Are cloth diapers that much greener than disposables?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Dec. 31 2008 6:59 AM

Should My Baby Wear Huggies?

Going diaper shopping for the Little Green Penlight.

In March, the Green Lantern wondered: Are cloth diapers really better for the environment than disposables? The piece is reprinted below.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

I'm about to have my first child, and my husband and I are vigorously debating our diaper options. Old-fashioned cloth nappies seem like a greener choice than plasticky disposables, but I've heard this isn't necessarily the case—washing machines don't run on pixie dust, after all. Can we put Huggies on the tyke without feeling too guilty, or is cloth the clear environmental winner?

This is a timely question for the Lantern, who joined the fatherhood ranks last month. In the weeks leading up to the Little Green Penlight's joyous birth, the cloth-or-disposable conundrum vexed his parents to the edge of madness. After copious number crunching, we decided that cloth is, indeed, the greener option. Yet for the time being, at least, the 6-week-old Penlight is doing his business in disposables. Should you follow our wicked lead? That all depends on your specific circumstances as well as your ability to weather the disapproval of your high-minded friends.

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It's pretty clear that disposable diapers require more resources to manufacture than cloth diapers, even when you take into account the vast amounts of water and energy involved in cotton farming. A 1992 study from Franklin Associates estimated that producing a year's supply of disposables, which are composed largely of plastic, consumes roughly 6,900 megajoules of energy, vs. around 1,400 megajoules for a year's supply of cloth diapers. Yet the study concluded that cloth ended up being 39 percent more energy-intensive overall, given the electricity needed to wash load after load of dirty diapers.

That conclusion is now woefully outdated, however, given the major advances that have occurred in washing-machine efficiency (PDF). For a washing machine made in 1985, an 11-pound load of cottons washed in warm water used up 1.68 kilowatt hours of electricity and 34 gallons of water; for a machine made two decades later, the relevant figures are just 0.95 kilowatt hours and 12 gallons.

A 2005 study (PDF) by Britain's Environment Agency took into account some of these technological advances. In making their calculations regarding cloth diapers, the study's authors used average energy-consumption figures for machines made in 1997. They concluded that there was "no significant difference" between the environmental impact of cloth and disposable diapers. Keeping a child clad in home-laundered cloth diapers for 2.5 years emitted 1,232 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, vs. 1,380 pounds for disposable diapers.

Critics of the study—and there were many—pointed out that cloth diapers would have enjoyed a more notable triumph had the authors taken into account the latest washing machines' technical specs. The critics also contended that the study underestimated the resilience of cloth diapers and didn't properly stress the waste-management consequences of disposables. Indeed, there's no question that single-use disposables require more landfill space than multiple-use cloth diapers. (In the United States, disposable diapers make up about 2 percent of all garbage.)

The bottom line is that cloth diapers are greener than run-of-the-mill Pampers and Huggies, as long as you're committed to an energy-efficient laundry regimen. But that commitment takes more than just an EnergyStar washing machine and a clothing line for air drying. It also takes time, a commodity which will be in startlingly short supply once your offspring drops. And thus we must delve into the ceaseless conflict between idealism and reality.

Trust the Lantern when he says those first few weeks of Junior's life will be a sleep-deprived jumble, and that you may be grateful for the small respite provided by disposable diapers. Your washing machine will already be running several hours a day, chock-full of milk-encrusted onesies; there's a chance you may not have the fortitude to double that laundry burden by doing cloth diapers, too, especially if you plan on getting back to work pronto. (Also note that cloth diapers generally soak through more quickly than disposables, and so have to be changed more frequently.)

The Lantern and his wife both work full-time, albeit partly from home. Taking care of the Penlight is an exhausting, 24/7 assignment, so we opted for disposable diapers in order to make these first months a smidgen easier. We did, however, select chlorine-free diapers, since the chlorine used to bleach regular disposables is associated with dioxin emissions. We plan to use disposables until the Penlight is roughly three months old, at which point we'll give cloth diapers a try—not only for environmental reasons but because of some purported health and financial benefits. If we can't deal with the ensuing laundry deluge, we may try an alternative such as flushable gDiapers.

Ultimately, you'll have to make a deeply personal judgment call as to whether you're willing to forgo a modern convenience in the name of being a little kinder to the planet. Whichever way you go, just make sure you'll feel comfortable explaining your choice to your child in, say, 2024.

Regardless of your decision, it's worth noting that the diaper debate too often overshadows other wasteful aspects of baby care. It's curious how people feel so guilty about using Huggies but not about all the fossil fuels that went into making and transporting their brand-new bouncers, swings, and diaper pails. Really, would it be so awful if your young 'un inherited a secondhand Diaper Genie or crib mattress from a friend? But for the moment, alas, giving used baby-shower gifts seems to be a serious faux pas.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com and check this space every Tuesday.

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