Don't Pooh-Pooh My Diaper Choice: Essential Answer

Photo: simplyla/Flicr

Q: Which is better for the environment . . . cloth diapers or disposable?

Asked by Katie Cooke, Littleton, Colo.

I was raised in disposable diapers, as was my sister and all of our little cousins. Until I started researching this question, I thought that I would someday dress my little tykes in disposable diapers as well. I assumed that cloth diapers would be much better for the environment, but returning to the middle ages of childcare just seemed unacceptably messy. Still, I started objectively, looking at how the two options are made.

What goes into a diaper? Electricity, water and raw material. And how different are the two diaper options? Disposable diapers generate vastly more landfill waste than reusables, of course. But it takes a lot more water to make a cloth diaper than a disposable one, mostly to grow and process the cotton. When the water used to wash the reusables is added to the equation, cloth diapers require twice as much water as disposable diapers do. I was shocked when I found this gem of information hidden in the calculations of a U.K. Environment Agency report comparing cloth and disposable diapers.

The same report calculated every resource used, from water and energy to plastics and cotton, throughout production, use and disposal of the respective diaper products. This more comprehensive analysis calculated the relative environmental impact on everything from global warming to toxic waste. I’ll get into the details in the Nitty-gritty, but here’s the real surprise: cloth and disposable nappies come to a near tie in overall environmental impact.

Cloth and disposables have similar global warming impact, though for different reasons. The manufacturing of disposable diapers has a larger carbon footprint, but the electricity used to wash reusable diapers cancels out most of the difference. Disposables have greater impact on ozone depletion, thanks to CFCs released as they decompose in the landfill. But cloth diapers generate more toxic waste that can impact human health, because of the electricity, detergent and softener used to wash them.

So what will I wrap my kids little buns in? I don’t want to contribute to the thousands of tons of diapers sent to landfills every year. But the necessary washing of cloth diapers may be equally problematic, especially in drought-stricken areas. Cloth diapers will always use more water than disposables, but they also offer more opportunities to decrease overall environmental impact—by using more efficient washers, and cleaner soaps and power sources.

A new design of cloth nappies with a compostable liner may be the solution to diaper sustainability. You can wash the outer cloth diaper less frequently, and either compost the soiled inner layer or flush it down the toilet. gDiapers, a specific brand, has “Cradle-to-Cradle” certification, validating its biodegradable diaper technology. For even less impact, buy the compostable liners and fashion your own cloth nappies from old T-shirts or sweaters. With a DIY diaper, you can dress up your baby’s bum in a funky old concert t-shirt. They can even represent your alma mater.

And don’t forget: Diapers are just one product your infant will need. Reducing your child’s other impacts can be as simple as looking to Craigslist, consignment stores and baby swaps before you purchase new clothes and toys. When in doubt, reduce, reuse and recycle—and teach your kids to do the same.

Interested in a little more about the unexpected impact of green-sounding options? Check out this Ted Talk by Catherine Mohr on the related paper towel vs. cloth rag dilemma.

Grace Goldberg, '13, is a coterminal student in earth systems.