To counter arguments that cloth is environmentally preferable, the Procter & Gamble Company, which has about half the $3.6-billion-a-year disposable diaper market, commissioned a life-cycle study of both types by a well-known consulting company, Arthur D. Little Inc.
The Little report found that disposable diapers consume seven times more raw material - most of it cellulose from trees - and generate 90 times more solid waste than cloth diapers. But it also found that using a diaper service consumes three times as much fuel - a nonrenewable resource - and generates nine times as much air pollution.
''Neither disposable nor re-usable diapers are clearly superior in the various resource and environmental impact categories considered in this analysis,'' the study concluded.
Some environmental leaders also say that both types of diapers have ecological drawbacks and that neither is clearly preferable. One is Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York, a legal group specializing in environmental issues.
There are ''compelling ambiguities'' in the arguments over disposable versus cloth, he said, although he was critical of the Little study for ignoring the impact of pesticide use in cotton fields.
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''The Earth does not benefit from symbolic gestures,'' he said. ''People are wrong to think that simply using cloth diapers puts them on a higher moral plateau.''
In the longer term, the environmental problems caused by cloth diapers may be easier to solve, Dr. Hershkowitz said. More fuel-efficient trucks would reduce energy consumption and air pollution, and washing systems can be altered to reduce energy use and water pollution. For their part, Procter & Gamble officials say that disposable diapers could be composted once the outer plastic layer is removed, a technique the company has experimentally tried.
In a letter to the National Resources Defense Council, Edward Groth 3d, the associate technical director of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, said he had conducted a similar study of disposable and cloth diapers in 1987. ''I came to the same conclusion you did, i.e., that there is no clear winner and each poses its own set of environmental problems.''
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The disposable-vs.-cloth debate is far from over. ''We have a lot of questions about the assumptions in the Little study,'' said Ann Beaudry, a consultant to National Association of Diaper Services. The study assumes an average of 1.9 cloth diapers per change compared with 1.0 for disposables. ''People don't routinely double-diaper,'' she said. ''Those assumptions can have a big impact on the outcome.''
Assessing the Impact
Jackie Prince, a solid-waste analyst at the Defense Fund, a lobbying group in New York, was also critical of the 1.9-diaper assumption. ''If that is the best that P. & G. can do, it will be difficult to use this kind of study to make public policy,'' she said. Several states, including New York, have considered legislation favoring cloth diapers.
The Little study traces both types of diapers from raw materials to eventual disposal, assessing the impact on the environment at each stage. Anthony Montrone, one of the principal authors of the report, said the researchers decided to exclude issues like pesticide runoff and habitat destruction. ''It was basically a decision of how many unknowns to include,'' he said.
The Little report notes that disposables are more than a convenience for the increasing numbers of mothers who work. ''The so-called 'disposable society' did not just happen, and products like disposable diapers were created in response to significant societal needs,'' it said.
For parents, the ambiguities may be frustrating. Or they may offer a measure of relief from guilt at the supermarket.>