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Disposable Diapers vs. Cloth Diapers: Which one is Better for the Environment?

cloth diapers vs disposable diapers better

Cloth or Disposable? Is one truly better for the environment?

Disposable diapers vs. cloth diapers and the environmental parenting debate. Cloth diapering proponents proudly claim cloth is best for the Earth. Educated disposable diapering parents can be quick to point out the fallacies of such a claim. The complexities of evaluating the impact of cloth vs. disposable diapers on the environment have even made this topic a common research project for professors to assign to their students. But such an assignment is like giving a trick question on a test; there’s not one way to answer this question.

Disposable Diapers and the Environment

Once tossed into the landfill, your child’s diapers will still be there, in their entirety until long after your great-grandchildren are potty trained. Even biodegradable disposable diapers may be there that long. According to the University of Minnesota, “There are no established standards by which to judge the biodegradability of disposable diapers, so examine carefully claims to that effect.”

But the environmental cost of the disposable diaper does not lie solely in the waste it produces. You also have to consider production of the diaper. The major component of disposable diapers is paper made from trees. About 30 percent of disposable diapers components are synthetic, a product of oil. Producing the throw-away diaper involves trees, pesticides, machinery to cut down trees, oil, and a lot of energy.

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Cloth Diapers and the Environment

For every load of reusable diapers you launder, you use up to 50 gallons of water (a limited resource in many parts of the country), and detergents the cause harm to the local waterways. Many ingredients in laundry detergent are toxic to aquatic life, reduce the oxygen levels in waterways, and may disrupt the endocrine system of animals according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. You also use energy to heat the water and run the appliances. If that energy comes from oil or coal, there is an additional negative impact on the environment.

The production of cloth diapers has much of the same impact as for disposables. Most are made from cotton. To grow cotton, natural habitats must be cleared for farmland and pesticides and fertilizer used. According to the University of Minnesota, “The cotton from which most reusable diapers is made takes much more plant nutrients, pesticide, water, mechanical energy, and labor than does the production of trees from which disposables are made, and may tend to increase soil erosion and reduce species diversity, too.”

If a diaper service is used, then the energy needed to pick up and deliver the diapers must also be considered. And yes, by cloth diapering, the diapers get reused, often by many babies dozens of times. But eventually they do end up in a landfill.

What the Research Says

Research that compares the life-cycle of both types of diapers has been limited. The first comprehensive study was completed by the UK Environment Agency and released in 2005. The study concluded that the environment impact of cloth and disposable diapers is similar with no clear winner.

The results of how each makes the biggest impact on the environment is surprising. As reported by pediatrician Dr. Alan Green, “For disposable diapers, the most significant impact comes during manufacture; for home-laundered diapers, the primary impact comes from the electricity used in washing and drying; for commercially laundered diapers, the biggest impact comes from use of fuels and electricity.”

In a 2008 study by Milieu Centraal, a Dutch nonprofit environmental organization, looked at greenhouse gas emissions, water use, pesticide use, and land use. This study concluded found:

  • Cloth diapering creates fewer greenhouse gases.
  • Cloth and disposables use a lot of water (water is used in the production process for disposables).
  • Cloth production uses more pesticides.
  • Disposables use more chemicals since they are partially made from plastic.
  • Cloth diapers use less farmland than disposables. It takes more farmland to grow the trees for disposables than the cotton for cloth.

Milieu Centraal concluded that disposable diapers make the greatest impact on the environment during the production phase and use non-renewable resources such as oil, while cloth diapers have the greatest impact during use. This lead to the conclusion that cloth diapers made less of an environmental impact. This conclusion is largely based on the cloth diaper user’s ability to decrease their environmental impact by using water and energy efficient appliances and by choosing to buy organic cotton diapers.

Choosing Your Diaper

In the end, the choice between cloth diapering or convenience diapering should be based on what makes you most comfortable, as neither has been without a doubt proven to be better or worse for the environment. There is however, an alternative answer to the disposable diapers vs. cloth diapers debate.

baby-potty-training

Another option is to use fewer diapers all together and have your infant or young toddler use the toilet as much as possible. The Diaper Free Baby sold here can help you do that.

An Alternative Answer: Early Toilet Training is Better for the Environment and the Wallet

This is where early toilet training, whether it be through elimination communication with an infant or starting to potty train your 1-year-old, makes the most environmental and financial sense. Having your infant or toddler eliminate in a toilet does not create any more of an environmental impact than other humans in the house that regularly use the toilet, nor does it add to or strain the family budget. And it has health benefits for the child and caregiver as well.

Even if you only put your baby or toddler on the toilet once a day with success, that is one less disposable diaper to put in the landfills or one less cloth diaper to be laundered. Starting potty training early can save you hundreds if not thousands of diapers or loads of laundry and have an equal financial savings. The Diaper Free Baby by Christine Gross-Loh is a great resource for learning to potty training babies and young toddlers.

References

  1. EPA: Key Characteristics of Laundry Detergent Ingredients
  2. University of Minnesota: Diaper Choices
  3. ABC News: The Diaper Debate: Are Disposables as Green as Cloth?
  4. The Daily Green: Choosing the Diaper With the Least Environmental Impact
  5. Milieu Centraal: Nappies
  6. Milieu Centraal

*Diaper photo by Duplass/Bigstockphoto

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