Note to my fellow parents: diaper your baby in whatever is right for you. There is no perfect answer. No judgment. Whatever gets you through the day 🙂
A fellow mom once told me that she loved and missed the diapering phase of life.
We sat next to each other on a park bench, me hunched over a wildly fidgeting baby as I tried to secure the side of a fresh diaper. My son twisted hard, knocking over the precariously balanced package of baby wipes next to him, nearly following it onto the cement below. I scooped him into my arms with half his diaper hanging off and gave that other mom what I imagine was my most incredulous look.
She just smiled and said “you’ll see”.
Switching to cloth
Cloth diapers are not easier than disposable ones.
Let me be clear. They are not easier to “dispose of.” Sure, cloth are easier to purchase; just a one time thing, no need to repeatedly buy more. No need to worry about running out, being left in the miserable situation of having no diaper for your baby who is demanding more nourishment – which you give while calculating the time it will take your baby to digest vs. the time it will take your partner to return from the closest store, where diaper prices are typical highest per diaper.
However, when it comes diapers overall, cloth are more difficult. I’m not going to tell you that it’s easier to wash and reuse something, than to throw something away.
Actually, I might tell you that.
It’s not easier for you and me, it’s not easier in the moment, but it might be easier on the planet. There’s a meme I came across years ago of unknown attribution:
This riff on plastic cutlery holds true for diapers as well. But like all memes, it WAY over simplifies the issue.
Is cloth even better for the environment?
I may not love diapering, but I love the planet. I love the wild and complex wilderness. I love the meticulously manicured urban green-space. I love to live my principals, so I had to ask myself “is cloth really better for the environment?”
What the spoon meme lacks is a Life Cycle Assessment between plastic and metal spoons.
Life Cycle Assessment
“an objective process to evaluate the environmental burdens associated with a product process or activity by identifying and quantifying energy and materials used and wastes released to the environment, to assess the impact of those energy and materials uses and releases on the environment, and to evaluate and implement opportunities to affect environmental improvements.” (Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.)
While evaluating and comparing environmental consequences is very complex and challenging, a Life Cycle Assessment is the best data-driven analysis tool available. And in the spoon case, metal is the clear winner. Cloth diapers on the other hand, are not so straight forward.
The most comprehensive open access (Springer has a 2013 assessment for $39.95) Life Cycle Assessment I could find was conducted in the UK, commissioned by the Environment Agency, and published in 2005 based on 01-02 data collection.
I like reading Life Cycle Assessments. They are a proverbial smack-in-the-face reminder of just how many resources go into the things we so casually purchase. Consider a disposable diaper: there is the pulp fluff, the elastic, the Calcium carbonate, the polymer-based adhesives and the polyester (just to name a scant few). Then there is the electricity and water that goes into extracting and manufacturing the raw materials, the transportation packaging, the transportation itself (both to the retailer and to your home), the individual packaging, not to mention the disposal itself.
Consider that the cotton in a cloth diaper has to be grown (with fertilizers and pesticides), then trucked to a cotton baler, and then to a textile cotton-spinning manufacturer, which consumes lots of electricity manufacturing the cloth. It has to be packaged and shipped to your home, where the diaper continues to use copious amounts water, detergent and electricity being repeatedly washed.
The 2005 UK Life Cycle Assessment compared disposable and prefold cloth diapers. Prefolds have largely been replaced by pocket or hybrid ones (at least for at-home washing). Disposable diapers have also improved their environmental impact in recent years. So as I read the report, I kept thinking, “Okay, this looks accurate, but it doesn’t pertain to my situation.” Then I found…. an updated addendum! (published in 2008). This update takes the Life Cycle Assessment one step further and considers Sensitivity Analyses. A Sensitivity Analysis is necessary when there are a number of scenarios with different variables that produce different outcomes. Or, to get more technical:
“Sensitivity analysis is a process where key input parameters about which there may be uncertainty or for which a range of values may exist are deliberately varied in the modelling and shows the effect that such variation could have had on the results of the assessment.”
What are some different scenarios?
For disposables these include what brand you buy, and what the practices of that brad’s manufacturer are. Do you buy in bulk, form a local store or order online?
For cloth these include what type of diaper is being used (prefold? pocket etc.) and what it’s made of (cotton, organic cotton, synthetic, or bamboo). What temperature water are diapers laundered in? What efficiency does your machine boast? Are they line dried or machine dried? Are you using boosters or liners?
As you can see, there are a LOT of variables to add to an already complex analysis. The cool part of this is… there are potions. More on that later.
It’s difficult to compare different production and disposal variables. But let”s take a look.
Cons of Cloth
Cloth diapers require more water not only in their washing, but in their production. Cotten (arguably the most common material cloth diapers are made with) is a water-sucking plant, and one of the most pesticide-covered crops there is. I used to live in California, an incredibly drought prone state, which made the water demands of cloth even more environmentally troubling.
When a disposable diaper is done being used, it no longer requires electricity, which is a major source of CO2 pollution. Unless your home is sustainably powered, a cloth diaper continues to use fossil fuels over the course of its life – washing and washing, and washing, and washing.
Cons of Disposable
While cotton is a problematic crop, disposable diapers are made primarily of highly-absorbent polymers and plastic fibers. In other words, finite petroleum extracted from the ground.
It is estimated a child uses between 5,000 and 6,000 disposable diapers before they are potty trained (assuming that happens around 2.5 years). And these diapers end up in landfills for… well let’s just say the ones your parents used on you are still around, and so are the ones your grandparents used on them. Gross to think about right?
Once in the landfill, these diapers emit the powerful greenhouse gas, methane. Landfills take up precious space, especially in congested communities where space is scares and trash is abundant.
Comparing the two
So what did the UK Life Cycle Assessment find is the better option?
Cue disappointing wahh wahh wahh sound.
I know, I was hoping for a clear answer, too. But based on the median scenarios studied for each – disposable, at-home-cloth, and commercial-cloth – each came out roughly the same in their cumulative total environmental impacts.
Specifically, the most substantial environmental impact from disposable diapers was their consumption of raw materials and manufacturing energy. For at-home cloth diapers, it was the electricity generated from laundering that had the greatest impact.
So why did I choose cloth?
For the UK Life Cycle Assessment, the researchers surmised that:
“The results … suggest that the focus for improving the environmental performance of disposable nappies [diapers] should be on the disposable nappy manufacturers and their suppliers whereas, with reusable nappies, it is the user who can achieve the most environmental gain through energy efficiency drives in the home…”
And there you have it.
Choosing cloth gives you options. It gives you some control over the environmental consequences. After all, who said you’re going to buy new cloth diapers? Where did I get my diapers? From my Buy Nothing group. If disposable and cloth are comparable on a one-child-basis, imagine if you stretch cloth to two children, or three,or four or more? I’m the third user of my diapers and can vouch for their durability. There is a whole community of parents who gift or sell second-hand cloth diapers online, just type “cloth diaper” into Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.
Who said you have to buy regular cotton diapers? There are organic cotton, synthetic, hemp, and bamboo options. Who said cloth diapers must be machine dried? I dry mine on a line outside (pro tip: sunlight is great at bleaching, so bonus: no bleach needed).
The good news is that both cloth and disposable manufacturers are competing to deliver more environmentally-friendly products (thanks to your consumer interest!)
Were there other reasons I chose cloth?
While environmental concerns were top of my list. I also love good health and saving money.
Ah, the never ending rabbit hole of researching a baby product’s safety. Another reason I chose cloth was the possible toxic properties of disposable diapers. There is a great deal of controversy surrounding the human health effects of cloth vs. disposable. I wasn’t sure how scientifically sound some of the accusations against disposable were. However, I like to err on the side of caution. I didn’t want diapers with xylene, ethylbenzene, or other Volatile Organic Compounds known to be harmful to human health. Dioxin, a highly toxic material, and Sodium polycarbonate were also concerns of mine. The later was evidently used in tampons for absorbency, but removed to due its contribution to Toxic Shock Syndrome (note: some brands like Pampers do not use dioxins, but do use super absorbent polymers).
Sometimes understanding the safety of consumer products seems intentionally complex. Likely much of that is due to a lack of eduction on the consumer’s part (me) about common chemical properties. (Chemistry has never been a favorite science of mine).
Does affordability matter to you? Any small amount of research will tell you that cloth diapering is substantially cheaper.
You can set yourself up with sufficient cloth diapers for about $300-$400. That’s assuming you buy NEW. Remember, I got mine for FREE. Let’s say you buy non-eco brand disposable diapers in bulk. Prices by brand, store, and package size vary, but let’s conservatively assume $0.20/diaper (if buying in small batches or buying eco, it’s more like $0.50 – $0.75/diaper). You finally potty train (both day and night), and throw that last disposable diaper in the trash, you have spent $1,100 (and that’s a conservative estimate!) Sure, there is the added cost of water and electricity in washing diapers, but it still doesn’t compare to the money spent on disposable.
Let’s say you buy and eco brand. You could be looking at a $2,750 price tag over your child’s diaper-using life (ouch!).
I used to employ a compostable service (If you want to learn more about it, let me know!), which was slightly more expensive than buying a disposable eco brand. So yes, switching to cloth saved me lots of money.
My baby wrapped in cloth
I’ve come to love seeing by baby girl toddle around the house with just her diaper and a shirt. The diapers are cuter and more durable than disposables, so that, in this warm climate, she doesn’t need pants. I crinkle my nose as I dump them in the wash, but feel a sense of satisfaction when I hang the clean ones on my little clothesline.
No matter what, diapering a child (in any diaper) has a substantial environmental impact. I can’t say for sure, since I don’t have the original packaging, but I doubt my diapers are organic. My washing machine isn’t old, but I’m sure there are more energy efficient models on the market.
At the end of the day, unless you are one of those logic-defying Elimination Communication super-parents, you are going to need to diaper your baby, multiple times a day, every day, for years. As with any consumer decision, try to pick an option with love in your heart: love for your baby, your principles, your lifestyle and limitations. Love for the reality that is early-childhood caregiving, and love for the time you’re forced to spend with absolute focus on your baby 5-10 times a day.
Do I love the diapering experience enough to miss it?
Well, two years and a second child later, I have not had the opportunity to find out if that mom in the park was right. Check back in another year or so.