Are cloth diapers really more eco-friendly than disposables?

by andrewodom on July 25, 2011 · 45 comments


Just last week a friend posted a status update on Twitter posing the question, “How much poop can one little being produce?” Being a father for just about 3 weeks now I knew he was being one-part funny and one-part, honest-to-goodness, amazed at this compost generation. It got me thinking that perhaps with Tilly Madison on the way, life was about to get real interesting. But never your mind. We are covered. Er, she is covered. I mean, we have thought about diapers and are pretty prepared emotionally, mentally, and physically. We have decided to go with gDiapers; the new diaper hybrid.

According to their own website, gDiapers are “the most eco-friendly diaper available, gDiapers provides parents with a diapering solution that is good for babies, parents and the planet. You can have the flexibility of a disposable diaper with a 100% biodegradable gRefill, or opt for reusability with super soft and trim-fitting gCloth inserts. gDiapers are plastic-free, elemental chlorine free, latex free, and perfume free.”

But I can’t call myself eco-responsible if I haven’t at least put some thought and research into the question are cloth diapers that much better for the environment?

It’s pretty clear that disposable diapers require more resources to manufacture than cloth diapers, even when you take into account the vast amounts of water and energy involved in cotton farming (which is especially taxing this year – the year of the devil’s weather! In fact, a 1992 study from Franklin Associates estimated that producing a year’s supply of disposables, which are composed largely of plastic, consumes roughly 6,900 megajoules of energy, vs. around 1,400 megajoules for a year’s supply of cloth diapers. Yet the study concluded that cloth ended up being 39 percent more energy-intensive overall especially given the electricity needed to wash load after load of dirty diapers.

That conclusion is now outdated however give the advances in washing machine technology. For a washing machine made in 1985, an 11-pound load of cottons washed in warm water used up 1.68 kilowatt hours of electricity and 34 gallons of water; for a machine made two decades later, the relevant figures are just 0.95 kilowatt hours and 12 gallons. In the fourth quarter of 2010 that number had been reduced to just 0.82 kilowatt hours and 8.75 gallons. Quite a difference!

A 2005 study by Britain’sEnvironment Agency (which has now been lost from my browser bookmarks) took into account some of these technological advances. In making their calculations regarding cloth diapers, the study used average energy-consumption figures for machines made in 1997. They concluded that there was “no significant difference” between the environmental impact of cloth and disposable diapers. Raising a child in home-laundered cloth diapers for 2.5 years emitted 1,232 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent vs. 1,380 pounds for disposable diapers. Perhaps the study would have been more widely accepted had the authors of the study used statistics from more recent washing machines. The study also left out the resilience of cloth diapers and didn’t touch on the waste-management consequences of disposables. FACT: In the United States, disposable diapers make up about 2 percent of all garbage!

I can only conclude that cloth diapers are greener than run-of-the-mill Pampers, Huggies, and that Target brand that so many people swear by –  as long as you’re committed to an energy-efficient laundry schedule. But that commitment takes more than just a front loading washing machine and a clothes line for air drying. It also takes time. And I already know that time is a precious commodity once you actually become a parent. So we are left with idealism and reality.

We want to continue our sustainable lifestyle even onto the changing table. We want to use cloth diapers because we aren’t afraid of a little hand washing and we think the cloth against Tilly’s skin is much better than the disposables. We are also fairly busy people. I am a telecommute and my wife is a stay-at-home-mom. But between a small farm, building our tiny house, being involved with our community and church, as well as just being task-oriented folk, we are busy! We want convenience. So? Do we use disposable or cloth? Ultimately, we had to make a deeply personal judgment call regarding our time or the timespan of our planet. One thing is certain, when our daughter asks us about the subject we want to respond to her with clear conscience and well thought out answers.

What about you? What did you put on your babies bum? Do you prefer cloth to disposable? Why? Why not? And as always, if you think you know someone who should join this conversation or others at tinyrevolution.us please Tweet the link out, share it on Facebook, or share it on Google+.

  • http://desertverde.com Nan Fischer5

    I used cloth on both my kids. With the first, I had a Caesarean, and we got some disposables from the hospital. I ended up using them at night, because I wasn’t getting any sleep or recovering from surgery by getting up every few hours to turn on lights, wash a butt and change a diaper. We ended up using disposables just at night, and we called them nitey diapers.

    We got some hand-me-downs for the first baby, but I made them for the second one. This was more economical – a layer of terrycloth and a layer of flannel. When she was potty trained, they made incredible rags.

    My biggest beef with disposables is the landfill space. I am shocked it was not part of the ‘which is greener’ study. It’s a huge issue! That alone – no trash from cloth diapers – makes cloth more eco-friendly.

  • Shirlene Baker

    CLOTH! I do believe it is eco friendly but also disposable diapers are TOXIC to your baby.

    Disposable diapers contain traces of Dioxin, an extremely toxic by-product of the paper-bleaching process. It is a carcinogenic chemical, listed by the EPA as the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals. It is banned in most countries, but not the U.S..1Disposable diapers contain Tributyl-tin (TBT) – a toxic pollutant known to cause hormonal problems in humans and animals.2Disposable diapers contain sodium polyacrylate, a type of super absorbent polymer (SAP), which becomes a gel-like substance when wet. A similar substance had been used in super-absorbency tampons until the early 1980s when it was revealed that the material increased the risk of toxic shock syndrome by increasing absorbency and improving the environment for the growth of toxin-producing bacteria.3In May 2000, the Archives of Disease in Childhood published research showing that scrotal temperature is increased in boys wearing disposable diapers, and that prolonged use of disposable diapers will blunt or completely abolish the physiological testicular cooling mechanism important for normal spermatogenesis.18  

    I have plenty of info on this if interested.

    • http://www.tinyrevolution.us anotherkindofdrew

      I LOVE this information. Thank you so much for sharing Shirlene. Feel free to always share that kind of information. BTW – Did you get your package from me yet?

  • http://twitter.com/MasterGardening Mastergardening.com

    Love the gDiapers! I think it’s a great blend of disposable and cloth. Also really like that the liners can be composted! My sister uses gDiapers for her baby and she only has good things to say. Though they did have to use disposable for the first month since the gDiapers were too big at first. 

    • http://www.tinyrevolution.us anotherkindofdrew

      gDiapers now makes a tiny gPants line now for brand newborns. But I am so glad to hear a good report on them. We LOVE the colors and patterns.

  • http://www.facebook.com/MissyMae1984 Missy Mae

    I feel I am one of the few converts….my baby girl was disposable diapered (is that a phrase?) from birth to 16.5months….at 16.5months I got a great deal on some pocket cloth diapers and decided to try them. The rest is history. Sure, I do a bag of diaper laundry every couple days, and have to take the time to stuff and fold the cloth diapers, but I feel I am doing something better for my daughter. I never really questioned it before Pampers added “Dry Max” to their diapers and when I removed them from the package the smell of chemicals nauseated me. Seriously. Even after I started Cloth diapering part time (since I didn’t have enough of a stash to do it full time yet), I put my daughter in disposables for a weekend trip. I kept being told by family and friends that she smelled like she needed to be changed, yet EVERY SINGLE TIME I took her to change her she was barely wet. I was amazed that I had never noticed the smell the chemicals and urine gave off, but since I had been cloth diapering, I became more aware of the smell.

    Long story short, is I have already started building a newborn stash of cloth diapers for my next one whenever that comes up. I love that I feel like I am not exposing my children to harmful chemicals and I love that I feel like I am doing something good for the world that will one day be theirs. Sure my water bill may be a little higher for a few years, but it’s something I’m willing to risk.

    • http://www.tinyrevolution.us anotherkindofdrew

      Awesome testimonial Missy. Thank you so much for sharing that. If only more parents felt as you do. I also love that you are buying now for you next child so as to offset the expense when the time comes. Great tip!

  • Kelly LaFleur

    I love cloth diapering my little one. we use g diapers as well as prefolds w covers. I have to say, I like the prefolds more! my little one is  such a heavy wetter we have to change the g cover almost every time. Prefolds offer more absorbency for her and once you get the hang of folding them and using a snappi they are super fast to get on!

    • http://www.tinyrevolution.us anotherkindofdrew

      Interesting Kelly. Prefolds, huh? Not sure I know what prefolds are. #newdadonboard

      • http://www.facebook.com/MissyMae1984 Missy Mae

        Drew- prefolds are like the old burp rags people used….kinda what you think of when you think “old school cloth diapering”

      • http://www.facebook.com/MissyMae1984 Missy Mae

        Drew- prefolds are like the old burp rags people used….kinda what you think of when you think “old school cloth diapering”

  • Kelly LaFleur

    they also hold in messes better as you can tighten them around the legs and create a “pocket” in back 

  • Judy

    When do you think you’ll start potty training? I was reading a blog post the other day where she started at 4 months: http://baglady.dreamhosters.com/2010/02/20/early-toilet-training-saves-money/

    • http://www.tinyrevolution.us anotherkindofdrew

      I don’t know yet. I’ll let you know when we do. HAHAHAHAH

  • Shirlene Baker
    • http://www.tinyrevolution.us anotherkindofdrew

      Seems far too disciplined for me and a bit too confining. But what do I know?

      • Catherine

        It really depends on the baby and the commitment of the primary caregiver. It’s actually easier with infants because they can respond very favorably to the method. It’s when they get aware that struggles may begin. I’m glad we tried a hybrid approach. Our daughter is very self aware and we’ve saved many diapers (though not all) over the years.

  • Maryqcontrarie

    I use cloth diapers.  I have found that one of the little things that has made diapering more acceptable in my house is to prewash cloth diapers.  Putting them directly into the machine frankly grosses me out more than a little.  However by prewashing them by hand.  They are mostly clean and I can wash them on the fastest setting with cold water and feel confident that they are very clean and nice for my baby.  

    • http://www.laundrylist.org Project Laundry List

      Mary, It would be great to reconnect. This is Alexander Lee, founder and current board chair of Project Laundry List. Hope you see this message.

  • http://www.scissorsanddrumsticks.com Kevin Gilkes

    To be honest, I’m glad we are away from diapers. However, if the subject needed to be revisited, we would definitely take another approach to a more eco-friendly diaper. All three of our kids were raised with disposables. Just nuts to think about all the money that gets thrown away with any diaper other than cloth. Have you guys looked at cost in conjunction with cloth/eco/traditional disposable?

    • http://www.tinyrevolution.us anotherkindofdrew

      We have looked at cost. What we have found is that while more expensive up front the long term cost is about equal. I didn’t really factor in water but when you are on a well……not such a big deal. HAHAHAHA. I firmly believe each baby is different and each household has their own set of guides in which to follow. So what may work for us is not sure to work for others.

      • http://www.scissorsanddrumsticks.com Kevin Gilkes

        You have to do what is good for you, bro. Great post!

  • wormygirl

    I know the post has been sitting around for a bit, but I feel compelled to comment. Disposables were never an option for us. We used cloth (pre-folds with a doubler/liner and washable covers) and cloth wipes. We hooked up a bumgenius diaper sprayer to the toilet and that made the cleanup a breeze–I can’t recommend it enough! As far as time commitment goes, it’s virtually nothing. My husband works full-time and takes full-time classes, while I stay at home with our daughter and take care of the house and garden. I can’t remember ever feeling like we were so pressed for time that we should have chosen another diapering method. We did try g-diapers for travel and were profoundly disappointed in their performance. Even doubling them didn’t help–they leaked everywhere. A little digging revealed that many municipalities are asking folks to please, please not flush the g-diapers–they do not biodegrade fast enough and cause problems at the waste treatment plants. In the end, we decided to do cloth when we travel (cross-country, even) and found it to be much easier than we had anticipated. 

    If we have another baby, we won’t have to buy a single diaper. If we don’t have another baby, we’ll donate the cloth diaper supply to a local charity that helps low-income families. Either way, nothing ends up in the landfill. Our water and electric bills haven’t skyrocketed, baby’s buns are super happy and we don’t feel like we compromised our ideals. Huzzah!

  • http://www.chiotsrun.com Chiot’s Run

    We don’t have kids so no first hand knowledge of this.  My mom used cloth on us growing up and she said we potty trained much easier than her friends kids that used disposable.    I have a few other friends that say the same thing.  

    You also have to compute into the cost of disposables all of those emergency trips to the store for diapers – all that gas adds up!  

  • http://babiesbuttonsandbeef.blogspot.com Dawn

    I use the gDiaper covers with a cotton prefold inside.  I rinse the diapers out as soon as they come off of my daughter’s behind (she’s 13.5mo and we’ve done this since the beginning) and then line dry in the morning on good days (because others int he house dislike the smell of ammonia-not that I do, just that I’m more used to it since I worked at a diaper service).  They go into a covered bin outside until wash day.  I wash on hot with soap nuts and oxiclean.  Then line dry again if the weather cooperates.  For days when I’ve had it with going through washing our 3 covers (yes, 3) we have some Broody Chick compostable diapers as backup.  Add in the fact that we’ve been PT ECing her since 4 months and that she is nearly out of diapers and I feel that I have done the best I can with sustainable and friendly bum covers.
    P.S. Sorry this is a late comment but I find hte debate so intriguing.

    • anotherkindofdrew

      It’s NEVER too late!!!! Thank you so much for joining the r(E)volution. I look forward to hearing from you more.

  • Bee

    What about the constant machines that are polluting the air and ruining habitat as they harvest for the disposables – the constant cost to the environment from the ongoing processes to manufacture disposables? Other costs — to water waste in manufacturing, shipping and transporting, the space and use of ringing cash registers all this tells us that recycling is not beneficial to humans or nature. Seems like folks only like to look at the immediate reflections of what will sustain humans and give little notice to the true depletion of nature’s world. — barbara

  • Kai

    I used cloth and loved them. I did use disposables at night when he was a newborn. I had the one-size, all-in-ones from BumGenius and even with them on the smallest setting, it was a little big for overnight on a newborn. Once they fit properly (about 6 weeks), though, we used the cloth at night, too. I found that there was a lot less leakage.

    • anotherkindofdrew

      Agreed Kai. Agreed.

  • http://twitter.com/dustiarab Dusti Arab

    Have to be honest here – my minimalist household generates almost no garbage (About half a small wastebasket a week) and a basketful of recyclables – except for disposable diapers. 

    Yeah, if you’ve got a stay at home parent or a nanny, cloth is great. More power to you. But if you live any other type of lifestyle, it’s not practical or functional. 

    As for me? I do my duty as an environmentalist other ways, like not driving. I hadn’t given a second thought to using cloth for baby number two, and I don’t plan to. :)

    • http://www.tinyrevolution.us anotherkindofdrew

      Awesome. We LOVE honesty!!!! We generate a plastic sack of garbage a week as well EXCEPT disposable diapers. We use cloth during the day (Crystal is a SAHM and I work from home) but at night and “on-the-go” we use disposables. You are absolutely right Dusti. They are more practical and functional. If we used cloth all the time we would end up with stained inserts and a much higher need for laundry resources. As you mentioned we also compensate by doing other things. I think the key here is that as parents we ALL have different lifestyles, thoughts, and priorities, and unless you ain’t got a pane of glass on your house, don’t go throwing stones!

      BTW – Congratulations on baby #2. Where are some pics?

      • Amandabelle Harrington

        hehehe…surly you did not just post that your diapers would be stained? i mean…they are DIAPERS and baby’s bum won’t mind a bit. that said, since both dh and I work full time, we use sposies at night and when out. but with our first 2 we used all cloth. i love not having to buy diapers and the lo’s all have very sensitive skin and have fewer rashes with the cloth. our diapers are still going strong and baby #3 is 14 months old, so for us its been a good mix. just had to laugh…no way no how am i stressing over stained diapers. :)

        • http://www.tinyrevolution.us anotherkindofdrew

          Hey there Amandabelle. I sure did say they would be stained. I am sorry. I don’t like anything to be stained or otherwise appear dirty or unkept. Just how I am. I wouldn’t say I stress. However, you are two yougins’ up on me so you have to remember that my “worries” are that of a new dad of only 3 months. I am sure I will get over it soon enough! HAHAHAHA

  • http://twitter.com/dustiarab Dusti Arab

    This is an older post, but I think worth commenting on to put in an additional voice – as in, one from someone who didn’t have the benefit of a stay at home partner. 

    Realistically, this is not a conversation you’d see many single moms participating in, and I think the nose-in-the-air voice of some of the previous commenters is arrogant and ill-informed. Sure, cloth is probably more eco-friendly over time. But for anyone working, going to college, and otherwise trying to piece together a living, it’s not a logical choice. It’s much better to keep an open mind about other ways to live sustainably, as opposed to a be-all end-all attitude.My family generates almost no garbage. We went carless for over a year with my toddler, opting for bikes and a trailer instead and loved it – riding 15-30 miles a day, 4-6 days a week. (We’ve temporarily gone back to using a car due to medical needs with my second pregnancy.) This summer, we’ll be scouting land for our own tiny home here in Oregon. We consider ourselves to be pretty damn sustainable. That said, our lifestyle makes a cloth diapers a no-go. As a busy, business owning, traveling mama, I know how to choose my battles. Disposables are what I’ll be using for baby number two.

    • http://www.tinyrevolution.us anotherkindofdrew

      Your words are sage Dusti and I appreciate them immensely. Like you (and because you know our lifestyle) we only have one car which we only use when leaving the confines of town. We too trailer our baby and otherwise carpool, etc. We live on a micro-farm where we grow and raise nearing 75% of our food source. We are still building our tiny house trailer but in the meantime live in 224 sq. ft. All that to say our impact is minimal. As of late though we have been doing a lot of traveling as my work has called for me too and part of the perk is that my family can go with me. Because of that I say this: YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT DIAPERING UNTIL YOU TAKE TO THE OPEN ROAD AND HAVE A ONESIE BLOWOUT ON I-95 IN A CLOTH DIAPER!!!! And having said that, we are now very much 50-50. We do what we can when we can and no longer feel guilty about the choices we have to make for our little family.

    • Samantha

      Really look into gDiapers. Seriously way easier than you’d think. If you use the flushies, the other parts can be washed with your baby’s clothes. I always rinse out the pouches before tossing them in the laundry. But seriously, WAY easier than pockets and prefolds. Cross my heart. :)

  • Samantha

    Oh I see here that you already discovered gDiapers!! Pretty much makes my heart sing. ;) How old is your little one? My Roghan was born 6/7/11. Someday he and Tilly can be Tiny House buds!

    • Andrew Odom

      Tilly Madison is now just over 8 months old. She was born on September 21, 2011. Tiny house buds sounds great!

  • http://twitter.com/BC_Chelle BCChelle

    Hey, Andrew! I know this is an older post, but it caught my interest. My husband and I are adopting. and I definitely like the thought of cloth diapers. What did you and your wife think? Are they worth it?

    Great post!

    ~Chelle

    • Andrew Odom

      Believe it or not Chelle you are the third person in as many days to ask us about cloth diapers. Without going in to great detail (as we can if you want to just email me at andodom at gmail dot com) cloth diapering totally depends (in our opinion) on your lifestyle. Are y’all always on the go? Are you a stay-at-home? Do you mind handwashing on a pretty daily basis? Let me know and we can talk more at length.

  • ANIA

    I’ve had 2 kids of my own and watched a few babies for living…I’ve dealt with both disposable and cloth. I found disposable a lot better for the baby…since the disposable diaper kept the little bum drier the baby wasn’t as fussy as the cloth diapered baby (i changed both every 2-3 hrs or as soon as bowel movement was present). Also the disposable is a lot more sanitary for me… As to environment the cloth diapers have a huge advantage since after the baby is potty trained you can use those diapers as cleaning cloths :)

  • Tammy

    I too am late commenting (just saw a link to it this week), but want to put in my two cents worth. We made the decision to go cloth not for the environmental reasons, but from a cost perspective. We could purchase 24 cloth diapers with inserts (including a few extra to double up for overnights) for approx. $400 CAD. We had worked out that it would cost us $2,000+ to purchase the necessary amount of disposable diapers. We really didn’t find it overly taxing in anyway. I’d through the diapers in the machine prior to going to bed every two days or so, and my husband would dry them, stick the liners back in, and put them back in the drawer. We actually thought it was easier than running out to the store and purchasing them and then having to lug the massive box through our condo parking lot and up to our unit.

    I would also like to mention cloth diapering isn’t an all or nothing deal. When we went on vacation and it was going to be really difficult to wash the diapers, we switched to seventh generation disposables for a few days. I have to admit though, my daughter didn’t like them. They weren’t as absorbent as the Mommy’s Touch all-in-one diapers we were using.

    Another thing to keep in mind, is that you have to take care of what diaper cream you use with the cloth diapers. The ones that have the “wick-away” fabric, it’s recommended that you don’t use a cream with zinc in it. We used a beeswax product by Dimple Skins called Bum, Bum Balm and loved it.

  • HappyBee
  • Maan Di

    My three brothers and I were all raised in cloth diapers & we are raising our newborn in cloth as well. Its very easily done, I’ve even flown with him without resorting to disposables.

    That said, I am an artist & aspiring author, so I can be with my baby all day. Single parents and families who find that both parents must work outside the home for economic reasons don’t have the luxury our family does. I dislike the way disposables rash up babies’ bottoms & the amount of landfill waste they create, & I definitely dislike the incredible cost of purchasing disposables, which is difficult for low-income families. But not everyone has a choice.

    What would be really cool ecologically would be if people with the necessary skills and knowledge (which I certainly don’t have) got together and came up with truly biodegradable disposables. That would be such a win!

  • Christina

    Actually there is a movement of ‘diaper free’ babies! That is, needless to say, really, the most ecological AND baby friendly way. Google the term, you will find books and groups!

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