Diapers: Cloth versus Disposable
2 of 10 in Series: The Essentials of Living Green with Children
Whether to use cloth diapers or disposable diapers is the big question for prospective parents, especially for those with green leanings.
On the pro side of disposables, they’re easy; on the con side, they take upwards of 500 years to decompose in landfills, and the 18 billion that get thrown out in the United States annually consume approximately 100,000 tons of plastic and 800,000 tons of tree pulp every year — not exactly the greenest product. Plus, there’s the question of what’s hidden within them, namely dioxin (a byproduct of bleaching the pulp), which has been linked to cancer, plus other chemicals and fragrances that can cause allergic reactions.
If you choose disposable diapers, use chlorine-free, biodegradable versions in order to be friendlier to the environment and your baby. And, flush the diaper’s contents before disposing of the diaper to put human waste in the sewer system, where it should be, instead of in a landfill.
It seems that the ultimate in eco-friendliness where diaper duty is concerned is cloth. Cloth diapers are not convenient — you generally have to presoak the dirty diapers and then wash them in the washing machine (or at least rinse them and have a laundry service take care of washing them). This means that you’re handling dirty diapers several times instead of once (as with disposables). Odor also may be an issue, and the time involved to deal with the dirty diapers most definitely is something to think about, too.
Washing cloth diapers uses fewer resources than you might think. It takes about the equivalent amount of water as flushing a toilet five times a day. And, cloth diapers have half the ecological footprint of disposables even when you throw in the energy your washing machine uses.
The good news is that cloth diapers are much more parent-friendly than they used to be. Forget about pins: The new versions come with snaps or hook-and-loop tape for easy on and easy off. They also come in organic fabric options, including hemp, bamboo, and cotton, and you can choose organic wool covers that help protect the diaper against leaks, too.
Removable, biodegradable, flushable liners for cloth diapers can make the worst of the waste much easier to dispose of — it gets flushed away with an environmental impact far less than that of a disposable diaper (which, of course, isn’t flushable at all).
You don’t have to go all the way in either direction. In fact, some childcare providers don’t allow cloth diapers. You can use cloth at home and save disposable for when you’re out and about or for when your child has a digestive upset and you could really use the extra convenience.