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May 24, 2018  |  Login
Which Diapers Are Best For the Planet?
By Dr. Alan Greene

As a father and pediatrician, I’ve changed many diapers—enough to teach me that diapers are a daily reminder that as humans we deplete resources as we consume, and we make messes with our waste.

Those landfill diapers that are so easily tossed into the trash are clearly a major ecological issue. But what about the energy, water, and often chlorine involved in laundering cloth diapers? Comparing the environmental impact of different types of diapers has been the subject of a number of studies—with differing results often linked to the vested interests of those behind the study.

The largest and most objective study to date was carried out by the Environment Agency, the public body responsible for protecting the environment in England and Wales.1 The panel compared disposable diapers to home-laundered cloth diapers and commercially laundered cotton diapers in terms of global warming, ozone depletion, smog formation, de­pletion of nonrenewable resources, water pollution, acidification, human toxicity, and land pollution. The study did not include what I call hybrid diapers—the reusable diapers equipped with flushable, bio­de­gradable liners.

This study found that overall environmental impact is about the same for all three options they did consider; the biggest impact is on global warming, resource depletion, and acidification. For disposable diapers, the most significant impact comes during manufacture; for home-laundered diapers, the primary impact comes from the electricity used in washing and drying; for commercially laundered diapers, the biggest impact comes from use of fuels and electricity.

Thus, according to the Environment Agency, if you choose cloth diapers, the first focus should be on reducing the energy used during washing and drying and reducing fuels and emissions during transportation. If you choose disposable diapers, focus first on greener manufacturing.

Although the Environment Agency report is more thorough than other analyses to date, it is still quite incomplete. For instance, it looked only at the major brands used—not the greener alternatives. It didn’t look at making choices back at the very beginning of the manufacturing pro­cess: at the oil rigs where the plastic liners of landfill diapers begin, at the forests where the wood pulp starts as trees, and in the cotton fields long before cotton is a cloth. There is a big difference between cotton grown drenched in toxic chemicals and cotton organically grown, between sustainable forestry and irresponsible logging, between dioxin-producing chlorine gas in pulp mills and bleach-free diapers.

Whatever we choose for diapers, we have an unavoidable impact on the environment. But whatever we choose, we can make those diapers a little greener.

Impact of Diapers

When we say that two of the biggest environmental impacts of diapers are their contribution to global warming and depletion of nonrenewable resources, how big an impact are we talking about?

The Environment Agency report estimates that over the 2.5 years they assumed a child would be wearing diapers, the total impact, whichever diapers you chose, would be about the same as driving an average car thirteen hundred to twenty-two hundred miles over those thirty months. The highest estimates I’ve seen rate the impact as high as burning fifty-four gallons of gasoline a year for every year of diaper use.

Diaper Cleaning Tips

There’s no point in using cloth diapers if laundering puts harsh chemicals into the cloth and then back onto your baby’s skin (not to mention into the sewer system and water table). So keep the following cleaning tips in mind:
  • Avoid commercial fabric softeners. They soften with various oils that can decrease the absorbency of your diapers. Instead, use vinegar in the wash load. This helps get the soap out of the cloth to minimize possible irritants, and it softens the material.
  • Don’t use bleach. This harsh product will be absorbed by the cloth, and you do not want this against your baby’s skin.
  • Weather permitting, dry diapers on the clothesline. They will last longer and smell sweeter. If they get stiff after drying, simply throw them in the dryer for just a few minutes to soften the material.

The Best Diapers

The negative environmental and social effects of conventional landfill diapers are quite clear. more

1. Environment Agency. “Disposable Nappies or Reusables—Does It Make Any Difference to Our Environment?” .


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