The big cloth-versus-disposable debate
The average diaper-wearing child will need more than 6,000 diaper changes. If you choose re-usable cloth diapers, you’ll have to buy, say, three to five dozen cotton diapers-and all the energy, soap, and hot water it takes to keep them clean. If you use disposable diapers, on the other hand, you’ll avoid all those piles of laundry, but you’ll be contributing to the mountain of 28 billion disposables trucked to U.S. landfills each year. Parents who want to do the right thing for the Earth sometimes agonize over this decision: cloth or disposable-or what? As it turns out, there’s no easy answer. But within each option, there are clever ways to cut down on waste, expense, and pollution.
- Figure out what you want. Various studies have reached different conclusions about the environmental consequences of cloth versus disposable diapers. The largest independent study to date, released in 2008 by Britain’s Environment Agency, found that the overall impact of cloth versus disposable diapers is highly dependent on how you wash and dry your cloth diapers. For example, if you wash cloth diapers in a full load with water at or below 140 degrees Fahrenheit, line dry the diapers, and reuse them for a second child you would be reducing your global warming impact by 40%. However, if you use a dryer for the diapers and use water above 140 degrees, your impact could be 75% worse than using just disposable diapers. So, if you live where line drying is feasible, cloth diapers can have a great benefit if used properly. But if that doesn’t work because of where you live or your lifestyle, see below for tips on how to lower your impact no matter your diaper decision. You can also download the full report from the Environment Agency here. Skip the final the page to see the conclusions.
- Green your laundry. If you choose reusable diapers, green your laundry supplies. Choose earth friendly detergents. Don’t use chlorine bleach–it will weaken the cloth fibers and is not necessary to kill bacteria. Soap and water do that trick. But, if you need to use bleach or have odor problems despite your best efforts, use an oxygen bleach. You can also try a bacteria removing product such as Bac-Out. Be careful of products with additives such as fragrance or optical brighteners–they can leave residues that can irritate baby’s sensitive skin. Also, if you are buying new appliances, choose water- and energy-efficient models. Finally, consider line drying instead of using the automatic dryer, to reduce energy consumption.
When shopping, look for
- More earth-friendly disposables. Bleaching the paper for most disposable diapers releases dioxin, which persists in the environment and causes cancer and other health problems. So make sure your diapers are chlorine-free. In addition, look for recycled content. Biodegradability is less important because not much degrades in a conventional landfill.
- Fragrance free. Skip the sweet-smelling disposable diapers. You don’t want any hormone-disrupting phthalates touching your baby’s skin.
- Organic cloth diapers. Conventional cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world, so use organic cotton or other natural fibers instead.
- Synthetic-fiber reusable diapers. If you are using reusable diapers, make sure your reusable diapers are made from natural fibers, not petroleum-based synthetic materials.
- Fumble-fingers alert: It takes more skill (and, for most people, a little more time) to put on a cloth diaper in a way that won’t leak later.
- Elimination communication. If you watch your child carefully, you may be able to spot little grimaces, noises, or motions that signal a bowel movement is coming. You may get so good at reading these signs you can put your child on the toilet before any mess occurs. This kind of “elimination communication” has been used by many societies over the ages. Using this technique can result in children being toilet trained at a very young age.
- Baby wipes. You can make your own at home with soft organic cotton cloths or even old T-shirts and the like. If you choose conventional baby wipes, however, steer clear of those with irritating and potentially hormone-disrupting chemicals such as parabens and phthalates.
- Air fresheners. Don’t use air fresheners to sweeten the air in the nursery. Most contain harmful VOCs and hormone-disrupting phthalates. Instead, sprinkle some baking soda at the bottom of the diaper pail to absorb odors.
…to your health
Avoiding fragrances and chlorine is good for your baby’s long-term health.
…to your wallet
Reusable diapers are easier on the wallet. During the 2.5 years a child might be using diapers, reusables would cost between $400 and $1,700 for diapers, laundry supplies, water, and electricity. Over the same period, disposables would set you back $2,500 or so. If you pass the cloth diapers along to another child, the cost savings of reusables is even greater. A diaper service costs about the same as or a little less than disposables.
…to the Earth
One reason it’s so difficult to make a definitive statement about the cloth-versus-disposables debate is the number of factors involved. Sure, cloth diapers can be washed and re-used. They can be made of natural fibers. But a load of home-laundered diapers consumes up to 50 gallons of water, some of which is heated. Chemicals such as detergents and bleach are usually used, although making greener choices when it comes to cleaning products can reduce this impact. If you choose a service that launders your dirty diapers and brings clean ones to your doorstep each week, transportation costs are involved. Disposable diapers, on the other hand, are made of plastic, absorb and wick away wetness with chemicals, and fill up landfills with plastic and other materials that won’t degrade. Disposable diapers produce at least 70 times more trash than cloth diapers and also take their toll in the energy, chemicals, and water that are needed to manufacture and distribute the large quantities that a baby needs.
Profligate laundering. Cloth diapers are greener if you use a water- and energy-efficient washing machine, eschew hot water, use greener cleaners, and line dry.
Talk to your partner and any other caregivers about the options. Pick the one that will work for best for you, and then use some of the suggestions above to minimize your waste and pollution.