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That conclusion is now outdated however give the advances in washing machine technology.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+.

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