Sunday, April 24, 2011

The environmental impact of cloth diapers

The great cloth diaper change to raise awareness for cloth diapering was on Saturday. People across the world changed a cloth diaper at the same time. It will be in the Guinness book of world records.  A lot of communities held events.  I debated attending the Anchorage event due to the early a.m. start time but I went anyway.

In honor of the great cloth diaper change the topic of this post will be the environmental benefits of cloth diapers over disposable diapers. I am not doing this to put down people who don’t use cloth but to debunk  the myth that there is no difference in the environmental impact between cloth diapers and disposables.
There are numerous articles out there claiming that the impact of cloth is similar or worse than disposable diapers. Many of these articles are sponsored by disposable diaper companies. They claim that because of the energy used to wash the diapers and the water used in a load of wash that the impact is the same or worse for cloth. This is not true. While attending college and studying environmental issues I have done many environmental impact analyses which analyze the impact of different products.

What makes washing a diaper any different than washing your clothes? Is anyone suggesting disposable clothing or towels? Most water use actually comes from manufacturing and agriculture. Water is a renewable resource and a very local issue. If you live in an area that is water insecure it is very important to conserve water. The main reason rivers don’t reach the ocean is because of agriculture and manufacturing practices not because of household usage. Manufacturing disposable diapers uses more water than washing cloth diapers.  Each time you use a cloth diaper it is comparable to a toilet flush. There are plenty of ways to conserve household water. There are multiple ways to conserve household water such has low-flow toilets, not flushing every time you urinate (if it’s yellow let it mellow), taking shorter showers, brushing your teeth and not letting the water run, and purchasing energy star appliances.

Running the washing machine also uses energy but you cannot ignore the huge energy costs of manufacturing thousands of throw away diapers.  An average baby goes through 6-12 diapers a day. As they get older they use less but if that baby is in diapers for 2-4 years that is thousands of diaper changes or disposable diapers that need to be manufactured and shipped across the world.  Cotton is a crop that uses a lot of energy and pesticides to produce compared to paper but much less cloth diapers are being produced than disposables so it isn’t a good comparison. Not all cloth diapers are made from cotton any way. More energy is used in producing disposable diapers even when you compare it to the energy used to wash the cloth. Washing machines are much more efficient now than in the past. The studies that say they are similar are not accurate with how long cloth diapers last, with the water temperature used or with the energy current washing machines use.  

Producing disposables uses 20 times more raw materials than producing cloth diapers and generate 60 times more solid waste.  It also releases dioxin from the bleaching of paper.  Articles have said that cloth releases more toxins because of the detergent but it isn’t comparable to what is released from manufacturing. Most people who use cloth diapers use green detergents anyway.  There is also concern over the substance that gels up in the diaper. Disposable diapers are the third largest single consumer item in the landfill. In a household that uses disposables it will be about 50% of that household’s waste.

It takes audacity to try to claim that a throw away product that you need to use thousands and thousands of compared to a renewable product that you reuse but have to wash is similar in impact.  

There are ways of using cloth that are more environmentally friendly. You can line dry your diapers and use flats and hand wash them in a basin and dry them on a line.  I am not a fast and good folder so I don’t use flats but all of my diapers have been through 2 kids and most have been used for 3 kids.  I am not perfect though and I am not putting down people who don’t use cloth. I am using disposables at night right now because I haven’t found a good nighttime system for my children. I definitely encourage people to consider using cloth if they are considering it. It is not difficult with the cloth diapers available today that have snaps and velcro. It saves money and uses less resources and energy.  Another bonus is that they look pretty cute. Below is my 3 babies around the same age with the pets in cloth.

Delia in a cloth diaper with the dog
Teddy in a cloth diaper with the cat
Cora in a cloth diaper with the cat

1 comment:

  1. I came across your blog when researching new eco-friendly aspects of cloth diapers. I have a bullet-proof overnight solution; LolliDoo Overnight eco-pockets. If you are interested in cloth diapering overnight.