At first glance, it seems obvious that cloth diapers are better for the planet than disposable diapers, but the choice is more complicated than you might think.
In the first month of your baby’s life, chances are you’ll change around 240 diapers, or an average of 8 diapers a day. Over the first year, you’re looking at changing some 2,000 diapers. If you’re using disposable diapers, that’s a lot of trash. But is cloth diapering really any better for the environment?
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The problem with cloth diapers
Cloth diaper advocates will have you believe that there’s nothing but good things to say about the whole business. However, cloth diapers are not without their problems.
The main environmental problem with cloth diapers is water use. However, as with disposables, the manufacture of cloth diapers also requires electricity and raw materials, as well as water.
Sure, cloth diapers don’t lead to a giant waste mountain in landfill, but it takes a lot more water to make a cloth diaper and to wash cloth diapers. All that washing uses up more electricity and water, as well as laundry detergent, which has its own environmental impact.
The good news is that cloth diapers usually comprise a washable insert (known as a flat) and an outer cover with a pocket into which the inserts slide. This system helps cut down on laundry because when it’s time for a diaper change, you remove the flat and replace it with a clean insert, meaning you only wash the cover when it’s actually soiled.
Overall, cloth diapering is far more eco-friendly, especially when you do simple things like washing full loads, reusing unsoiled outer covers, line drying, and using eco-friendly detergent. Get your cloth diapers second-hand and reuse for another child or pass them on and you’re also helping to reduce the lifetime impact of those diapers.
Cloth diapers are also better for the environment and for your child because they typically don’t contain any plastics or toxic chemicals. Some have synthetic covers, but many are made with natural, organic materials, with inserts made from hemp and cotton. If you choose wisely, you can also lower the overall impact of diapering and help keep unpleasant chemicals away from your baby’s nether regions.
The problem with Disposable Diapers
It’s pretty obvious that the main environmental problem with cloth diapers is waste, waste, waste.
Disposable diapers require electricity, water, and raw materials to make. They create a huge amount of landfill waste, release ozone into the atmosphere as they break down, and are often made using a slew of toxic chemicals including bleach, fragrances, and dyes that have no place in the nursery.
As I already noted, unless you’re practicing some form of elimination communication, you’re likely to change around 2,000 diapers in the first year of your baby’s life.
Typically, the pattern for diaper changes looks a little like this:
|Age||Diaper changes per day / month / period||Cost per month / period (diapers average 20-30 cents)|
|0-3 months||8 / 240 / 720||$48-72 / $144-216|
|4-6 months||6 / 180 / 540||$36-54 / $108-162|
|7-9 months||5 / 150 / 450||$30-45 / $90-135|
|10-12 months||4 / 120 / 360||$24-36 / $72-108|
|Total||2070 diapers in 12 months||$414-621 for first year|
|12 months +||3 / 90||$18-27 per month|
The reason for so many diaper changes in the first six months is because your baby is only consuming liquids (milk or formula), which passes through them pretty quickly.
With each diaper averaging about 20-30 cents, you’re looking at a cost of between $400 and $600 for baby’s first year, without factoring in a diaper bin, wipes, lotions, a diaper bag, and all the other sundries associated with diapering.
Are modern disposable diapers any better?
Thankfully, many companies have recognized the problems with disposable diapers and have taken, or are in the process of taking, steps to reduce the environmental impact and toxicity concerns.
Since the 1980s, disposable diapers have dramatically reduced in weight and bulk, for instance, largely thanks to innovation in materials and design as well as shrink-wrapping technology. This helps to reduce overall resource use for the diapers themselves and reduces associated packaging, transportation, and energy and fuel.
Some companies have figured out ways to dramatically reduce the amount of plastics in disposable diapers, replace some or all of these with bioplastics, and even make disposable diapers partially or wholly compostable.
While there are still no perfect disposable diapers, there are better ones out there. We offer our recommendations for more eco-friendly disposable diapers here.
At the end of the day, we did go with cloth diapers for our new baby, here’s why.
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