The U.K. Environment Agency put out a report in 2008 comparing cloth and disposable diapers and found that… well, things aren’t simple when it comes to which are better for the planet. If you’re about to welcome a new baby to the family, and you’re environmentally conscious, chances are the disposable vs. cloth debate is raging in your household. So, what are the pros and cons of the two and what factors make a difference when making your choice?
The pros and cons of cloth diapers
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.
Top tip: for female infants, fold extra absorbency towards the back if using longer prefolds; for male babies, fold towards the front.
As with disposables, the manufacture of cloth diapers also requires electricity, water, and raw materials. And while cloth diapers don’t lead to a giant waste mountain in landfill, 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.
Which is better for the planet: cloth vs. disposables?
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can help figure out the thorny issue of whether disposables or cloth diapers are better for the environment. LCAs look at the manufacture, use, and disposal of a product, giving a better reflection of its overall impact. Although reusable products are often more eco-friendly, LCAs can help highlight cases where non-toxic disposables are actually more environmentally sound. LCAs can also draw attention to areas where manufacturers, end users, or those disposing of products can make more eco-friendly choices.
That U.K. Environment Agency report, for instance, found that cloth diapers required twice as much water as disposables. The report’s authors concluded that disposables and cloth diapers both had a similarly low level but differing impact on the environment. In short, disposables add to waste and deplete the ozone layer, while reusables consume water, electricity, and detergents and can pose a problem for waste management.
All in, this report suggests that cloth and disposable are almost even in terms of environmental impact. However, cloth diapering still came out on top.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that there’s not a lot that manufacturers can do to reduce the carbon footprint of disposables or their capacity to release ozone-depleting CFCs in landfill. In contrast, there are many ways to offset the environmental impact of cloth diapers. These include using renewable materials to make the diapers, using reneable energy to wash them, and using safe, non-toxic laundry detergent, then passing the diapers onto a new family when yours is done with them.
In fact, when you dig into the details, there’s some clear room for improvement when using reusables. Why? Because the LCA looks at the impact of the typical use of reusables and disposables, which means taking steps to help everybody using reusables to do so in a more eco-friendly way could easily lessen their overall environmental impact.
Your choice of diapers matters, and how you use them
The UK report states that two and a half years of using a typical disposable diaper results in a global warming impact of 550 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents. Reusable diapers had a global warming impact of 570 kg carbon dioxide equivalent over the two and a half period, based on average washer and drier use.
So, here’s the kicker: “It is consumers’ behaviour that dictates the environmental impact of reusable nappies.”
The authors give a whole host of examples of ways to reduce the impact of cloth diapers:
|Change in CO2 emissions|
|Washing a full load of diapers and line drying outdoors||16% reduction|
|Using the diapers for a second child / passing them onto another family||40% reduction|
|Using a dryer for every load of diapers||43% increase|
|Washing diapers on high vs. moderate temperature||75% increase|
In summary, here’s how to make reusables more eco-friendly:
- Keep washing temperatures below 60°C
- Wash full loads
- Line dry where possible
- Use energy efficient appliances
- Reuse reusables!
When using cloth diapers, you’ll also want to consider the kind of material used for the flat inserts and for the covers themselves. As I’ve mentioned time and again in this course, conventional cotton is an environmental nightmare, as is bamboo viscose/Rayon. Your best bet is an organic cotton cover and flats made with absorbent layers of organic cotton or hemp and organic cotton fleece. Flip make day and night flats from organic cotton that are easy to use, soft, and absorbent.
Geffen Baby also make great flats comprising 60% hemp and 40% organic cotton. They also make super absorbent universal cloth diaper inserts with hemp and organic cotton and a variety of other excellent products such as nursing pads and swaddles and so forth.
The Problem with Disposable Diapers
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. As they get older, the number of daily diaper changes decreases.
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. Hence why you do more diaper changes than your get hours of sleep. After six months, your baby might begin eating solids, which means fewer bowel movements. And, at around 8-10 months, once your baby starts sleeping through the night (‘doing their nights’!), you’ll enjoy another decrease in diaper changes.
In addition to getting really good at changing diapers, you’ll also get really familiar with different diaper sizes.
Unless you have a family history of tiny babies, chances are you won’t need more than a few days’ worth of newborn diapers, if any. These diapers only fit babies up to 7 lbs, and babies are getting bigger on average, so most don’t ever fit in newborn diapers.
Top tip: If disposable diapers are on your baby registry or are a suggested baby shower gift, ask for Size 1, 2, or 3; these are the sizes you’re most likely to need lots of in the first few months.
All in all, your baby is likely to get through around 2000 diapers in their first 12 months. 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.
And, of course, there’s the environmental cost of disposables.
The environmental cost of disposable diapers, and chemicals to watch out for
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.
Disposable diapers usually comprise a topsheet, acquisition distribution layer, core wrap, absorbent core, waistband, backsheet, leg cuff with elastic, and a fastening system. Each of these layers can contain chemicals you’d rather not have in direct contact with highly sensitive skin.
The topsheet is a very thin cover usually made with cellulose fibers, synthetic fibers, or a film of synthetic fibers. Next up, we have the euphemistically named acquisition distribution layer. This is a porous material comprising similar cellulose or synthetic fibers or other non-woven material made with synthetic polymers. These fibers include:
- Mixture of Polyethylene/Polypropylene
In terms of toxicity and environmental impact, these are all pretty comparable, unless the cotton is organic (which is very unlikely). You may see some diapers made with recycled polyester, which is better for the environment. You might also see some greenwashing as companies laud the viscose/Rayon as being from bamboo, but bamboo is a hard material that requires a lot of toxic chemicals to soften it into usable fibers for textiles. Where viscose is made using wood pulp, this still requires significant chemical treatment, so be sure to ask questions of manufacturers if this is a listed material.
What makes up the rest of the diaper?
The core wrap of a diaper contains similar fibers to the topsheet and acquisition distribution layer, but the absorbent core is where materials differ. This core is typically made of cellulose or pulp fibers, cotton, and/or synthetic fibers without a Super Absorbent Polymer (SAP), or SAP without fibers. The same concerns exist over the use of conventional cotton, while pulp fibers may be a source of formaldehyde and other chemicals.
SAPs are commonly made by blending acrylic acid with sodium hydroxide in the presence of an initiator to form a poly-acrylic acid, sodium salt. This is sometimes referred to as cross-linked sodium polyacrylate and is, essentially, the same stuff you’d use when making the ‘slime’ most kids were into a few years ago. SAP has the astonishing capacity to absorb up to 500 times its own weight of pure water. It does not biodegrade, though, and is a cause of environmental pollution.
Next, we have the waistband and leg cuff elastic, which are typically made with non-woven synthetic polymers such as polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene, and synthetic elastic or elastane. The backsheet is similarly made with film or non-woven fibers that are synthetic polymers or cellulose fibers, including cotton and calcium carbonate in some cases.
Finally, the fastening system usually features synthetic polymers and adhesives (which can contain toxic chemicals like formaldehyde), polyester, polyethylene, polypropylene, synthetic elastic, and thermoplastic polymers.
Diapers are basically petroleum products
Looking at the breakdown of a conventional disposable diaper, you can easily see the plethora of petroleum-derived chemicals and get an appreciation for how these products will never biodegrade. Even as they degrade slowly in landfill, they can leach toxic chemicals into the air, water, and soil, harming wildlife and the planet as a whole. And the potential presence of carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting, neurotoxic chemicals in dyes, bleaches, adhesives, and other components of disposable diapers is just mindboggling when you consider how they are used.
Wood pulp and cotton aren’t necessarily toxic, but they may be treated with problematic chemicals (such as chlorine and glyphosate) that are present in the final product or that create toxic by-products such as carcinogenic dioxanes during manufacturing.
As for the other materials, these synthetic petrochemicals can cause skin irritation and discomfort and make it hard for skin to breathe, all of which raises the risk of bacterial growth, infection, skin irritation, and other health problems. Not a great way to start out life.
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.
Now that you’re up to speed on the environmental impact of diapers, make sure to check out the following posts:
- The 8 Best Eco-Friendly, Non-Toxic Baby Changing Tables
- The Best Non-Toxic, Eco-Friendly Changing Pads and Covers
- The Best Eco-Friendly Wipes for Your Baby and for the Planet
- Everything You Wanted to Know About Wet Wipes
- The Best Eco-Friendly, Non-Toxic Crib Mattresses for 2021
- Things to Consider When Buying an Eco-Friendly, Non-Toxic Crib