Potty time

Written by erik


As our third child approaches his third birthday, my wife and I find ourselves contemplating how best to get him out of diapers. We’ve been through this drill with our two older children, once in the US and once in France, with one big difference: the social norms for “potty training” in the US suggests that it happen by about 3 years old, whereas in France the age is more like 2 years old.

No doubt a good debate rages about what is better for the children involved, but there’s no question about which is better for the environment — getting your child out of diapers earlier avoids a lot of waste. I’m going to assume disposable diapers rather than cloth since it’s what we use, but it doesn’t make a big difference which you use. The environmental degradation associated with cloth is going to be different in kind but not in degree from that associated with disposables.

Given that the typical American child goes through about 6,000 diapers total before being toilet-trained, with just under half occurring in the first year when the changing derby is really on, I’m going to assume that the third year accounts for about 1,000 diaper changes, in the roughly 15-20% range. If each diaper contributes about a quarter pound to a landfill, then we’re talking about roughly 250 pounds of diapers from that third year alone. And you thought a stack of newspapers waiting to be recycled was bad.

But more to the point, as a society we could save 15-20% of the approximately 27.4 billion disposable diapers used in the US every year if we would adopt the French norm and get our kids potty trained by the age of 2. I’m glad that we managed the feat with one of our kids, though it took living in France at the time to do it.

Why was that? Simple — my daughter did not want to be the only kid at pre-school still in diapers. It’s peer pressure, applied at a very early age, and it worked very well indeed. Predictably, back in the States where the norm is different, we haven’t been as prompt getting our youngest off the diaper train, even though we know it’s the responsible thing to do environmentally. Somehow the time just kind of…slips by.

We will make a solid push to get over the line by our little guy’s third birthday however. That’s the least we can do. As a country and society surely we can help the environmental pluses involved with earlier potty training win out over inertia. (Though in a country that not too long ago was serving Freedom Fries in its government cafeteria it won’t be by following the French.)

I suppose a powerful economic incentive might be to give parents some kind of break on pre-school or daycare costs if their kids are potty trained by age 2. But it’s a bit difficult to imagine the government program that would result, and all too easy to imagine the pushback from those who don’t want the government involved in toilet training in any case. Any other ideas out there, or stories to share from other perspectives?

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