“Go Green” with cloth diapers!
There are plenty of articles that argue that cloth diapers aren’t much better for the environment than disposables. Disposables obviously use more raw materials and create more solid waste that ends up in landfills, but cloth diapers use more fossil fuel and water to be laundered over and over. The studies that have been done on this issue just seem to muddy the debate. So what’s a “green” mama to do?
1. Consult common sense.
Disposable diapers are manufactured with virgin wood pulp, which is often bleached – possibly releasing dioxins into the environment, along with an outer layer made of plastic (a petroleum product), and a super absorbent polymer gel – that ingredient that miraculously allows them to soak up so much moisture so fast. Other ingredients – the fragrances, moisturizers, etc. don’t even have to be disclosed. Manufactured using water and fossil fuel, transported to stores using more fossil fuel, and thrown away by the billions after one use (using more fossil fuel to transport them to the landfill), and now perhaps individually wrapped in extra plastic (Diaper Genie anyone?). How can these things NOT be a burden on the environment? Plus there’s the issue of sending untreated sewage to landfills, where it has the potential to spread germs and disease. Really, if one time use disposables were really better for the environment than their reusable counterparts, wouldn’t environmentalists be promoting paper towels and paper plates, or what about disposable underwear or clothing for the rest of us?
2. Adopt an eco-friendly wash routine.
If you’re concerned about water use, I’ve read that it takes a similar amount of water to wash diapers every few days as it does for extra flushes of the toilet once your child is using the potty. Water being sent to a treatment plant will presumably return in a useable state to our water table. Switching to an efficient front loader can also cut down on your water use.
If you’re concerned about global warming, the most recent study looking at carbon emissions of cloth vs. disposables was done by the UK Environment Agency and came out in 2008. This report states that “in contrast to the use of disposable nappies, it is consumers’ behaviour after purchase that determines most of the impacts from reusable nappies” and that it is possible to significantly reduce carbon emissions (perhaps up to 40% over disposables) by adopting the following practices:
- Line drying outside whenever possible
- Tumble drying as little as possible
- Using more energy efficient appliances
- Not washing above 60°C (140°F)
- Washing fuller loads
- Reusing diapers on other children
3. Choose eco-friendly fabrics
Conventional cotton is a very water intensive crop that is usually heavily sprayed with pesticides. Polyester fabrics, while very popular as cloth diaper options today (which will cut down on your carbon footprint and landfill waste), are ultimately fossil-fuel based products. My favorite environmentally sensitive cloth diaper fabrics are organic cotton, ecologically/humanely raised (or recycled) wool, bamboo, recycled polyester fleece and hemp. Buying diapers made from USA milled fabrics or that are sewn locally can also reduce their environmental impact and support your local economy.
UK Environment Agency. An Updated Lifecycle Assessment Study for Disposable and Reusable Nappies. 2008. available at: http://randd.defra.gov.uk/Document.aspx?Document=WR0705_7589_FRP.pdf