Are Cloth Diapers Really Better for the Environment?

Original Post

The following is a guest post written by Karen Randall of New and Green Baby Co.

This is a big question on the minds of new parents. Common opinions out there may say that cloth diapers are equal to or less environmentally friendly than disposables. Have a look at the following information and decide for yourself.

Let’s take a closer look at some numbers:
How many diaper changes will your baby go through in the next three years? 7200!
Those thousands of diaper changes can be managed with 7200 disposable diapers or 24-48 cloth diapers! Keeping these numbers in mind, let’s look what disposable and reusable diapers are composed of and what kind of draw they have on the environment - from manufacturing to end use.

Most disposables are made of petroleum based plastics for the outer layer, an absorbent layer of wood pulp fluff + super absorbent gel beads (sodium polyacrylate) and bleached paper. Disposables typically also have dyes and fragrances in them to make them more pleasing to the consumer.

Each disposable diaper requires 1 cup of crude oil to manufacture the plastic. Disposable diapers create 2.3 times as much water waste, use 3.5 times as much energy than cloth diapers. The bleaching process also creates dioxins as a byproduct. Multiply these factors by 7200 to extrapolate the environmental impact of diapering one child in disposable diapers.

Cloth diapers are made from various textiles, the most eco-friendly being bamboo, hemp, organic cotton and wool. Home laundering of diapers each week uses about as much water as flushing your toilet 5 times each day during that week. You can take steps to reduce your energy footprint by washing other laundry in cold, hang drying where able and using an earth-friendly detergent.

Bamboo & Hemp Diapers are becoming more and more popular, and for good reason. Read more about bamboo and hemp’s eco-friendly growing conditions and their excellent properties related to cloth diapering.

Wool is a fabulous, renewable resource to use for a diaper cover. Read more about wool and other diaper covers here.

By choosing to diaper your child in Reusable Cloth Diapers, you can:
  • Make a dent in the 4,000,000 disposable diapers thrown away every day in Canada
  • Keep 1 ton of solid waste out of our landfills (per child)
  • Reduce the amount of petroleum dependent products you are using in your household
  • Adhere to the three R’s - Reduce (only 24-48 diapers vs. 7200), Reuse (every two days you are washing and Reusing your diapers) and Recycle (use the same set of diapers for baby #2 or pass on to another family)
  • Teach your children that small steps can make a big difference in their world.

More information from For Baby with Love:

Why NOT disposables? What's so bad about disposable diapers anyway? Well, probably a lot of things you may not have thought of...

What disposables are made of:

- Disposable diapers are made from super absorbing hydrophilic polymers called polyacrylates. What does this mean? Basically, these are water loving materials that can absorb hundreds of times their weight in water. A large disposable diaper can hold half a gallon of water. These polymers don't dissolve in water, but solidify into a gel.

What's so bad about this stuff?

- Published studies have found that mice exposed to the materials in disposable diapers suffered from eye, nose and throat irritations (much like an asthma attack), this was attributed to gases emanating from the chemicals in the diapers. - It is estimated that 300 million pounds of polycrylate polymers are used in disposable products (diapers, feminine pads, etc) per year (in the U.S.A). This results in a large amount of the material being discarded. With so much of this material making it's way to landfill sites, it's important to understand the effect the chemicals have on the environment. - Very little work has been done to determine the behaviour of these materials in environmental systems (ie. what happens after they are disposed of, how are groundwater and surface water systems affected? What are the long term environmental implications?).

The Waste Factor:

- It is estimated that over 4 million disposable diapers are discarded in Canada EVERY DAY! That is a lot of diapers (that's about 1.6 billion per year!). Babies are estimated to require between 5000 and 7000 diaper changes in their lifetime.

- The manufacture of disposable diapers in Canada consumes approximately 65,500 tonnes of pulp, 8,800 tonnes of plastic and 9,800 tonnes of packing material annually (source: Environment Canada/Raven Recycling).- Landfill sites are not designed to handle human waste (dumping diapers threatens the health of sanitary workers, water supplies and wildlife).

Other things to consider:

- Recent studies have suggested that plastic lined disposable diapers may cause an increase in scrotal temperature in boys - it is thought that this might be one of the factors contributing to decreased male fertility.

- Disposable diaper manufacturers do not need to disclose materials used (the article I read this in was from Great Britain, but an American article I read also stated that "diaper contents are a highly guarded secret".) Research by Greenpeace has found levels of Tributyl Tin in disposable diapers up to 3.6 times the World Health Organizations estimated daily tolerable intake.

References:Heal, C. and Hooper, C. 2001. Other Implications of disposable nappies, in Letters,Arch. Dis. Child, vol. 85, p. 269.Martin, J.E., 1996. Environmental impact studies of the disposal of polyacrylate polymers used in consumer products, in The Science of the Total Environment, vol. 191 p. 225-234. "Superabsorbers", Scientific American, Dec. 2000, p. 100-101.

My useful links:

Washing and Caring for Cloth Diapers

Shop Canadian:

For Baby With Love

Down to Earth Baby Gear

Parenting by Nature

Moms and Bums

*Even if you use disposable diapers, always put your child's poo in the toilet, where it can be properly treated! :)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree! I always scoffed at the "it's a wash" conclusion that enviro groups had come to about cloth vs. disposable. But 4 million disposables a day in landfill? Last time I checked we were running out of places to send our gargbage.

Great article. Nice to find another CanRef cloth diaper user. :)