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FTC Settles with gDiapers with over Compostability Claim Complaint

| Friday January 17th, 2014 | 11 Comments
These diapers hold a little surprise in them!

These diapers hold a little surprise in them!

gDiapers is a heartthrob product among sustainability-minded parents. The covers are stylish, and the inserts come in both cloth and disposable, which allows for some flexibility for times when cloth isn’t practical. The idea is that you can use cloth most of the time, and when you have to use disposable, the volume of the material that’s getting disposed is much smaller because you’re still using a reusable cover.

Unfortunately gDiapers has gotten their hand slapped by the FTC over claiming that their disposable inserts are actually compostable.

These issues are top of mind for me, as my husband and I are expecting our first child in March, and, y’know, hoping for the sweet young thing to be low-impact, environmentally speaking. We looked at gDiapers pretty closely but ultimately decided against them because, while the flexibility is cool, the inserts are more expensive than full disposable diapers, even the hippie ones. Cloth vs. Disposable is one of the first decisions any new eco-parent has to make, and the internet is chock full of resources for helping new parents sort out the environmental implications of their little darlings. But I digress…

gDiapers clearly understands that there are many expectant parents currently weighing these issues with a solemnity only expectant parents can muster. Of course they geared their marketing toward making their product seem as environmentally friendly as possible. However, it looks like they may have taken things a little bit too far…

According to the FTC complaint, the company made false or misleading representations in marketing gRefills and gWipes as biodegradable. These representations include claims that: the products are “100% biodegradable” and “certified” biodegradable; gRefills and gWipes will biodegrade when tossed in the trash; gRefills will biodegrade when flushed; and gRefills offer an environmental benefit because they can be flushed. In fact, the complaint alleges, gRefills and gWipes are not biodegradable because they do no completely break down and decompose into elements found in nature within one year after customary disposal, which is in the trash.

The complaint also alleges that the company has not obtained independent, third-party certification of biodegradability. Additionally, the complaint charges that gDiapers did not rely on adequate substantiation for its claims that gRefills and gWipes biodegrade when thrown away in the trash. The complaint also alleges that gRefills do not biodegrade when flushed, and that the company did not rely on, and could not substantiate, that gRefills offer an environmental benefit, because they can be flushed.

Yowzer.

Now, allow me to let you in on a little secret. Even at its best, most consumer-friendly, gDiapers’ recommended flushing system, is… kind of complex. “Before you take the first flush, know thy toilet. Read about precautions and tips on the diaper therapy blog. Then follow the simple directions and give us a ring if you have any questions at all.” Yes, it’s really nice of them to offer, but you may need to call them for help with diaper disposal. There’s also a three step process which includes a stick you use to poke up the solid things in the toilet and an explanatory video:

gDiapers also advises parents that if a clog does occur, “reach into the toilet and pull out the material. You can always wash your hands.” Yes, parenthood is apparently a dignity-free zone and they just want to make that perfectly clear.

But getting too close and personal with baby poop was not the center of the complaint (although it is one of mine in re: the coming attraction). The biodegradability complaint centers on whether these things break down in a landfill environment (no) and whether flushing is environmentally preferable to the landfill. No.

Is flushing environmentally friendly?

Even though it’s tempting to think all the things we flush down into the toilet just go away, out of sight out of mind style, they don’t actually just disappear. Fresh, clean drinkable water shows up in your toilet, and when you flush away pee, poop, toilet paper, gRefills, condoms, baby wipes or dental floss, they all end up at a sewage treatment facility, where they go through an energy intensive treatment process:

sewage treatment

Image credit: Professor Patricia Shapley, University of Illinois

The non-biodegradable materials get caught right there at the beginning in the screens, if the treatment plant workers are lucky. (If they aren’t, these items clog up the pipes and someone has to go clean them out). Yes, it’s someone’s job to clean that stuff out of there. Guess where it goes after it’s been collected? The landfill!

In summary, when you flush something that isn’t biodegradable, you are using gallons of potable water to send it hundreds of miles underground, so that it can (hopefully) be caught in a screen and some dude can fish it out for you and throw it in the garbage. Environmentally friendly indeed!

Is it safe to compost human feces at home?

I guess I do need to ask. The answer is no, that’s gross. While there are special composting set-ups specifically to render humanure (heh) safe, your average home compost pile does not get hot enough to kill the pathogens and bacteria in the poop, so it’s unsafe to use the resulting fertilizer for anything practical like a garden supplement.

gDiapers was called out for tiptoeing around this issue on it’s website:

The complaint alleges that gDiapers misled consumers when advertising gRefills and gWipes as compostable at home. According to the complaint, the company failed to adequately disclose that consumers cannot safely home compost gRefills and gWipes soiled with solid human waste – a material limitation. Where gDiapers did disclose that limitation, in many cases the disclosure was not clear and conspicuous. For example, gDiapers made an unqualified home compostable claim on its website’s homepage, only to reveal the limitation on other site pages. Additionally, the complaint alleges that gDiapers lacked substantiation for its claim that gWipes are home compostable.

Even municipal composting agencies don’t generally allow human (or feline or canine) waste in their streams. It’s too difficult to ensure the compost piles get hot enough.

Sadly, as the video above displays, there’s no easy disposal for your baby’s poop. In the settlement with the FTC, gDiapers agreed to amend its website with the following considerations:

The proposed order prohibits gDiapers from making biodegradable and compostable claims, unless the claims are true, not misleading, substantiated by competent and reliable scientific evidence, and meet specific requirements outlined in the FTC’s revised Green Guides. Additionally, any claims that a disposable diaper or wipe is compostable must clearly and prominently disclose that the product cannot be composted if soiled with human waste.

Hopefully, the final outcome will be a bit more clarity for nervous, well-meaning parents. gDiapers still has a lot going for it, even without its errant compostability and biodegradability claims.

And, in case you are curious, my husband and I decided to go with whatever “eco” brand disposables work best for our little bundle’s bundles, because the long and the short of allll that hand wringing is that if you are going to use a diaper service for your cloth diapers, the environmental impact of your choice is basically a wash (pun intended.) In order for cloth to come out ahead, you have to wash (and preferably air dry) your diapers at home, and that’s just not feasible for our little family with two working parents. Assuming the use of a diaper service, the choice ultimately comes down to whether you want to be landfill-friendly (cloth) or energy/water conscious (disposables) and we decided energy and water constraints were bigger concerns for us than landfill growth. Plus we’re kind of lazy and disposables have better absorbency anyway. It’s hard for me to pick an eco-option with a lot of performance downsides, but I do like to support eco-products, even when they aren’t perfect, to prove there’s a market for them. By the way, despite the brouhaha over  compostability, I still think gDiapers is a good choice for people who value the style and flexibility over price.

Readers, what do you think? Was the FTC being too hard on gDiapers or providing needed clarity for confused and worried parents? 


▼▼▼      11 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://sustainablog.org/ Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    I was definitely a part of the gDiapers fan club early on, but I also remember thinking “Flushing? Really?” I’m sorry to hear about these issues… as always, we have to take a close look at these marketing claims, rather than be wowed by them.

    If I remember right (and I’m stretching back a ways), gDiapers also received Cradle to Cradle certification… another disappointment perhaps.

    • jenboynton

      Oh yeah, good call, I should have mentioned that. Yes, they are still Cradle2Cradle certified, for what it’s worth! http://www.gdiapers.com/disposal-options/cradle-to-cradle

    • http://www.triplepundit.com Nick Aster

      That seems incongruous. How can they be c2c and not biodegradable?

      • http://sustainablog.org/ Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

        That’s the point I was trying to make (inelegantly). I’ve heard that C2C certification… how shall I say it?… is a bit sketchy…

        • jenboynton

          yeah Jeff is probably right. It seems to hinge on whether or not the inserts on their own are compostable.

          “[C2C certification] means that everything that goes into our disposable inserts have met 19 human and environmental health criteria and have proven to be re-absorbed back in to the eco-system in a neutral or beneficial way when composted (wet ones only).”

          But you can’t really compost these. In the landfill, or when flushed, they perform like everything else that gets treated in those manners.

  • Eileen Ellis

    An option that actually composts and is either the same, or just a bit more, than cloth diaper service: http://www.earth-baby.com

  • Jason

    Hi all, this is Jason Graham-Nye the CEO / co-founder of gDiapers.

    Following the FTC update of the Green Guides in September 2012, we have co-operated with the FTC for over a year to refine and further support our benefits, and made the necessary changes to our website and packaging last year.

    Jen – rest assured that our product and core benefits are unchanged – our disposable inserts are still Cradle-to-Cradle certified, flushable, biodegradable in home compost (wet ones only, in 70-150 days) and plastic free. In fact, as part of this process we have done additional testing requested by the FTC that further supports these benefits.

    Will Brinton of Woods End Labs who conducted the additional testing (following three previous rounds of testing over the last 20 years in commercial and home compost settings) states: “Woods End Laboratories, an internationally recognised, independent compost lab, and BPI certified to conduct compostability studies, went to great lengths to design and run a composting study in 2013 that addressed specifically the ambiguity of home composting compared to modern industrial-scale composting. Based on these carefully documented tests, gDiapers disposable inserts composted well within the common expectation of 26 weeks. We stand behind the results of the test and support fully that gDiapers Disposable Inserts are home compostable (wet ones only)”.

    Jeff – long time! I am curious to learn more about why you feel Cradle to Cradle is sketchy. That’s a very big call. The FTC took one look at that certification and entirely agreed that the product met the criteria. Cradle to Cradle assesses the impact of materials on humans and the environment. They are not a composting certification. That is covered by certification standards such as ASTM for commercial composting and Vincotte for home composting. Give me a bell on 971-235 -0359 if you’d like.

    Eileen – your suggestion perfectly illustrates the confusion in the market place which I am hopeful the new Green Guides will address. The product that Earth-baby delivers to Mums and Dads is a brand called Nature Baby Care from Sweden. The manufacturer themselves claim that only about 70% of the product is biodegradable. The remaining 30% is made up of plastic like any other disposable diaper. If 30% of the product is not biodegradable how can it then be commercially compostable? The product wouldn’t pass any composting certifications.

    Ultimately the consumer is confused. Something every company in the green products space is trying to avoid. Or should be at least.

    Cheers

    Jason

    • jenboynton

      Thanks for weighing in Jason!

    • http://sustainablog.org/ Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

      Hi, Jason – My perception came from the Fast Company article on McDonough in ’08. Obviously, that’s been a while, so I’m open to learning how the certification may have overcome some of the early challenges/problems mentioned in that article.

      • Jason

        The bulk of the 2008 article addresses the limitations of his personality and need for control. With the launch of the C2C Products Institute and a separation of MBDC and certifying bodies (there are several) they have dealt with the transparency issues. The challenge is the standards are unbelievably difficult to attain. Which is good news bad news right?

  • Elodie Planche

    Thanks for sharing Jen, this article took me 6 years back when expecting my first child and looking for green diaper options. This is more sharing my testimonial as a Mom even though I did extensive research on this topic and do write about green living.

    Sposies were out of question, so I was left with cloth, biodegradable/compostable diapers (like the Nature ones, just out back then) and what I’d call hybrid like g-Diapers. I looked at g-Diapers and what ruled them out for me was the construction that I did not find as well done as others, and the fact that I did not believe for one second, certifications or not, that these inserts were flushable, and would certainly never take my chances trying. I won’t add price although they were more expensive, because I was willing to invest for the best option we could find.

    Also my choice was not just one of water/energy/landfill use, but also, or I should say mainly, what’s healthiest for a baby. Something you don’t seem to have taken into account in your criteria consideration set? I ended up buying Bum Genius Elemental cloth diapers (100% organic cotton) as well as regular flats (indian or chinese) in 100% organic cotton, for night time. They lasted through my first child who (a said benefit of cloth, even though we also did EC) was potty trained at 2 for daytime (I won’t embarrass her publicly with last age of nighttime accidents!).

    I reused them for my second child and they did last the first year and a half of use with child #2. After that and due to washing machine, the cloth part started to get holes and to detach from the cover, so I ripped them off entirely, kept the covers and just replaced the cloth part with the organic cotton flats. The little sister was also clean by age 2, she’s almost 3 now and still wears a diaper at night for occasional accidents.

    Looking back, I am really happy with my choice, no rash to report, no leak, no absorbency issue… Nothing to complain about really. And the routine did not bother me either. I use the washing machine, always air dry (soooo easier than people would suppose!) and daycare was convinced in a cinch after I showed the caregivers how it is handled (gotta fight that old but die hard pins and square cliche and then you’re done), no one ever complained about them. For both school and on the go, I provide one ziploc bag per diaper (that I rinse and reuse over and over) and the soiled one gets in the clean one’s bag etc, etc, until we get back home and rinse them. There’s no need for trainers, pull ups and other marketed products as the baby grow, you keep using the same ones (I had OS- one size diapers) until the kids can take them off by themselves (using the velcro ones).

    That was for the actual experience but back to the health factor, I trust certified organic cotton over any kinds of pulp (absorbency typically requires chemicals, or less nature friendly ingredients than cotton, which at least can be reused over and over), let alone plastic. As for the initial cloth inserts that I ripped off, I re-used them as stuffing for various items, but that’s the waste hater me refusing to throw away perfectly good organic cotton. :-)

    Sorry it is a long message, but I felt the experience angle was not yet represented in the thread and neither was the health aspect in picking a diaper system, so I am hoping you could take away a few things from this Mom to Mom message.