Cloth versus disposable. It is estimated that some 1.7-billion disposable diapers are sent to landfills in Canada every year. Over the course of the two or three years of a child’s life when diapering is needed, it adds up to about 2 tonnes of waste diapers per child. That’s a huge amount. Obviously, cloth diapers are environmentally preferable. Right? On balance, we think so too, but the case is more complicated than the issue of waste alone. In other words, it depends.
Washing all those diapers takes a lot of water and uses a lot of energy. So it makes a difference HOW the diapers are washed – whether by a diaper service or at home. And whether in a washing machine that is energy-efficient and water-conserving, or not.
Air drying of re-usables reduces the energy needed.
On the other hand, what about ‘green’ disposables that include recycled fibre? Some of the newest products can be composted and some can even be flushed.
Green Action Centre has not been able to find a full life-cycle analysis that takes account of all the factors in the disposable-versus-cloth comparison. For example, some studies that favour using a cloth diaper laundry service didn’t take include the environmental impact of transportation – that is, the pick-up and delivery associated with the service. They just looked at the energy and water used in washing commercially. And they didn’t consider whether the cotton in the diaper was grown conventionally (which uses a lot of synthetic chemical pesticides) or organically.
Cloth diapers are preferable for a number of reasons. From a health perspective, disposables may contain traces of chemical (dyes, dioxins) in addition to high-absorbency gel (sodium polyacrylate) in the layers, which are things parents may want to avoid exposing their kids to. Added fragrances can also aggravate asthma, for example. And use of disposables has been associated with increased incidence of diaper rash (Journal of Pediatrics). However, to optimize the environmental benefits:
- choose organic cotton
- wash diapers in an efficient machine at home
- use environmentally friendly detergents
- air dry
‘Bottom’ line – do the best you can, but don’t make yourself neurotic about it! Green Action Centre welcomes your comments.
Because the cost of handling disposable diapers is borne by municipalities, some have started to offer incentives to help families meet the initial higher cost of purchasing the cloth variety. Cologne (Germany) and Seattle (WA) do this. Can disposables be recycled to recover their fibre content? Or composted to recover the organic value in the paper? Theoretically, some parts of single use diapers can be recycled or composted. No one in Manitoba is actually doing this at this time. And these processes would need their own life-cycle assessment before we could conclude that they offer net environmental benefits.