Diapering takes a toll on the planet regardless of whether we use cloth or disposable products. However, we as consumers have more control over the environmental impact of reusable, cloth diapers.
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.
My wife and I chose cloth diapers (and Elimination Communication) for our baby mainly because we felt we could control the carbon footprint of reusables better than the legacy issues associate with disposables. In order to understand why, let’s look at the concept of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).
Life Cycle Assessment and Diapers
LCA looks 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.
The 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, disposable diapers add to waste and deplete the ozone layer, while reusable cloth diapers 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 and consumer behavior makes a huge difference in the lifetime impact of cloth diapering.
We can reduce the carbon footprint of cloth diapers
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.
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 bottom line
Disposable diapers aren’t great for the environment and cloth diapers aren’t without their issues. We have far more control over the impact of reusable cloth diapers, though, which is just one of the reasons we prefer them in our house (it’s also nice to know our baby isn’t wrapped in plastic).
To further reduce the impact of diapering, we got all our cloth diapers second- or third-hand and are certain they’ll be used again in the future. We try to wash diapers on cooler temperatures and hang them to dry whenever possible. And, for a variety of reasons, we also started doing a bit of Elimination Communication around six months, which also helps to minimize overall diaper use.