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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. More recently, a 2005 analysis by Britain’s Environment Agency 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. Disposable diapers can also be treated with synthetic fragrances that may expose babies to phthalates—chemicals that can trigger asthma and that have been linked to hormone disruption.
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Yet cloth diapers have their downsides as well. 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.
It may seem confusing, but in fact you can decide which diaper type best meets your needs and then take steps to use them in an ecofriendly manner. No one can debate the convenience of a disposable, especially on long road trips and many daycare centers require them. Fortunately, there are brands like gDiapers, Nature Babycare, Seventh Generation, TenderCare, and Tushies that use wood pulp from responsibly managed forests, hydrogen peroxide for bleaching and in some cases, compostable corn-based plastic covers rather than synthetics. To prevent human waste from ending up in landfills, be sure to unload disposable diapers into the toilet, as you would a cloth diaper. Some people even contemplate this question before putting them in the garbage: Should Compost Your Poop? And it goes without saying, but we’ll say it—wash your hands after each change and be sure to use disinfectant on any contaminated areas.
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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 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.
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.
Living green is all about striking a balance. Some parents have often noted that they switched between methods, depending on schedules and convenience.