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.
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.
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?
Matt the Engineer
Congratulations!!!As an environmentalist father of a 10-month old that spent 8 months home with my son (thanks, economy), I am an expert at this subject. Seriously – send me an e-mail if you want an expansion of what I’m about to write – I could write a book on the subject.My largest issue with the research that’s been done is that it isn’t apples to apples. As the disposable diaper industry has grown, babies have gone from being pottie trained in around a year to often over 3 years (and well past, judging by the large size disposables). The issue is that disposables are too good – babies don’t mind hanging around in wet disposable diapers because they don’t feel wet. My son started using a baby toilet at 3 months and now at 10 months we’re almost ready to start him on training pants – thanks to cloth diapers and spending a minute or two a few times a day on the baby toilet. My point? 1 year vs. 3+ years should change the analysis quite a bit. Even at 10 months the amount of diapers I do has dropped dramatically since his diaper usually stays dry. Of course, on the other side people don’t change disposable diapers as often (ew).Now, my general advice. Use the diaper service for the first few months. It’s just easier to deal with and you’d rather be spending time with Audry than doing diapers. Plus, then you can get away with only buying a single size diaper (she’ll grow fast, I promise). Buy g-Diapers – they’re great for travel, and the unadvertised secret is that you can use the covers with regular cloth diapers (and they’re the best covers on the market).Next, buy chinese tri-fold cotton diapers in bulk from the Internet (or bamboo or hemp if you have the cash – I was jobless and had to economize). Three dozen will allow you to only do diapers once a week. Oh, and I use cloth wipes with a wipes warmer. Just throw them in with your diaper laundry.
As a first time mom, I have had tonnes of questions about training and getting my (soon to be born baby) out of diapers faster. We would like to use cloth, but I know nothing about the process. I am hoping to have our child out of/ nearly out of diapers by the time I return to work after 1 year. Your approach is logical and not filled with some of the jargon many moms use. I was hoping you could give me more information about how you managed to get your child out of diapers so quickly and if you had any pointers you could share?
Im not sure if you will still get this setting as how long it has been since the original post, my original big issue was how do “I” decide what i want, but now I’m trying to think how can i convince my husband to my decision of cloths, if i decide that.
Only toilet paper should go down the toilet. Diaper liners are among those products (including wipes and other disposables branded “flushable”) that block up public sewer mains, costing taxpayer dollars to clean up. Please put diaper liners in the trash.
Congratulations Anna! Now that you’re in parentland for real, speculation can give way to experimentation – and everything changes in parenthood, not just diapers. I found that it was a great opportunity to rethink my values and especially, how I chose to manifest them in my actions because someone was watching.We found that cloth was the way to go, with a diaper service meeting the need for the first 3 months. The service company we chose offered discounts on the trifold that Matt mentions (no bamboo or hemp available when I was a new mom, unfortunately, but sounds perfect if you can afford them) when we were ready to buy. Now that I’m the parent of an 18 year old, I still use the diapers as household rags…they are absorbent (obviously) incredibly soft and extremely durable. They’ve outperformed their intended use well beyond expectations. And if we’d had more children they would have done the job without question. You can also pass them on to another grateful family when you’re done (no ick factor there, diaper services are just that).We had a small apartment washer to do them every 3-4 days and dried them inside the house on a rack during winter (this was Montreal!) and on a line in summer, so skipped the dryer. A few shakes before use takes care of the stiffness that air drying leaves the fabric with.Cover choice is very important, especially if you find that your child has sensitive skin and can’t tolerate any synthetics or chemically treated natural fabrics (or plastic). Wool covers take care of this issue well, as the natural lanolin repels moisture. A set of ten covers allows you to change regularly so that they don’t get soaked along with the diaper; then simply air dry them in rotation so that you can use them one more time before laundering them as well. Obviously if they get soaked or soiled you’ve got to wash them.That said, we found that disposable diapers conserved the most valuable resource of all (at least to parents): sleep. As your child gets older and produces more waste, they (and thus you) can be wakened by the cold, wet sensation that an 8 hour stretch without a change can create – and they are not happy, nor do they necessarily go back to sleep. Disposable diapers, with that ‘magical’ gel, can fill beyond comprehension without any apparent discomfort to the wearer. So we used disposable diapers for overnight and cloth for the duration of the day. I could have lost sleep over the environmental impact, but I didn’t – real sleep was frankly more important for all of us.I definitely agree with Matt on cloth’s superiority when it comes to kids feeling wet / soiled and the relationship to toilet training. The sooner a child can make the connection between the urge and the sensation of wetness / soiling, the sooner they can learn to respond to and control it, as long as their nervous system is mature enough. Disposable diapers can get in the way of this process. Again, overnight is a different story, and a heavy sleeper may take longer to achieve this control. When they are toilet trained you can teach them early not to flush every time they go, too.
I was among those who started with all-cloth, laundered at home in a front-loading machine and hung out to dry. But then life intervened: another baby came along. And before I knew it, it was almost always disposables.A thought: disposables for some occasions; cloth for others. Disposables are the equivalents of the Zipcar in my car-lite lifestyle. Once or twice a week, it’s the way to go. The rest of the time, it’s unnecessary. Maybe a similar approach for diapers?
A recent article on Treehugger indicated that adult diapers were now taking up approximately 7% of the waste stream.There are way more adults out there that could be wearing these in the next couple of decades than babies and toddlers – our disposable society needs to quit making and marketing so much stuff that if designed away from a profit margin, and instead focusing on resource use, (yes space in a landfill is a resource too) and solutions that are human scaled, not corporate scaled.
I am so pleased to read these comments. As a mother who raised her children before disposable diapers were invented, I love your rational approaches to the choices you have. While you’re at it, teach your children to wash clothes in cold water, wear things more than once and use a clothes line or rack at least for jeans, sweatshirts and towels. It’s easy, smells good, saves LOTS of energy and doesn’t wear out the fabric as fast.
Way to go Anna! We’re on our second child using cloth and are very happy with our choice. We found the most effective solution for us was to use the fleece lined shells that you stuff liners into. They work for nights as well as days (although the nights take a lot of stuffing!). We have a pretty good system down that enables us both to chip away at cleaning diapers without much disruption to our normal routine. We’ve found the most time consuming aspect to be stuffing the diapers… we use a HE washing machine and only tumble dry the liners. The shells hang on a rack and if the sun is available, that is also good for bleaching. Our son still uses nighttime diapers and our daughter is diapered full time and I estimate we have to run a load every 3-4 days. I haven’t kept track of what we’ve invested (my wife is a whiz at finding deals on craigslist and manufacturer’s websites as well as resale places), but I would conservatively estimate roughly $700. We’ve already sold some of them on Craigslist and I can say with confidence that we’ll recoup at least 75% of our investment as there is demand for these things. Cloth is a no brainer from a financial standpoint and I believe environmental as well. Shoot me an email if you would like to talk to my wife… seriously, she could go into diaper consulting.
I want to cloth diaper but have NO IDEA where to start could you help?
Laura, good for you! I’m not an expert on cloth diapering but there are some resources online—do a search for “cloth diapers 101.” One thing I can say is that a diaper service is pretty great if you can swing it. You can Google it for your location and see what comes up and what the prices are (from what I’ve read, the costs are fairly similar to “disposables”). Lots of people swear by the “all-in-one” style diapers where you wash them yourself. I used Fuzzi Bunz, I think, and they worked pretty well (You can find all kinds of these on eBay–used and otherwise). We continued to use landfill diapers for naps and night because it seemed to keep our little one asleep longer (less dampness). It was worth it to us to get the extra sleep. I have friends that swear by Bum Genius and others who prefer the partially disposable gDiapers.
Wow, I don’t have too much to add. We’ve mostly stuck with cloth through 2 kids though as Alan suggested we’ve used disposables on some trips (in a zipcar at times).On wipes, in the diaper bag we keep some cloths and a small spray bottle of witchhazel and Jojoba Oil (we got it at The Herbalist) as described at http://www.greenmountaindiapers.com/other.htm
Not much time to write…but I LOVE this conversation. I’ve learned a ton. Thanks, all, for sharing all these excellent tips.
hey I really like this. Im a school student doing a project on diapers. So this really helped
Okay, I guess I get to be the “naughty,” landfill filling, convenience loving mom since we have used disposible diapers with our first son who is now a year old. Let me tell you, we go through A LOT of diapers and probably have another year or so to go with them. The main reason we went with disposibles instead of cloth (which I wanted to do) was because my husband couldn’t stomach the thought of having to wash the diapers himself, nor did he want to spend the money upfront to buy a bunch of cloth diapers or pay for a service (it also didn’t help when we were given a huge Costco size box of Pampers as a baby shower gift). I would agree that it does cost more financially and environmentally to use disposible diapers. It also weighs heavily on my conscious knowing all that I do about the chemicals in them and how they will still be around in the ground long past when my son is gone. Especially with seeing how many friends are using cloth diapers and how it is actually rather easy and not as gross as you would think. I hope to use cloth with the next child.The only plus side I can think of is that my son has only gotten a diaper rash once in 1 year with disposibles.
Not much to add on diapers…we used the service for the first months and I started washing my own cloth diapers for the duration of diaper use. I did put on a disposable at night time as I found the cloth just got too wet.
On wipes… I use biodegradable diaper liners and just wet them with water from the tap. They are soft and I find they work better than a wipe. For my older baby (just two) who is only pooping once a day I use a diaper liner first – to get the majority of the poop – and then a cloth to get him nice and clean and just throw it in the wash. Good luck!
A professor of chemistry told me that the “stuff” in a diaper (dis) consists of the same stuff that they put in milky, canned, diet drinks (trying to avoid brand names) to fill you up–it they are harmless. I trust her judgement. perfumes are probably the cause of the reactions–I am, for one, allergic to all scents in ALL things! Knock the perfume off, ladies–makes me choke!
One thing noone has mentioned: I had so many other baby items that had to be washed it seemed not extra to add the diapers, so it’s NOT JUST a diaper load. Disposal diapers are a luxury item that many people can afford. It makes no sense to use disposal diapers if money is in short supply.
I’d like to suggest a different way of thinking about this. We could be using cloth diapers in a way that would put them head and shoulders above disposables in any comprehensive analysis. We would accomplish this by reusing rather than wasting the water used to wash them.
To this end, what if composting toilets were the norm? I know they’re not as of now, but the evidence is clear that there’s no reason they shouldn’t be: they’re completely safe if properly managed, they significantly cut down on water usage, and they turn a “waste” product, a liability and health hazard, into a resource (compost).
So if that were the case, the majority of the poop from baby’s diaper could be scraped and/or sprayed off into the composting toilet and the cloth diapers could be washed as normal, with the blackwater (scraping and/or spraying the diaper won’t remove all the poop or coliform bacteria from the diaper, so this would definitely be blackwater and not greywater) routed through a wetland area with reeds, etc., for purification before being finally routed to a greywater catchment area.
I know just about nobody is doing this as a whole right now, but there are plenty of people doing various different parts of it, and there is enough evidence to know this would be safe and effective. This would create a closed-loop system where the only “waste” would be whatever waste is produced in the manufacturing process of the diapers and related implements, and the water being consumed is being reused to produce resources in the form of plants.
Disposables are a dead-end, inherently wasteful product. Cloth diapers at least don’t really produce true “waste,” even as they are being used now, as imperfect as that is. Even if cloth diapers are being washed at home with an older, relatively inefficient top-load washing machine and the water is being routed to the sewer system (as I did with both of my kids), it’s not like that water is going entirely to waste. Much could be improved with how we use/reuse water, but even as things stand now, at least all the water I used to wash my kids’s cloth diapers went into Albuquerque’s sewer system and was purified before being dumped into the Rio Grande. Again, this isn’t a great (re-)use of water, but it’s something. And we could greatly improve on it. There’s not much that could improve disposables or turn them into a resource–by definition they’re trash, a waste product and liability, once they’ve been used.
In general when considering different product use options, I think it’s important to consider waste as a heavily weighted factor. For instance, the fact that plastic shopping bags are technically reusable doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of them don’t and won’t get recycled, and when a plastic shopping bag becomes litter, it doesn’t really break down, and becomes a pollutant. At least a paper shopping bag gone to waste is just paper. So looking at resource consumption comparisons to the exclusion (or at least the insufficient consideration) of waste streams frames these types of analyses as linear rather than cyclical, when in actuality life is all about cycles.