When it comes to diapers, it’s complicated! And with the average baby using between 6000 and 8000 diapers in their tiny lives, it’s an important debate to have.
Here is The Ultimate Guide To Diapers: Cloth Versus Disposables.
This is one of the most common questions I get from new moms and it’s also one of the most contentious. When discussing a topic like this, I want to be as objective as possible. I don’t have kids so I am approaching this strictly from a numbers perspective. The point of this post is to give you the tools you need to make an informed decision without any judgment or preconceived notions as to which is the better option.
I’ve have read so many articles and studies that give a very simplified choice between the two options, it’s actually not a simple topic at all. There is much more to it than the environmental impact of the two choices, disposable or reusable.
Many of these studies have looked at the material, energy, and water needed to make diapers as well as how they are disposed of. Before 2005, most of the studies conducted were funded by either disposable or cloth diaper industries, which left the results slightly biased.
In 2005 that changed when a study by The Environment Agency, a British government bureau found virtually no difference between the environmental effects of cloth and disposable diapers. In fact, the authors wrote, “overall no system clearly had better or worse environmental performance, although the life-cycle stages that are the main source for these impacts are different for each system.”
Well, that settles it! Um, Not so fast. A Dutch study a few years later concluded that cloth diapers are as much as seven times better for the environment than conventional disposable diapers. Confused? Me too!
We do know this for sure: Washing cloth diapers consumes water, energy and resources. Conventional diapers can be toxic and take up landfill space.
It’s really important to take other things into account. For example, in Canada, we tend to use more front-loading machines, which are better. But we also tend to use and waste more electricity per capita, which is not so good.
In 2009, The University of Queensland looked at four environmental indicators: water resource depletion, non-renewable energy depletion, solid waste and land use for resource production. It considered the ‘life cycle’ impact: from the growing of cotton (for the cloth nappies) and timber (for the wood pulp used in disposables), the manufacture of the nappies and transportation, through to use (including water & energy used in washing cloth nappies) and disposal.
Not only was it found that the water usage between cotton nappies and disposable nappies was comparable, but they also found that disposables used more energy and more land resources in their production and that disposables generate 20 times more solid waste.
Like with any study there are certain factors to keep in mind:
- Kimberly-Clark Australia (manufacturer of Huggies) supplied most of the data regarding disposables.
- The study considered nappies made of cotton fabric only. Hemp and bamboo fabrics are generally considered more environmentally friendly crops to grow (using less water, pesticides, and land space).
- The researchers included covers (of the plastic pants variety) in their energy/water/waste figures for cloth nappies.
Disposables have also come a long way, with some of them now being made up of more compostable content.
Let’s take a deeper look, shall we?
The convenience factor. It’s probably not on the top of your list to wash dirty diapers and they are really good for on-the-go too.
No water or detergent is used. Detergents can contain harsh phosphates that can harm our waterways and with water becoming scarcer and scarer, disposables might be your only option. In a place like Cape Town for example, where water is scarce, you are not going to want to be washing diapers.
Less diaper rash. They are designed to keep water away.
You don’t have to change them as often, thanks to the absorbency.
The garbage factor. Diapers end up in the landfill, all of them, there is no getting around that! We also need to consider what’s inside the layers of those diapers. There are normally three of them. This article notes that consumers need to ask questions about what those layers are and adds:
“Waterproof Outer Shell – all disposable diapers include a waterproof material for the diaper’s outer shell. This layer is most often a petroleum-based plastic or plastic-treated material. Some green diaper companies use a plant-based plastic (aka bioplastic) to provide the waterproof coating, which you may see referred to as PLA or polylactic acid in their ingredients.”
Keep in mind these types plastic can into the soil in landfills polluting our water ecosystems.
They are expensive, this article on Global News says:
“The average child uses more than 2,700 diapers in the first 12 months, according to Investopedia. Disposable diapers tend to cost 20-25 cents each, so you’re looking at $550 a year at least. Cloth diapers cost about $20 per diaper – or nearly $500 for 24 of them, according to van de Geyn. A diaper service that picks up soiled diapers and delivers clean ones can cost more than $25 per week, she adds.”
There is evidence of harmful chemicals like dioxins are present.
A lot of resources go into making them. Approximately 35 liters of water are required to manufacture just one disposable diaper, now, multiply that water footprint by the thousands of disposables required for just one child, its a lot.
In North America, we consume about 30 billion disposables evey year.
Each baby wearing disposable diapers creates about 1 Ton of toxic garbage over the course of two years.
Disposable diapers account for 50% of household waste
If you are looking for some better brands, here is an AMAZING consumer report from Baby Gear Lab called: The Battle for the Best Disposable Diapers.
You could also cycle the two, using both in a rotation.
Check to see if your local municipality accepts disposable diapers, it’s not always a guarantee where they will end up, but its a start I guess.
Disposable diapers = high waste and high resources used
Reusable diapers = high water, lots of detergents and lots of energy, mostly electricity.
We also have several guides up on The Hub to help you:
and more here.
Moving onto CLOTH OR REUSABLE DIAPERS
You can use reusable diapers and cloth’s and rags around the house once your kids are potty trained.
They are cheaper if you launder them yourself. A shit loads less waste (tee hee hee).
Organic fabrics would be your best bet, especially if it’s cotton. Conventional cotton is packed full of toxic pesticides. They will cost a bit more, but overall a decent investment if you want to lower your footprint.
Studies have shown that a baby will spend at least 20% less time in diapers, and be potty trained a year earlier, on average.
Cloth diapers will save you money — you’ll spend about $300 during your child’s diaper-wearing years versus the $2,000 you’d spend on disposable baby diapers for the same amount of time.
It’s breakdown, they will biodegrade.
You use a wash load of water, detergents, and electricity when you wash them. If you can check all these off your list, you are an eco-hero:
- you have a highly efficient from loading machine
- your dryer has a moisture sensor
- you use eco laundry detergents
- your home is green powered
But that’s not the reality for most of us.
Cotton, again organic is better. Some cotton might be bleached to make it whiter.
They are labour heavy and time-consuming.
Opt for diapers like these from @Bumbini they fit well and are super cute.
Cloth diapers are energy and water hogs, so try to make greener choices in other areas of your life to offset the carbon and water footprint.
Here are some examples:
You can also opt for a nappy pick up service. Just make sure to ask the following: questions:
- What water and energy measure do they have in place
- What kinds of detergents are they using, should be phosphate-free
- Is there chlorine in the rinse water? Chlorine can leave dioxin residue in nappies
I hope this article has given you the tools to help you make an informed decision.
There is no perfect choice, it comes down to personal preference and I think the one thing we can all agree is that the sooner you can potty train your little one, the better!