The reusable cloth and disposable diapers debate

(First published November 2006, updated March 2011)

Diapers, also known as nappies in many parts of the world, have been the subject of great debate in relation to which is a more earth friendly option – disposables or reusable cloth? Having used both, I would have immediately said cloth diapers had less of an environmental impact, but that may not necessarily be the case.

An apparently thorough updated study carried out by an advisory board to the UK Environment Agency a couple of years ago drew this conclusion – cloth diapers had a slightly bigger carbon dioxide impact than that of disposable nappies. I was quite taken aback – how could this be?

When both types of diapers were studied, the *whole* lifecycle of the product was scrutinized – materials, chemicals and energy consumed during production, usage and disposal. The environmental impact categories the diapers were assessed against were climate change, ozone depletion, human toxicity, acidification, fresh-water aquatic toxicity, terrestrial toxicity, photochemical oxidant formation and eutrophication. The resulting  updated report can be viewed here (PDF)

Disposable nappies are usually made from petroleum by-products and tree products such as fluff pulp. Other chemicals may be added, such as fragrances. Cloth diapers are usually made from cotton – a pesticide, herbicide, synthetic fertilizer and water intensive crop.

The updated study found the average 2006 disposable nappy would result in a global warming impact of approximately 1,220 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents used over the two and a half years a child is typically in nappies. For reusable nappies, it was approximately 1,256 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents.

However, the report notes for the home laundered nappy system, the main source of environmental impact is electricity used in washing and drying the nappies.

There are quite a few opportunities to lessen the impact of cloth nappies by:

  • lowering washing temperatures
  • use earth friendly washing detergents effective in cold water
  • stock up on diapers and wash only when you have a full load
  • refrain from using additional environmentally harsh wash enhancers
  • line dry diapers
  • offset your electricity use with green tags, or switch your electricity supply to a green provider
  • reroute washing machine water runoff into your garden or install a greywater recycling system
  • don’t iron diapers

In fact, by washing nappies in a fuller load, outdoor line drying all of the time, and reusing nappies on a second child, it would would lower the global warming impact by 40 per cent from the baseline scenario.

The other point to note is the diapers in the study were made of cotton, and I assume not organic cotton. The growing of cotton constitutes approximately 25% of the world’s insecticide and more than 10% of the pesticide usage. Cotton is the fourth most heavily synthetically fertilized crop globally. The cotton industry has also been responsible for massive environmental disasters such as the destruction of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and Kazahkstan.

There are alternatives to “normal” cotton – organic cotton. Better still is hemp. Hemp fabric is said to be three times stronger than cotton, more durable and has a better ability to absorb moisture. I haven’t seen 100% hemp diapers around, but you can certainly buy organic cotton/hemp blends – usually around 45% hemp and 55% organic cotton.

Another point often raised in this debate is water usage in washing cloth nappies. However, a great deal of water goes into making disposables and if used as directed by the manufacturer, solid wastes are meant to be flushed down the toilet; not thrown in the bin. I’m still researching some fairly accurate figures on actual water use involved with both.

If cloth nappies just aren’t an option for you for whatever reason; or if you’re just wanting the convenience of disposables from time to time, I’ve also noticed increasing numbers of brands of disposables that are chlorine-free, fragrance free and even some made from bamboo. These options are well worth looking into.

Have some earth friendly diaper tips? Please feel free to add them below.