Editor’s Note 6/21/2016: Are you deciding between cloth and disposable diapers? Sightline senior communications strategist Anna Fahey weighs the pros and cons of both options in this popular Sightline article.

Editor’s Note 12/17/2009: Anna finished this post (and a few more) before she went on maternity leave. She gave birth to a healthy girl, Audrey, on December 13.

Cloth or disposable? Clark wrote about this way back in 2005. I guess it’s a question that Sightliners, rightfully, agonize over as they’re gearing up for a diapering blitz of their own. Our baby will probably be changed between 3,000 and 7,000 times in the first two years. For now, still a few months away from my due date, I still get kind of flustered when people ask me my diapering plan; I don’t have one. But I’m reading up. So far, as I weigh cost, health issues, and environmental footprint, cloth is winning out. But, as several new mothers have warned me, I might change my tune a few weeks into this adventure.

The diaper download

At the time Clark posted about diapers a few years ago, a study commissioned by the British Environment Agency (reported on here) had just come out suggesting there’s almost no difference between the two, at least in terms of environmental impacts. It sounded like the grocery bag question (paper vs. plastic) where other choices—like what you put in the bag—made the biggest difference. In the case of diapers, the comparison of environmental impacts depends a lot on how the cloth ones are cleaned and dried.

Still, when I read that an estimated 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used each year in the US, resulting in a possible 3.4 million tons deposited annually in landfills, I can’t bear the thought of adding to that pile. And apparently, disposable diapers take over 200 years to decompose—meaning that every single diaper ever tossed still sits in the landfill where it landed. Yuck.

All the same, ecological concerns might take a backseat when you’re talking about your own precious new baby. We think of cloth diapers as baggy and droopy—less absorbent, less comfortable for baby. But do I really want my baby sealed in plastic 24 hours a day? Then again, disposables are really convenient and work really well—what about my sanity?

Health and toxics concerns

Convenience isn’t everything (veteran diaperers will laugh, but I’m still idealistic); there are real health concerns with disposables. They contain dyes, sodium polyacrylate (the “super absorbent” gel), and dioxin, which is a by-product of bleaching paper. Sodium polyacrylate has been linked in the past to toxic shock syndrome and allergic reactions—and it’s potentially lethal to pets.

Some dyes and dioxin, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, are known to cause damage to the central nervous system, kidneys, and liver—and may be linked to cancer. In fact, dioxin is so toxic that even the smallest detectable quantities have been known to cause immune system suppression, liver disease, and genetic problems in lab animals.

The Food & Drug Administration has received reports that fragrances in disposables caused headaches, dizziness, rashes and chemical burns. Babies have also choked or suffocated on pieces of plastic from diapers. Of course, all these chemicals have potential risks for baby, but they’re also diaper-related environmental hazards that affect entire ecosystems.

Cost considerations

And what about costs? Reusable diapers (cloth or otherwise) are easier on the wallet. During the 2.5 years a child might be using diapers, reusables would cost between $400 and $1,700 for diapers, laundry supplies, water, and electricity. Over the same period, disposables would set you back $2,500 or so. If you pass the cloth diapers along to another child, the cost savings of reusables is even greater. A diaper service costs about the same as or a little less than disposables. (Everything you could possibly want to know about diaper costs is laid out here.)

Lots of points for cloth so far. But the debate about ecological impacts rages on.

Environmental impacts across the life cycle

In one cradle-to-grave study sponsored by the National Association of Diaper Services (NADS) and conducted by Carl Lehrburger and colleagues, disposable diapers were found to produce seven times more solid waste when discarded and three times more waste in the manufacturing process. According to industry data from Franklin Associates and the American Petroleum Institute, 3.5 billion gallons of oil are used to produce the 18 million throwaway diapers that end up in landfills each year.

3.5B gallons of oil are used to produce the 18M throwaway diapers that end up in landfills each year.
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On top of that, the effluents from the plastic, pulp, and paper industries are far more hazardous than those from the cotton-growing and -manufacturing processes (also not without hazards) that go into the production of cloth diapers. Cloth diapers are most commonly made of cotton, which is generally considered an environmentally wasteful crop to grow: “Conventional cotton is one of the most chemically-dependent crops, sucking up 10 percent of all agricultural chemicals and 25 percent of insecticides on 3 percent of our arable land; that’s more than any other crop per unit.” This effect can be mitigated by using other materials, such as bamboo and hemp, to make diapers.

On the other hand, single-use diapers consume less water than reusables laundered at home, but more than those sent to a commercial diaper service. Washing cloth diapers at home uses 50 to 70 gallons of water every three days. This is where high-efficiency washing machines would make a big difference. A diaper service usually puts its diapers through an average of 13 water changes, but because of bulk, uses less water and energy per diaper than one laundry load at home.

Clark’s point from 2005 holds up in new research. In October 2008, the most comprehensive study to date, “An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies” by the UK Environment Agency and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, stated that reusable diapers can cause significantly less (up to 40 per cent) or significantly more damage to the environment than disposable ones, depending mostly on how parents wash and dry them.

The “baseline scenario” showed that the difference in green-house emissions was insignificant (in fact, disposables even scored slightly better). However, much better results (emission cuts of up to 40 percent) could be achieved by using reusable diapers more rationally. “The report shows that, in contrast to the use of disposable nappies, it is consumers’ behaviour after purchase that determines most of the impacts from reusable nappies.”

So what’s a parent to do?

According to the UK Environment Agency report, cloth “nappy” users can reduce their environmental impacts by:

    • Line drying outside whenever possible.
    • Tumble drying as little as possible.
    • When replacing appliances, choosing more energy efficient appliances.
    • Not washing above 60 °C [140 °F].
    • Washing fuller loads.
    • Using the same cloth diapers for multiple children.

Plus, new diaper technologies make for even more choices these days. There’s the “eco-disposable” that composts (Attitude is one brand). And there are hybrids—cloth diapers with a disposable inner layer (the gDiaper is one that can even be safely flushed down the toilet). As well as cloth diapers that are fitted and equipped with Velcro and are supposed to be way more comfortable and effective than the old trifolds (or can be used in combination with trifolds). Grist posted an excellent guide to eco-diapers last year. In any case, it seems that there’s often a tradeoff between eco-friendliness and “performance.”

Notably, I’ve heard—and maybe there’s a study somewhere—that cloth diapers encourage earlier potty training (less comfortable, more motivation for parents to train), so the eco and pocketbook benefit is fewer months or even fewer years of diapering. Sounds good to me!

Still, it’s exhausting just thinking about all of it! I’m still leaning toward cloth. I dream of a diaper service (I haven’t factored in the fossil fuels needed to run the van to my house and all around town to scoop up the poopy nappys! But again, it’s happening in bulk—and likely a diesel truck…).

I dream about a brand new, super-efficient washing machine, too. But in the end, I’m certain to use some combination of diaper types before my kid is potty-trained—probably even a Pampers or two. And I’ll surely find something else to obsess about before the baby’s born.

Speaking of which, anybody know anything about baby wipes?