Reuse or Dispose? The Diaper Dilemma, Deciphered

Finding the best diaper for you, your baby, and the environment is challenging, but doable.

March 18, 2009

What's the best way to cover their bases? You decide.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Parents have argued the merits of cloth diapers vs. disposables seemingly as long as both options have been available. And judging by responses to last week’s Question of the Week posted on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenversations blog, there still isn’t any agreement. In response to the EPA’s question about why parents prefer one diaper type over another, users of cloth often noted a reduction in diaper rash after switching from disposables. Yet users of disposables said the same thing about switching their kids from cloth! Cloth users stressed the economic benefits, some claiming savings of up to $2,000 over disposables, while another mom said she was able to save a good deal on disposables with store savings and coupons. So when it comes to the planet, not to mention your wallet, who’s on the right track?

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Answer: Forget the diaper wars, and make the best choices with whichever type you prefer. “There are pros and cons to both diaper cloths and disposable diapers,” says Maida P. Galvez, MD, MPH, assistant professor at the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “The decision about which diaper to use is largely based on parental preference.”

THE DETAILS: In 1992, the first life cycle analysis to study this issue found that disposables use the least amount of energy overall; however, that study was sponsored by Proctor & Gamble, a maker of disposable diapers. A trade group representing diaper-laundering services conducted a similar study and, not surprisingly, found that cloth diapers used less energy. Most recently, a 2005 analysis by Britain’s Environment Agency (the UK’s EPA) found that disposables, commercially laundered cloth diapers, and home laundered cloth diapers all used roughly the same amount of energy and were therefore equivalent in their environmental impact.

Energy use aside, there are other issues to consider. As the Procter & Gamble sponsored study noted, disposables generate much more solid waste than cloth diapers. Used only once, disposables sit for eons in landfills where they never decompose, and where human waste could contaminate groundwater supplies. Furthermore, disposables are encased in petroleum-based plastics and often employ wood pulp for absorption. Wood pulp is usually bleached with chlorine, a process that releases cancer-causing dioxin and brain-damaging mercury into the atmosphere. And disposable diapers can be treated with synthetic fragrances that may expose babies to phthalates, chemicals that can trigger asthma and that have been linked to hormone disruption. Yet cloth diapers, too, have their downsides. They must be washed frequently. Growing the cotton that they’re made from typically involves use of harsh chemicals that run off farms and create aquatic dead zones. Like paper, cotton fabrics are also bleached to get that lily-white look so many of us prefer.

WHAT IT MEANS: It may seem confusing, but in fact you can decide which diaper type best meets your needs, than take steps to use them in an ecofriendly manner.

Here are a few tips on making your diapering method as green as possible, whichever option you choose:

• Go for greener disposables. No one can debate the convenience of a disposable, especially on long road trips, and many daycare centers require them. Fortunately, there are brands that use wood pulp from responsibly managed forests (so no old-growth forests had to die to cover your baby’s bum), hydrogen peroxide for bleaching, and, in some cases, compostable corn-based plastic covers rather than synthetics. Examples include these brands:

gDiapers
Nature Babycare
Nature Boy and Girl
Seventh Generation
TenderCare
Tushies

• Dispose responsibly. To prevent human waste from ending up in landfills, be sure to unload disposable diapers into the toilet, as you would a cloth diaper, before putting them in the garbage. And it goes without saying, but we’ll say it: Wash your hands after each change.

• Use used. Cloth diapers have a higher up-front cost than disposables, but they can save you money in the long run, especially if you plan on having multiple children. Cut down on the cost, and the environmental impact of cotton production, with (sanitized, obviously) hand-me-downs. Visit Freecycle.org or Craigslist.org, or ask cloth-diapering friends for cast-offs. When toilet training finally takes hold, save the diapers for your next child or to give to another parent in need.

• Ditch the diaper service. Diaper services put cloth diapers through extra rinse cycles (using more water than necessary), and they usually employ petroleum-based detergents that could irritate your baby’s skin. Washing at home allows you to use plant-based detergents, and you can save electricity and carbon emissions by line-drying them. The three life cycle analyses mentioned above agreed that machine-drying cloth diapers was the most energy-intensive part of their environmental footprint.

• Don’t assume you have to stick with one choice. Living green is all about striking a balance: Parents posting to the EPA blog often noted that they switched between methods, depending on schedules and convenience.