THE GREAT DEBATE
by
Lisa Jackson
Jan 9
Cloth Diapers Vs. Disposables: Which Is Better For The Environment?

As a new parent, you have enough to worry about.

From mastering the (not-so-simple) art of breastfeeding to cleaning baby blowouts to wrestling with car seat installation, every day can feel like a comedy of errors. The last thing you need is a dose of #ParentGuilt about your household carbon footprint.

But if you’re trying to use eco-friendly baby products whenever possible, you’ve likely faced the great debate: cloth vs. disposable diapers. Each side claims to be the better option for a variety of reasons, and the right choice seems about as clear as mud.

So, we dug deep into the research on both, considered the environmental pros and cons—and yes, got to the bottom of things. 

Why your choice in diapers matters

We get it, you want the best for the environment and your little one.

From birth to toilet training (which can last anywhere from one to four years), a child goes through an average of 8,000 diaper changes. What to put on their sensitive bums every day, all day matters from a comfort perspective, and as a parent, you need to be confident in your choice.

Cloth diapers on laundry line
Photo by SeeDesign on Shutterstock

There are cost considerations, too.

How much do cloth diapers cost?

Cloth diapers can cost $20 to $35 each, which means forking over $400-plus upfront, an amount that isn’t affordable for everyone. Factor in another $25 or so per week if you use a diaper laundering service.

How much do disposable diapers cost?

In contrast, disposable diapers have a lower “startup” cost, but they’re likely more expensive in the long run. At typically $0.20 to $0.25 each, they’ll total anywhere between $500 and $1,000 per year, depending on the brand and your child’s needs.

The environmental impact of disposable diapers

In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that disposable diapers made up 1.4 percent of total municipal solid waste generation in 2018.

Doesn’t sound like much? It adds up to a whopping 4.1 million tons.

Aside from the sheer volume of garbage, what goes into most throwaway diapers isn’t eco-friendly either: They’re made with everything from wood pulp to plastics (used for the liquid-absorbing material), all destined for the landfill after one use.

5 combines combining a field of crops
Photo by Lourencolf from Shutterstock

Once they start decomposing in landfills, disposable diapers emit methane—a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide—and contaminate water systems.

Are disposable diapers compostable?

Despite what you may have heard, disposable diapers won’t turn to compost or biodegrade in a landfill, except in limited cases. Yes, there are biodegradable disposables made of cornstarch, which could (theoretically) be composted.

But sorry to say, in reality, these won’t biodegrade in the airless conditions of a landfill. You’d likely have to compost them at home (that is, if you have the space), and they can take months to decompose. 

Are there eco-friendly disposable diapers?

However, there’s (sort of) good news: Some manufacturers are trying to greenify their practices. Recently, Procter & Gamble, one of the world’s largest diaper makers and the parent company of Pampers, teamed up with Italian healthcare group Angelini, with the goal of developing a sustainable recycling loop that could turn dirty diapers into plastic bottle caps and viscose clothing

In another promising initiative, bamboo-diaper maker Dyper joined forces with recycling company TerraCycle in 2020 to launch ReDyper, the first national diaper composting program in the US.

Basically, you can box up the dirties and ship them to TerraCycle, which will take care of the rest. It’s an innovative approach that helps solve the conundrum of how to compost a heaping pile of soiled diapers, making biodegradables a potentially viable option for some families.

But all things considered, disposable diapers aren’t eco-friendly baby products, which leads us to Option B: the wash-and-wear-again alternatives.

Surely, you might be thinking, cloth is the greener way to go? 

The environmental impact of cloth diapers

Here’s where it gets tricky: Reusable cloth diapers aren’t as sustainable as they seem.

Materials required to make cloth diapers

For starters, most cloth diapers are made of cotton—a crop that’s dependent on pesticides, fertilizers and lots of water to grow. In some countries, the cultivation of cotton has been linked to for polluting water supplies—thanks to all those pesticides seeping into the ground—and sketchy labor practices.

Even if you choose reusable cloth diapers made of more sustainable bamboo, there’s the unavoidable and sizable carbon footprint associated with laundering them.

Water usage needed to clean cloth diapers

Washing a load of poopy diapers requires plenty of water, a resource that takes a huge amount of energy to filter, move and heat. Detergents and dryers also have an environmental impact, and if you’re using a diaper service, factor in fuel to transport the diapers (unless the company has an electric vehicle).

A notable 2008 report from the Environment Agency in the UK rigorously compared the manufacturing, disposal and energy costs of cloth vs. disposable diapers. Based on average laundry habits and appliance efficiency, the report concluded that, when washed with 140°F (60°C) water and mostly line-dried, cloth diapering had almost the same overall carbon emissions as disposables.

How to make your use of cloth diapers more eco-friendly

Three factors can make a difference in decreasing the environmental impact of cloth diapers, according to that report:

1. Reusing cloth diapers for a sibling or buying secondhand;

2. Washing diapers in fuller loads

3. Always line-drying.

Combining all these better scenarios “would lower the global warming impact by 40 percent from the baseline scenario.”

In other words, cloth diapers can be a green-ish option—if you’re mindful about how you buy and launder them.

Cloth vs. disposable: which one is better for the environment?

The bottom line is that like all products, both cloth and disposable diapers come with an environmental impact—and no one can definitively say which is better (or worse). Even the American Academy of Pediatrics and the EPA take no official position on the debate.

Disposable and cloth diapers have a similar environmental impact, but for different and complex reasons. Neither is a sustainable option, and rather than worrying about it, your energy may be better spent fighting other environmental battles.

Man changing babys diaper
Photo by theshots.co on Shutterstock

Parents, it’s a toss-up.

Your decision may come down to what works best for your child and your wallet. If you’re torn, you could compromise by using cloth during the day, and disposables for outings and bedtime. You could also explore biodegradable diapers and join the ReDyper program.

Just try not to lose sleep over the decision. After all, parents need all the rest they can get.

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This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

Lisa Jackson
Written By
Lisa Jackson

Lisa Jackson is a freelance journalist who contributes to The Globe & Mail, Al Jazeera News, The Independent, The Toronto Star, and Huffington Post Canada. When she's not writing from her home office, she's busy reviewing plans to build a net-zero cottage in Northern Ontario.

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