Ask Eartha: Cloth or disposable diapers, which are more environmentally friendly?
Special to the Free Press
I am expecting a baby in a few short months and am contemplating using cloth diapers. Are cloth diapers better than disposable diapers?
Congrats on your forthcoming bambino, Lisa! The short answer to your question is that there’s no clear winner on the environmental front when trying to decide whether to use disposable or reusable diapers. To be sure, diapers are not the most environmentally friendly product regardless of your selection. The information about which type of diaper is healthiest for your baby isn’t straightforward either.
Each year, enough disposable diapers are thrown away to circle the globe 90 times. If you decide to use disposables, your little bundle of joy will probably use more than 5,000 diapers in her first few years. Clearly, disposable diapers create a lot of waste. Waste managers classify diapers as “municipal solid waste,” meaning they are no more dangerous in landfills than typical household trash. From a strictly waste reduction perspective, using cloth diapers is the right choice. But what about the water used to clean cloth diapers? Once water use is factored in, cloth and disposable diapers have very similar ecological footprints.
In urban areas, there are services that offer cloth diaper laundering in water-efficient machines. Using one of these services greatly reduces water use, and slightly tips the environmental balance in favor of cloth diapers if the service is very near your home. In Summit County, there aren’t options for diaper services, but using your own high-efficiency washer will significantly reduce water use.
Several hybrid disposable-reusable options are also available. These combination systems offer a disposable liner that fits inside a washable diaper cover. These hybrid diapers reduce waste compared with regular disposable diapers, and they let parents avoid some of the mess involved in washing cloth diapers.
Besides the environmental impacts, many parents are also interested in the cost comparison and health considerations of disposable versus cloth diapers. When it comes to cost, cloth diapers cost more up front, so the first year is usually more expensive for cloth than for disposables. But over time, cloth diapers (factoring in the energy costs of washing) are slightly less expensive than disposables.
The health implications of the diapers remain unclear. Some studies have illustrated that lab mice exposed to the absorbent material in disposable diapers exhibited asthma-like symptoms, but the overall body of evidence is inconclusive. Conversely, disposable diapers tend to keep babies’ bums drier, which may reduce the incidence of diaper rash.
A HEALTHIER CHOICE?
Finally, there’s a question of whether disposable diaper use slows potty training. When children wear disposable diapers, they may not feel wet since the diaper has absorbed their urine. In a cloth diaper, the wet feeling is unmistakable. It makes sense that kids would be more motivated to learn to use the toilet if they are averse to sitting in a wet cloth diaper. In fact, a few studies have shown that kids in cloth diapers do move faster through potty training than kids in disposable diapers.
Although there’s not compelling scientific research supporting either the cloth or disposable diaper camp, the topic continues to be hotly debated by new parents. The truth is that your diaper choice is a personal decision based on your values and family situation.
Convenience is also important. If you’re going to be a stay-at-home mom, you’ll have a better chance at using cloth diapers successfully. Many day-care providers aren’t willing to use anything but disposable diapers.
Good luck on your decision and on your new journey into parenthood.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.
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