapers instead of the more common disposable variety.

One of Killea's bills would tack a label on all disposable diapers, warning that "single-use disposable diapers pose significant environmental problems and costs when disposed. The state of California recommends that you consider reuseable diapers for your daily diaper needs." The other bill would require all day-care centers to give parents the option of wrapping their children in cloth diapers.

Environmentalist groups such as the Sierra Club strongly support Killea's legislation because they believe that disposable diapers are a major environmental hazard. Every year, Californians dispose of 2.5 billion plastic diapers--enough to cover a 10-foot-wide strip of Interstate 5 from the Mexican border to Oregon, according to Craig Reynolds, Killea's chief of staff. He said that it costs $50 million annually to dispose of all those diapers.

Killea said she is "confident" that warning labels will reduce the use of disposable diapers. "When people find out about the problems of disposable diapers, their immediate reaction is, 'Oh, I may not be able to give up disposable diapers all the time but it's a good argument,' " she said. "It will have an effect."

Diaper manufacturers argue that while Killea's legislation may hurt their sales, it will not have a significant impact on the amount of waste headed for California landfills.

"Disposable diapers contribute less than 2% of the entire flow into solid waste landfills," said Victor F. Stefan, a Sacramento lobbyist for Proctor & Gamble. "There's no reason for banning disposable diapers since they have such a small effect on the landfills."

When told of Stefan's comments, Sierra Club lobbyist Gordon Hart exclaimed: "Only 2%? My gracious! You know how many consumer goods there are--and it's incredible if one of those goods represents 2% of the waste stream, especially when there's an obvious alternative for it."

Killea's bill requiring day-care centers to give parents the option of using cloth diapers passed the Senate unanimously, breezed through two Assembly committees, and is scheduled for an Assembly floor vote this week.

The bill requiring the warning label on disposable diapers has had rougher sledding. It was rejected by a Senate committee but reintroduced in the Assembly, where it passed one committee and is scheduled to be heard by the powerful Assembly Ways and Means Committee this week.

The prospects for the child-care bill becoming law are considered better than the warning bill's chances. Supporters fear that Gov. George Deukmejian, who has not taken a stand on the issue, may object to the warning bill because of its perceived anti-business slant.

The cloth vs. disposable diapers debate has sprung up in recent years as part of a general wave of environmentalism. Disposable diapers started to dominate the market in the 1960s, and now account for 85% of all diaper sales. But many parents have begun to rebel against the plastic underpants, leading to a resurgence of the more traditional cloth variety.

Cloth diapers, often reused as many as 85 times, cost about the same or a little less to buy than the disposable diapers, which usually run 20 cents to 25 cents per diaper. Parents can also use one of the resurgent diaper services.

Dy-Dee Diaper Service--one of the largest delivery companies in Southern California--has experienced 200% growth during the last two years, President Tim O'Neil said. Dy-Dee serves 22,000 customers in Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties who pay $12.80 per week for 90 cloth diapers delivered to their doors, he said.

O'Neil attributed his company's phenomenal growth not only to increased environmental awareness, but to what he described as the health benefits of cloth diapers. The cotton diapers breathe more easily than plastic diapers, they are treated with a "germ fighter," and their acid level is individually adjusted for each baby, he said.

Robert W. Stewart, a spokesman for Proctor & Gamble in Cincinnati, argued that disposable diapers are more convenient as well as more healthy than cloth underpants. The plastic diapers are designed with a layer close to the baby's skin that absorbs liquid and prevents babies from getting an infection or diaper rash, he said.

Stewart said that a recent study conducted for his company by the management consulting firm of Arthur D. Little Inc. found that cloth diapers have no environmental advantage over their disposable counterparts. "Cloth diapers consume more water, release higher levels of total water pollutants and emit higher levels of total air pollution," he said.

The Sierra Club's Hart strongly disagreed. Citing the landfill problem as well as the hazardous wastes emitted during the manufacture of disposable diapers, he said: "I think the environmental community is quite convinced that any (negative) impacts from cloth diapers are clearly outweighed by the harmful impact of disposable diapers on the environment."

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