Why We Chose Cloth Diapers, Part 1

August 4th, 2010 by Dionna | 16 Comments
Posted in Compassionate Advocacy, Ecological Responsibility and Love of Nature, Environmentalism, natural parenting, Use Nurturing Touch

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Cloth v. Disposable Diapers1

With the comeback of cloth diapers in recent years, more parents are asking themselves which diapering system is right for them: cloth or disposables.2 The factors parents often consider fall into four general categories: environmental impact, health concerns, safety, and convenience.

In this series of posts I will examine each of those four categories and explain why Tom and I chose cloth. I will also share what has worked for our family, and I will link to a few of the many blogs and websites dedicated to cloth that helped me in our cloth diapering journey.

Environmental Impact

When I first started researching cloth diapers, my biggest motivator was environmental. I knew that we would go through a lot of diapers, and I didn’t want my child’s bum to leave an unnecessarily large footprint. Did you know that every child in disposables will add an average of 3,796 diapers to our landfills in roughly 2.5 years?3 That translates to 3.4 million tons of diaper waste that is dumped in landfills each year in the United States alone.4 Gross.

I was surprised to discover that the there are arguably fewer clear-cut environmental advantages to cloth diapers than I had anticipated. I assumed cloth would be the obvious green choice: cloth diapers are reusable (not only from day to day, but also from child to child), they are biodegradable, and they are safer (no pesky cancer-causing toxins hanging out next to your child’s skin – more on that later).

But depending on what article you read (and who funded the study behind it), the greener choice can be made murky. According to a 2008 study by the British Environment Agency, disposables have a smaller carbon footprint (by a hair) than that left by their predetermined baseline (or “average”) cloth diaper user. According to the researchers, the average user owns a B-rated washing machine (not a high efficiency one) and machine dries more often than not. Additionally, the average user does not reuse the cloth diapers on a second child.5

While the study snagged headlines by proclaiming that disposables were the environmental winner, many people ignored the rest of the story. The researchers concluded that cloth diaper users had the potential to leave a much smaller footprint. The greenest way to cloth diaper is to do fuller loads of diapers in a high-efficiency washing machine, line dry the diapers, and reuse them on a second child. These steps will lower the average user’s global warming impact by 40%; that’s approximately half the impact of using disposables.6

The British study has been criticized for flaws that favor the disposable diaper industry. For example, of the parents surveyed for the study, less than 6% use cloth diapers. While this is a reflection of the percentage of parents who choose cloth over disposables, it is a poor representation of the vast differences among cloth diapering families. Critics also disapprove of the study’s “baseline” user, noting that even simply switching to an energy-efficient machine will decrease the baseline footprint by 24%.7

And while the study purportedly took into account the environmental impact of manufacturing processes, transportation, and disposal for each diapering system, I saw no mention of the dangerous consequences of the chemicals used in disposable diapers on either our children or the environment. I will discuss the potential health effects of some of those chemicals in the next post in this series.

Conclusion

If only a fraction of the 95% of American parents who currently choose disposable diapers would convert to cloth, we could reduce the detrimental environmental effects of disposables.8 As it stands, disposable diapers make up two percent of the garbage in our nation’s landfills.9

As with many things, diapering – even cloth diapering – can be done in a way that is friendly or detrimental to our Earth. It is up to each of us to minimize our impact. To me, the greener choice is obvious: cloth diapering in an environmentally responsible way is the ideal.


  1. This post was originally published on Go Green Street. Since we are almost completely out of diapers now, I wanted to share it with my own readers before I wrote a couple of posts on potty learning.
  2. Paul, Pamela, Diapers Go Green
  3. An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies, (“Updated Lifecycle Assessment Study”) at 16.
  4. Onion, Amanda, The Diaper Debate at 2
  5. Updated Lifecycle Assessment Study at 19-24, 29.
  6. Updated Lifecycle Assessment Study at 35
  7. The Diaper Debate at 1, 3
  8. The Diaper Debate at 1
  9. Koerner, Brendan, Should My Baby Wear Huggies?

16 Responses to:
"Why We Chose Cloth Diapers, Part 1"

  1. Thanks for the info! Our new baby is due to arrive next week and we are planning on using both cloth and disposable diapers. A friend of mine actually passed down all her cloth diapers to us which saved us a ton of money. We will dry on the line till the weather changes. I just have to get a spray hose for the toilet and I think I will be all set. This is a whole new world to me seeing as though we only used disposable diapers on our first son. I am really hoping we can stick to it. Where do you store you “dirty diapers” while waiting for a full load?

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I have a diaper pail with a cloth liner – they just go in there. The pail usually resided in the bathroom off our bedroom.
      Congratulations on your new arrival!
      (And we never used a sprayer, so you can still cloth diaper without one.)

  2. Rachael   RachaelNevins

    We are apartment dwellers, no laundry machines in the building, let alone a place to air dry the diapers. The only local cloth diapering service is EXTREMELY costly and, in my few interactions with it, also EXTREMELY unreliable. So, we’ve been using Nature Babycare disposables. By now, our 23-mo Critter is uncomfortable with them, rashes, etc. It’s been pretty hot here in Brooklyn, too, which I’m sure has been adding to the discomfort. So. Does anyone know about any resources advising on cloth diapering when you have only a Laundromat for doing your laundry — if that’s even advisable? I’m not sure that it would even be doable for us, but I’d like to do some research on the possibility before the planned-for next baby comes. Many, many thanks!

    • Hi Rachael – I too was an apartment dweller for the first 6 months of my daughter’s life and although we had a washer and dryer at our apartment complex it was a terrible set, cost A LOT and we had such hard water it was ruining our diapers. So, I started going to the laundromat 3 times a week to wash them there. I just called the laundromats in the area to check which would allow me to wash my diapers there and I’d usually do it at times where I knew I would be one of the only ones there. What you should do is ask them what types of settings the washers have and once you know that I can tell you what kind of cycles to run to get your diapers clean! You can do this! Just make sure you never leave your diapers sitting for over 72 hours otherwise the fibers will breakdown and your diapers won’t last as long. What type of diaper system were you thinking?

    • Amy

      I would, personally, just go to the laundromat and start washing the diapers and not make waves if no one was asking what I was doing. If you’re uncomfortable with that, talk to your local laundromat (hopefully owner) about using their machines for the diapers. If your child is almost two, the poops should usually be of the consistency that they can easily be knocked off into the toilet and you’ll be left with a virtually unsoiled diaper most of the time. So, really, you’re only asking to wash diapers that have pee on them which is no different than washing sheets or pants that have pee on them. You could take them home wet and dry them on a folding drying rack or table if you have a balcony or even set up a few lines inside the house across a larger window that opens to dry them. Laundromat machines tend to be very efficient (to make running a laundromat profitable) so even having to dry them in a machine would still likely be better for the environment than using disposables. And cloth diapering will definitely be better for your child’s bottom!

      Another idea would be to strike up a deal with a friend that has laundry machines in their home if you have one. Then you could pay them a couple of bucks to use their machines now and again. If you have 36 diapers you can make it at least three days without having to wash them.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Your biggest problem is frequency – how often do you do laundry now? We did diaper laundry every other day, but that was mainly due to our small stash. Even if we’d had a larger stash though, I wouldn’t have wanted to go longer than once every 3 days (stink/etc.).
      If I really wanted to do diaper laundry w/only laundromat access, here’s what I’d do:
      1) Get a stash that allowed me to launder once/3 days.
      2) Use a diaper sprayer (you can knock off most breastmilk poo, so the washing machine has that much less work to do).
      3) On laundry day, start the diaper with the towels on heavy.
      4) Do a regular load of wash next, put the diapers in with it. (So your diapers are going through 2 washes)
      5) Dry as many as you can on the balcony (if possible) – esp. the covers if you use them, that will increase their lifespan. Throw the rest in the dryer with the other laundry.

      If you’ve got (in the future) 2 kids, you’ll be doing laundry more often anyway, so I doubt cloth diapers will add that much to your schedule.
      I hope you get some apartment dwellers’ answers, I obviously don’t have any practical experience :)

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      p.s. I asked your question on the Facebook page – you might check there for additional answers (people often answer there instead of clicking over here to post a comment ;))

      http://www.facebook.com/CodeNameMama

    • Julie from Simple Life   homemakerjulie

      I was never an apartment dweller, but we did have to use the laundromat for about 3 months (I left a load soaking in our washer, forgot about it and it was winter, with the washer in an unheated space, took it forever to unfreeze!) I would do laundry twice a week. I just never asked and never had anyone say anything, but we live in a super tiny town in the middle of nowhere, so there wasn’t actually anyone there at the mat, just others washing their clothes. Most would leave their stuff and go do other errands coming back to switch, so there wasn’t anyone there to even see me, to ask or question :). I would wash the diapers twice, so there was no way there was anything left in the washer. I’d say as long as there is hot water at your laundromat that there shouldn’t be an issue.

    • Rachael   RachaelNevins

      Thank you, everyone, for all the insight and suggestions!

  3. We use cloth and have passed them from one child to the next. Or rather, they both share them since the older is still in diapers, though we did need to buy extras to have enough for both.

    I love line drying my diapers. I have stopped recently because the heat is unbearable outside. And the propane delivery guy accidentally ripped down my line out front with his gigantic truck. :/

  4. Sara

    Sorry – I wasn’t trying to advertise on your facebook but I couldn’t find anywhere to send you a note besides in the comments. I’ve reposted this on my Diaper Parties Facebook page and if you want me to take it down just let me know! Thanks and great post :)

  5. Sheryl @ Little Snowflakes   sheryljesin

    I was always interested in cloth and finally gave it a try when Dylan was about 18 months old. It didn’t last long as he started daycare shortly after and it was hard to make it work there. With number 2 on the way I’m hoping to start with cloth right from the getgo and make it a part of our routine! It’s hard though when both my husband and mother are not on the cloth bandwagon…I hope I can get it to work this time! The environmental impact is a big concern for me…I feel sick thinking about all the garbage our disposables are creating!

  6. Cara @ Health Home and Happiness   healthhomehappy

    Interesting article! We’ve used our CPFs through two kids, and will use them through more when we have them. I have line dried maybe 1/4 of the time (being honest…) and only run full loads. For me the cost makes or breaks it; using cloth diapers really doesn’t add anything noticeable to my water or electric bill, but disposables run a *very* noticeable $30+ a month, depending on whether I can get the brand we use on sale.

  7. Laura   LauraBangerter

    The studies that say cloth has as much an environmental impact as disposables or even more don’t make sense to me. Money is the common denominator. Whichever costs more, uses more resources–basic economics. For the majority of people cloth is cheaper, thus better environmentally. Also cloth uses almost all renewable resources whereas disposables do not. For the water argument, if the baby used a toilet I’m sure they’d use just as much water as it takes to wash their diapers. Grrr. It just bugs me.

  8. I cloth diapered both our kids. I simply do not buy this idea that ‘sposies are somehow better for the environment. Intuitively it just doesn’t make sense. I highly doubt that all the impacts of manufacture, transport, and disposal were fully accounted for. But I didn’t do it for that reason anyways. I did it because I hated the thought of putting plastic all around my child’s bottom 24/7. It would be like wearing a maxi-pad the size of underwear all the time. Yuck. (I switched to cloth menstrual pads eventually for similar reasons). It was WAY less expensive because I used my diapers for both kids and then sold them after I was done with them. I also gave some away. It also way reduced our garbage output each week.

  9. Alex

    One of the environmental impacts that is rarely discussed (that I’ve seen) is the impact of the waste itself. Think back to your middle school and high school classes on the transmission of diseases. A lot of that stuff comes from not properly disposing of (or treating) human waste. Now imagine how much waste accumulates each day in the landfills from a typical city. And for refuse in a landfill to break down (in general) all of the products leach into the soil and ground water. Far better is to dump the solid stuff into the toilet and rinse/wash the liquid waste into the washer drain line. Then all of it ends up at a treatment facility, rather than simply leaching directly into the environment untreated. That’s not the reason we first picked cloth diapers, but it *really* sealed the decision for me once we thought it through.

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