With the comeback of cloth diapers in recent years, more parents are asking themselves which diapering system is right for them: cloth or disposables. (1) The factors parents often consider fall into four general categories: environmental impact, health concerns, safety, and convenience.
In this series of posts I will examine each of those four categories and explain why my husband and I chose cloth. I will also share what has worked for our family, and I will link to a few of the many blogs and websites dedicated to cloth that helped me in our cloth diapering journey. Be sure to visit and subscribe (for free!) to Code Name: Mama for more articles on natural parenting.
When I first started researching cloth diapers, my biggest motivator was environmental. I knew that we would go through a lot of diapers, and I didn’t want my child’s bum to leave an unnecessarily large footprint. Did you know that every child in disposables will add an average of 3,796 diapers to our landfills in roughly 2.5 years? (2) That translates to 3.4 million tons of diaper waste that is dumped in landfills each year in the United States alone. (3) Gross.
I was surprised to discover that the there are arguably fewer clear-cut environmental advantages to cloth diapers than I had anticipated. I assumed cloth would be the obvious green choice: cloth diapers are reusable (not only from day to day, but also from child to child), they are biodegradable, and they are safer (no pesky cancer-causing toxins hanging out next to your child’s skin – more on that later).
But depending on what article you read (and who funded the study behind it), the greener choice can be made murky. According to a 2008 study by the British Environment Agency, disposables have a smaller carbon footprint (by a hair) than that left by their predetermined baseline (or “average”) cloth diaper user. According to the researchers, the average user owns a B-rated washing machine (not a high efficiency one) and machine dries more often than not. Additionally, the average user does not reuse the cloth diapers on a second child. (4)
While the study snagged headlines by proclaiming that disposables were the environmental winner, many people ignored the rest of the story. The researchers concluded that cloth diaper users had the potential to leave a much smaller footprint. The greenest way to cloth diaper is to do fuller loads of diapers in a high-efficiency washing machine, line dry the diapers, and reuse them on a second child. These steps will lower the average user’s global warming impact by 40%; that’s approximately half the impact of using disposables. (5)
The British study has been criticized for flaws that favor the disposable diaper industry. For example, of the parents surveyed for the study, less than 6% use cloth diapers. While this is a reflection of the percentage of parents who choose cloth over disposables, it is a poor representation of the vast differences among cloth diapering families. Critics also disapprove of the study’s “baseline” user, noting that even simply switching to an energy-efficient machine will decrease the baseline footprint by 24%. (6)
And while the study purportedly took into account the environmental impact of manufacturing processes, transportation, and disposal for each diapering system, I saw no mention of the dangerous consequences of the chemicals used in disposable diapers on either our children or the environment. I will discuss the potential health effects of some of those chemicals in the next post in this series.
If only a fraction of the 95% of American parents who currently choose disposable diapers would convert to cloth, we could reduce the detrimental environmental effects of disposables. (7) As it stands, disposable diapers make up two percent of the garbage in our nation’s landfills. (8)
As with many things, diapering – even cloth diapering – can be done in a way that is friendly or detrimental to our Earth. It is up to each of us to minimize our impact. To me, the greener choice is obvious: cloth diapering in an environmentally responsible way is the ideal.
Guest Blogger Bio: Dionna is a lawyer turned work at home mama to an amazing son. She and her hubby practice natural parenting (also known as attachment or responsive parenting) and try to live consciously. In other words, they believe in natural birth, exclusive/extended breastfeeding, delayed/selective vaccinations, cloth diapering, no circumcision, a family bed, healthy eating, and “going green” as much as possible.
On Code Name: Mama, Dionna shares information, resources, and her thoughts on natural parenting and life with a toddler. Please take a moment to subscribe to her RSS feed for free updates.
(1) Paul, Pamela, “Diapers Go Green,” http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1702357,00.html
(2) “An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies,” (“Updated Lifecycle Assessment Study”) at 16, http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Document.aspx?Document=WR0705_7589_FRP.pdf
(3) Onion, Amanda, “The Diaper Debate” at 2, http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=789465&page=1 (4) Updated Lifecycle Assessment Study at 19-24, 29 (5) Updated Lifecycle Assessment Study at 35 (6) The Diaper Debate at 1, 3 (7) The Diaper Debate at 1
(8) Koerner, Brendan, “Should My Baby Wear Huggies?,” http://www.slate.com/id/2187278/