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The Great Diaper Debate: Comparing the Environmental Impact of “Eco-Friendly” Diapers

Posted Nov 18 2009 10:05pm

daily dirty diapers compared to size of baby I knew going into having a baby that the mountains of diapers would horrify me from both a personal hygiene and environmental perspective. I also knew that I wasn’t game for potty-training-at-birth philosophies. Sure enough, if I calculate how many diapers I’ve changed for my now 15 month old, I’m horrified.

Two months before I gave birth to my baby girl I did some research on which diapers would have the least amount of environmental impact. Traditional, “non-eco” disposables were never even an option…I was interested only in comparing “eco” choices.

I assumed that organic cloth diapers would be a clear win. In fact, before Emerson was born, I pretty much planned on using organic cloth diapers, washing them at home, despite the rather daunting and disgusting work that would require. I even put a bunch in our baby gift registry. In doing more research, however, that choice may not have been best, particularly because of where we live (more on that in a minute).

First, let me say how disappointed I was to find very little solid information on the environmental impacts of eco-friendly diapers, given that all of us have soiled our fair share of one kind of diaper or another in our early life. Most studies compared only traditional, non-eco disposables against non organic cloth diaper delivery services. In fact, I have yet to find a study that compares every kind of diaper. Let this be a call to action for the Powers That Be: We moms need a study that compares the eco and baby-butt- health-attributes of traditional disposables, “eco” non-chlorinated disposables (e.g. Seventh Generation), “super eco” biodegradable sustainably resourced non-chlorinated disposables (e.g. Nature Boy and Girl, Tushies), non-organic cloth washed at home, organic cloth washed at home,  non-organic cloth diaper service and organic cloth diaper service. Whew. I see why no one has done that study. The best comparison I found was done by National Geographic’s Green Guide.

So, piecing together bits of information, and thinking this through as best as my mommy brain can, here is my conclusion: eco disposables and organic cotton cloth diapers have about the same environmental impact, however, there is a slight difference depending on where you live. If you live in a water-rich area, go with cloth. If you live in a relatively dry area, choose eco disposables. A few supporting points and clarifications:

  • I lump all eco disposables into one category because the majority of them end up in landfill and, once there, they won’t biodegrade even if they are marketed as biodegradable due to the lack of oxygen. Supposedly, you can compost wet biodegradable diapers/ G-Diaper inserts (not poopie ones due to the pathogens), but I found varying opinions on whether it actually works or not.
  • In a study conducted by Dr. Alan Greene for Seventh Generation, they found that water usage was at least two times greater for cloth diapers (vs disposables) depending on whether they were washed at home or by a service, taking into account the full lifecycle–raw resources to disposal–of both kinds of diapers. They also found that washing cloth diapers at home uses anywhere from 50 to 70 gallons of water every three days. Again, this is less of a big deal if you are in a water rich area, but, for the millions of us that live in dry places like CO, CA, AZ, NV, we should think twice about doing all that laundry. Given that water scarcity out-weighs landfill capacity in most areas, think about water before waste.
  • In the same study, Dr Alan Greene mentions that Cloth diapers generally require the use of chlorine bleach for sanitizing purposes (particularly if sent to a diaper cleaning service where diapers are shared among many households). Once rinsed down a drain, chlorine can combine with organic material naturally present in ground and surface waters to create toxins like chloroform.
  • Both eco disposables and organic cloth diapers are made from renewable resources (paper from sustainable forestry or corn; organic cotton), all positives compared to plastic (non-renewable petroleum based) disposables.

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