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Your family... Diapers

Diapers - Cloth vs. Disposables?


Your child could use between 5,000 and 8,000 diapers before she's toilet-trained. Should you choose cloth or disposables? And if you choose cloth, should you wash the diapers at home, or get a diaper service?

Symbolic Moral Statement

Symbolically, using cloth diapers makes a great moral statement. I chose cloth when I had my kids because it seemed like "the right thing to do." I didn't want trees being ground up so my kids could wear them as disposable diapers. I didn't want my kids wrapped in plastic 24-7. And I didn't want to contribute to the 18 billion disposable diapers Americans are throwing away every year - a quantity, by the way, that's substantial enough to stretch to the moon and back seven times, according to one analysis.

For a while, I used a diaper service; then I washed the diapers at home. It was as easy as doing the rest of the laundry, and my kids never suffered from excessive diaper rash or inconvenience. They had child care at home, so we did not have to deal with day care facilities that only accept disposable diapers.

Environmental Analysis

It wasn't until long after my kids were out of diapers that a "life cycle" analysis was done on some of environmental costs and benefits of disposable vs. cloth diapers.

The environmental trade-offs have do with the amount of energy and water used to wash diapers and the amount of solid waste diapers create. According to the Institute for Lifecycle Analysis, disposable diapers produce substantially more solid waste, which includes waste used to produce the diaper such as raw material production and process, manufacture trimmings, and ash from electricity generation, as well as the diaper itself, child waste, and packaging. Cloth diapers generate half as much solid waste . However, cloth diapers use more water and produce more waterborne waste.

The conclusion of this study, as well as of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS): If your community is concerned about water shortages, it's best to use disposable diapers. If the area has landfill problems, it's best to use commercially laundered cloth diapers.

Notably, when this study was done in 1992, commercial laundry services were deemed to be more water and energy efficient than washing diapers at home. Today, appliances are significantly more efficient than they were in the nineties. If you are going to launder diapers at home, use your washer and dryer to maximize efficiency as well as ensure that the diapers are getting clean.

Health Considerations

Apart from the straight resource questions involved in the cloth vs. disposables dilemma, many parents wonder what health issues diapers raise. There is no clear-cut winner when it comes to comparing disposables and cloth.

Bleaching the paper for most disposable diapers creates dioxin, a toxin that can persist in the environment and cause cancer and other health problems. But according to the Pesticide Action Network, cotton is the most insecticide-intensive crop in the world. Thus, using cloth diapers made from conventionally grown cotton contributes to global pesticide use. Organic cotton diapers and alternatively bleached disposable diapers are available in the marketplace, but both are quite expensive.

Because disposable diapers are superabsorbent, they keep babies drier longer. However, this phenomenon has a tendency to postpone babies' tendency to potty train by around a year. You may change more diapers in the short term if your babies wear cloth diapers, but they may transition out of diapers sooner, too.

Some parents worry that the ingredients used in the plastic and fragrances that make up disposable diapers could cause asthma or other illnesses in their children. To date, no specific diseases have been linked to the use of disposable diapers. You could choose to wash cloth diapers in fragrance-free detergents and softeners if that was a concern.

What To Do?

It really comes down to what matters most to you.

Choose cloth if you want to.

  • minimize the amount of trash you create
  • try to live a "whole earth" lifestyle
  • prefer to wrap your kids in cotton rather than plastic
  • just feel like it's the right thing to do.

Read Mothering Magazine's Joy of Cloth Diapers for one mom's explanation of why she chose cloth.

You can buy regular cotton diapers at most department stores. Find organic cotton diapers at:

If you opt for a diaper service, try to find one that is already servicing your neighborhood to reduce energy transportation costs associated with pick-up and delivery. Request fragrance-free detergents and water softeners.

Choose disposables if you want to.

  • save water
  • prefer to express your concern for the environment in other ways
  • just like the convenience of disposables

In addition to the standard disposable brands available in virtually every convenience store and supermarket, here are some eco-friendly alternatives that are bleached with hydrogen peroxide and therefore do not create dioxin as a by-product:

  • gDiapers combine cloth and disposables. They consist of a conventional cotton cloth pant, nylon liner and a super absorbent pad that can be removed and flushed down the toilet. The cloth pant still requires laundering, and the pad is not completely bleach-free, so it has some environmental costs. But it's worth taking a look at.
  • Tushies
  • Tendercare
  • Seventh Generation


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