If you’ve read my previous posts you’ll know the primary reason I don’t use disposables is because of all the nasties that are in them…I don’t want those chemicals touching my baby’s delicate skin. But I also don’t want those chemicals leaching into our soil, our water, or our air! This leads me to my next post: cloth diapering for the environment. This just happens to be my second top reason for using cloth diapers (a very, very close second).
It can be frustrating as an environmentalist to cloth diaper sometimes. You know that cloth diapering is what’s best for the planet, and yet if you look online you are going to be bombarded with people telling you that you’re wrong. You might even get people questioning your decision to cloth diaper to your face. I’ve heard it all, from the “you are using way more water and electricity by cleaning them all the time” to “but we need those disposable diapers in the landfills so that we can use them to turn back into oil in 100 years.” I kid you not, that was an actual argument someone was trying to make in an online forum about cloth diapering. I quickly shot down her argument with a lengthy explanation of Energy Returned On Energy Invested (or EROEI) and how the energy that would be required to accomplish such a thing would make the resulting energy creation cost prohibitive. The person gave up their argument after that. I tried to find you the link, but it was over a year ago and now long buried.
What makes it even harder is that there are studies out there, and I’m sure you’ve heard of them before, that look at the environmental “costs” of disposables diapers vs. cloth diapers. What are the findings of these studies? They say that the environmental impact is almost the same whether you use cloth diapers or disposable diapers.
Well, excuse me, but I call bullshit.
First of all I have yet to find an unbiased study. The major study that everyone points to when making their case that disposables are no worse environmentally than cloth diapers came from Procter & Gamble. One of their top 10 money making brands is Pampers. Another study thrown about, one that is slightly more recent, is from AHPMA in the UK. AHPMA stands for Absorbent Hygiene Product Manufacturers Association. I’ll give you one guess on what the groups connected with this association make. What do you know, you guessed it! Disposable diapers.
Here’s the thing: even if the studies are done by biased groups, the facts presented in these studies are fairly sound. Which is why it’s so easy to say, “Well then, they must be right.” But they are also woefully incomplete. They don’t even begin to take everything into account…it would be nearly impossible to do so. Just how do you go about comparing a disposable diaper made in China or Mexico to a cloth diaper made in the USA?
It just doesn’t equate. A disposable diaper that starts life as a tree and a cup of crude oil, goes through process after process using oil and water to produce that final crispy white disposable, leaves in its wake a trail of dioxins and other pollutants. It cannot be compared to a cloth diaper in terms of true environmental impact. How do you compare getting the raw materials for a disposable diaper from an oil well to that of a cloth diaper from an organic cotton or hemp field?
Will one cloth diaper use more water over its life time than one disposable diaper? Yes. But will the water used to wash that cloth diaper get filled with toxins and have to be treated in order to get it safe to return to the environment? No. And if there is an accident and some of my washer water spills will it contaminate the ground water with those chemicals? No. But an industrial accident at the disposable diaper or paper pulp factory will absolutely contaminate the ground water. So you see, you can’t just measure things in terms of gallons used! When it comes to true environmental cost you have to take into account so much more.
Let’s also look at the actual use of the diapers. With cloth diapers you have to properly dispose of fecal matter before washing. It goes in the toilet, is flushed, and properly treated at the waste facility plant, just like the rest of your families waste. Disposables diapers? Well, despite the label on the box letting parents know that they are supposed to flush the fecal matter before tossing, most of it goes into landfills along with the diaper, a practice that is actually illegal because of the potential health ramifications.
Also, during their lifetime most cloth diapers are used on multiple children. A parent could buy a set of 24-36 cloth diapers and diaper all of their children with them, whether they have 1 or…how many are the Duggards up to now? Okay, so I can’t guarantee that they will be just as absorbent on the 20th child as the first, but I think you get my point. Even if you decide to just have one child there are other parents out there who want to buy your gently used, brand name, cloth diaper (I say brand name for a reason…I wouldn’t pay a penny for a new china cheapie, let alone a used one…I’ve learned my lesson there! But I’ll write on that another day). Cloth diapers will be used on multiple children, something none of these studies take into account. That disposable diaper has a use life of about 2-3 hours, and then it’s off to the landfill.
So, of course, that brings us to the end life. Disposables go to landfills. They do not biodegrade. And don’t think buying the biodegradable diapers will make a difference. They won’t biodegrade either in an air-tight landfill. They will be there still in 500 years, long after your great-great-grandchildren are gone. Cloth diapers on the other hand can then be pressed into use as a cleaning rag when they can no longer diaper a child. Trust me on this, if nothing else: old cloth diapers make the BEST cleaning rags.
Anyways, what I’m trying to get at is this: it is not an apples to apples comparison.
I may not be a scientist, but I can say with certainty that if we truly did a comprehensive study looking at every aspect from oil well to land fill, from virgin forest to lumber mill, from cotton field to washing machine, I’m confident we would find that disposables diapers are worse for the environment than cloth diapers. Period.
Do not think that I’m saying that cloth diapers don’t have an impact as well. Of course they do! Everything we do has an impact on the world around us. But when you choose to use a product, like cloth diapers, that you can use and reuse…and reuse again on subsequent children, it is going to be much less harmful to the Earth in the long run than a single use product that is filled with chemicals and doesn’t biodegrade.
So, hopefully you’re still with me. And if you are you might be wondering how to make your eco-friendly choice of cloth diapering even more eco-friendly! If so, here are some ideas:
Use a hybrid! I understand that cloth diapering doesn’t fit for every house hold. But there are some great options available that allow you to use cloth when you can, or use an eco-friendly insert when you can’t. My favorite of these, Grovia, even has organic cotton for when you want cloth. Diapers like Grovia can make it easier on a family wanting to make the switch from disposables.
Go used! High quality, brand name, diapers will last for multiple children. Not only will you be saving natural resources by going used, you will also be saving money!
And of course, line dry those diapers! Not only will you be extending the life of your diapers but you will be using less energy at the same time. And speaking as a mama who has bought used diapers before, I’m much more likely to buy the diapers that have been lined dried than dried in a dryer, so it really protects your investment in more ways than one!