Diaper covers small_Flickr_simplylaFinally an answer to the question that weighs on every eco-minded mom and dad: Which is the most environmentally friendly diaper option—cloth or disposable?

When tallying a nappy’s pros and cons, cloth diapers lose points for the energy and water required to wash and dry the diapers, and for the gasoline burned if using a diaper service that picks up and returns the diapers. They win points for being reusable many times over and creating less waste.

Disposable diapers cost the environment in the raw materials and pee-absorbing chemicals used to make the single-use items, and for their long-lasting burden in landfills. Plus, they require fuel to ship them out to stores and back to the trash heap.

There have been oodles of studies trying to answer the debate, and most come up with no clear winner between cloth or disposable, or in some cases one edges out the other—often depending on who funded the research (this is the most comprehensive study so far).

But I think there is an answer—and it depends on where the wee one’s rear is reared.

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  • Here’s a bit of explanation. A couple of years ago when I was pregnant, I happened to catch Denis Hayes one morning on KUOW. Hayes, a founder of the first Earth Day who is now the president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, a group that supports sustainability-related work (including some of Sightline’s), was talking about environmental issues when the diaper question was raised.

    His ruling? Cloth. How did he come to the conclusion? At the time, I didn’t care. I was overwhelmed getting ready for the baby, and I had interviewed Hayes while working at the Seattle P-I. He was smart and I trusted his opinion.

    This summer I had the chance to delve deeper into the diaper debate for a story in Seattle’s Child, which is out now in a special baby-focused issue. I asked Hayes to elaborate on his KUOW proclamation. Here’s the skinny from him via email:

    Diapers are an example of situational ethics. Do you live in a place where water is scarce? Do you live in a place where landfill is scarce and distant? Do you have access to a good diaper service with efficient laundry equipment and efficient pick-up routes? If you wash cloth diapers yourself, can you dry them on a clothesline? Etc., etc.

    In Seattle, obviously, we have lots of water; no close-by landfill; and a number of diaper services.

    So the key factor to consider is where the baby lives. In a location with limited water and dirty, coal-fired power, disposables could be the way to go. But in rainy Seattle with our hydro-powered electricity, cloth is the Earth-friendly choice.

    Keep in mind that these are not, in fact, the only two choices available. A company called gDiapers makes a “hybrid” diaper that uses a disposable, flushable insert that’s put inside of a waterproof cover akin to those used with cloth diapers. The gDiaper website says the insert is actually compostable, but that seems kind of yuck.

    Or there’s the diaper-free option, also called elimination communication. In that case, the parent or caregiver for a baby learns to watch for cues—facial expressions, sounds, etc.—that indicate that a potty break is imminent. Then the baby is put on a toilet and the parent makes a sound that the baby learns to associate with using the bathroom. In time, the baby can be prompted to pee when she hears the noise from the parent, and eventually learns to use sign language or words to ask to use the toilet herself. From a Western perspective, elimination communication sounds really weird and improbable, but having seen it used firsthand, it’s impressive. (I spent time with a mom and diaper-free baby in the Seattle’s Child article, if you want to learn more.)

    But if the thought of trying to watch for potty cues from a newborn while you’re sleep deprived and hormonally loopy sounds a bit overwhelming, northwesterners can opt for cloth and go a little greener.

    Drying diaper covers photo from Flickr user simplyla used a Creative Commons license.