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City Council Takes the Lead in Cloth Diapering Advocacy
Winter 2006

The city government of Sunnyvale, California, re-launched an exciting campaign to promote cloth diapers. Several years ago, waste management officials in this Bay Area city decided that it was in their best interest to advocate cloth diapers to the city’s residents. The issue has been on the back burner for the last few years, but last spring, on Earth Day, Sunnyvale kicked off a fresh campaign to get parents to consider cloth diapers for their babies.

The issue of diaper waste was first brought to the attention of the Sunnyvale City Council over ten years ago, when a local parent complained to the council that her day care provider would not let her use cloth diapers for her child. Members of the city council were intrigued to know how disposable diapers might be increasing garbage collection rates for the city, so they hired consultants to conduct a study of the city’s waste at the Sunnyvale Materials Recovery and Transfer (SMaRT) station. The study showed that diapers were the single largest consumer good in Sunnyvale's trash, with 840 tons of disposable diapers thrown away each year at a cost of more than $110,000 for the local government. City officials found this to be an enormous waste of money and decided to do something about it.

The city’s solid waste program manager, Mark Bowers, told me that the Solid Waste and Recycling department in Sunnyvale weighed their options. They realized it was unrealistic to opt for a city ban on disposable diapers, since it would anger and alienate some residents of the city. It would also be unproductive, since people would just buy disposable diapers in a nearby city. As an environmentally-minded parent who used cloth diapers on his own children, Bowers suggested that the city launch a public education and outreach program to encourage cloth diaper use, which was approved unanimously by the city council.

“Throwaway diapers are tremendous use of resources that personally offends me,” says Bowers, who was thrilled to be part of a campaign to promote cloth diapers. He said if disposable diapers suddenly disappeared, “There could be a two percent reduction in monthly residential garbage rates in Sunnyvale.”

After several years, this campaign is finally off the ground. As with any bureaucracy, the issues of money, time, and priorities have been problems. Bowers says that, over the years, consumer electronics disposal, hazardous waste and water pollution among other issues have taken priority. He also mentions that only 4% of the 130,000 residents of Sunnyvale are children of diapering age. “Their parents make up a small group that is hard to reach.”

Richard Gurney, the Recycling Coordinator in Sunnyvale, agrees that marketing for this issue can be difficult. Most local newspapers ignored their press releases and would not write a story about it. Even if they were interested, Gurney says, “Local articles would not help the issue. Most newspaper readers are older people who are not in our target audience. We need to reach out to daycares, birth instructors, and hospitals.”

Still, Bowers and others in the Solid Waste Division, like Dorlene Russell, the Environmental Outreach Coordinator in Sunnyvale, have kept the issue alive. Last spring, they launched a small campaign in time for Earth Day. With a glossy brochure promoting cloth diapers, and presentations made to family service organizations and birth classes, they have begun reaching new parents. City officials conducted a few focus groups last year related to the diaper issue. One of the findings was that new parents wanted more information and support regarding cloth diapers.

In conjunction with the campaign, Tiny Tots, a diaper service located in nearby Campbell, California, offered a free trial of their service to new customers in Sunnyvale. The free trial started on Earth Day last year and ended in August. Shannon Nugent of Tiny Tots told us, “We didn’t have many takers, but that may have been because of our inexperience with marketing. Many people didn’t know about it.”

As a result of the Sunnyvale focus groups, Tiny Tots holds a free Diaper 101 class every month. In the class, they provide hands-on experience using basic prefold diapers, the style Tiny Tots offers its customers. Classes also give an overview of the environmental issues surrounding cloth diapers and discuss various types of diaper covers. So far, the class has been booked solid for the last six months and has yielded many new, educated customers for Tiny Tots.

This spring, Dorlene Russell, Sunnyvale’s Environmental Outreach Coordinator, is holding a cloth diaper informational workshop for local community members. Representatives from Tiny Tots and Real Diaper Association will be on hand to answer questions. Russell agrees that new parents need education about diapers. “Most use disposables because they don’t see any other choice. When people are ignorant about cloth, it is not an option for them. We want to show them see all their alternatives.”

As unlikely as it seems that a city council and local waste officials would take up the issue of cloth diapers, remember that cloth diaper awareness in Sunnyvale, California, grew from one parent going to her local city council to protest a day care provider’s resistance to allowing cloth diapers. If you see a problem in your city, formulate a solution. Speak up for cloth diapers.

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