Environmental Impacts Parenting

Cloth Diapers or Disposables? How to choose the one that will reduce your environmental impact the most

 

“Wait, you work in sustainability consulting?  And you use disposable diapers?”

Nobody has ever actually had the courage to say this to me, but they think it.  Or at least I imagine they do.

Anyway, yes – I work in sustainability consulting and my daughter wears disposable diapers.  Specifically, in my work I use a tool called Life Cycle Assessment, which helps us to understand the environmental impacts of a product or service from raw material extraction through manufacturing, consumer use, and disposal – so we can make better choices about the products we make and use.

This article may be a bit different from all the others I’ve seen on this topic in that I don’t come with an agenda.  I don’t believe you must use either cloth or disposable diapers to reduce your environmental impact – a much better question is ‘what environmental impact is most important to you?’ I’ll give you the data to help you decide which impact to prioritize, and thus which type of diapers may work best for you.  Because – and here’s the kicker – neither is clearly better for the environment than the other, so it’s up to you to apply your own principles to the available data to make your own choice.

  1. Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The landmark study on the environmental impact of diapers was conducted by the UK’s Environment Agency in 2006 – this was an update from an earlier 2002 report.  (Seems like we’re due for another update, hey, guys?).  The study looked at a variety of environmental impacts but let’s just take greenhouse gases (GHGs) for now, which warm the planet and in my opinion are the most serious environmental problem the world faces.

There are several types of GHG emissions, some of which are more powerful than others.  Carbon dioxide is more prevalent than some of the more powerful ones like methane, which is more than 20 times as powerful a GHG as carbon dioxide.  So life cycle assessments convert all other types of GHGs to units of ‘carbon dioxide equivalent’ or ‘CO2e’ for ease of understanding.

The study found that the average family using disposables generates a global warming impact of 550kg CO2e over the 2 1/2 years a child is typically in diapers; this number decreased from a previous study conducted by the same organization due to manufacturing changes and a reduction in diaper weight.  The cloth diapers generated 570kg CO2e for a baseline scenario, which assumed washing at 60 degrees C (for the Americans that’s 140 degrees F) and that three quarters of diapers are line dried.  So the GHG numbers are pretty much a wash (as it were) between cloth and disposables in the U.K., but in the U.S. there a few more things to consider.

A. For disposables, we have to factor in a likely larger distance to landfills than in the U.K. The study doesn’t give us enough information to calculate this number, and it probably isn’t very big, but it does exist.  It may be offset by further assumed product lightweighting which has occurred since 2006 (which reduces transportation emissions of both new and soiled diapers).

B. For those considering cloth diapers in America, line drying 3/4 of the diapers you use is going to require a pretty big cultural shift.  I know very few people in the States who line dry, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a diaper on a washing line.   Americans are also more likely to wash in hot water to be sure those germs are dead – mainstream (forum, blogger, diaper company and a soap company) advice advocates for hot washing.  But many Americans reduce the temperature of their water heater to 120 degrees F after having a baby to prevent scalding, so in the States we’d still be at the 60 degrees C scenario.  British people apparently just teach their kids about hot water…

Tumble drying all diapers increases the global warming impact by 43%, and washing at 90 degrees C instead of 60 degrees C increases the impact by 31%.    Combining these two scenarios results in a total of 970kg CO2e with very hot water use in the U.K vs. 550kg for the disposables..  For cooler water use in the U.S. but tumble drying every load we’re looking at 815kg CO2e over 2 1/2 years. Technological improvements to washers and dryers since 2005 has likely reduced this number somewhat, but probably not enough to equal the GHG emissions from disposables.  To put that into context, the difference between disposables and the U.S. cloth diaper scenario is the equivalent of driving about 630 miles, or switching seven incandescent light bulbs to CFLs (data on this comes from the EPA).  So not totally insignificant, but something you could easily offset by decisions you make elsewhere in your life.

A reasonable chunk of the emissions (GHGs and others) associated with cloth diapers occurs in the manufacturing of the cotton, which only happens once – no matter how many times the diapers are used.  So the best possible scenario for cloth is to wash in cold water, line dry, and then pass on the diapers to a second child.

 

2. Water

One thing life cycle assessments historically haven’t done very well is to consider the regional impact of different types of resource use pollutant emissions, and water is a very regionally-specific issue.  I live in California, where we’ve seen mind-boggling drought this year – our snowpack was at 5% of normal on April 1, 2015 – the lowest level since 1950, and it wasn’t much better last year.  The irony is that if you live in an area where line drying is feasible a majority of the time it’s likely that you’re also in a water-stressed area, so you have a trade-off between water and GHGs if cloth is appealing.  If you do live in a water-stressed area and you want to do what you can to minimize your water use, you should use disposables.

Cotton is usually grown in arid areas with large amounts of irrigation, so there’s also a large water impact in the manufacturing stage.

 

3. Landfill Space (and a bit more on GHGs)

One of the main arguments for using cloth diapers is the mountain of waste that disposables creates.  I can’t really argue with that; if your kid is going through 2,700 diaper changes a year then that really is an enormous amount of waste – actually it’s kind of sickening to think about.  Landfill space in the Northeastern U.S. is somewhat restricted due to the lack of political will to build new ones, and trash there tends to be shipped across state lines for this reason.  But the U.S. as a whole is not running out of landfill space – waste companies are actually expanding dumps faster than demand due to accounting rules that favor this approach.

Just as the cloth diaper industry likes to say, disposable diapers mostly do not degrade in a landfill and instead may sit there for 250-500 years.  From a GHG perspective this is actually preferable to degradation – if the diaper doesn’t degrade, then the GHGs in it are locked away in the landfill rather than being released to the atmosphere where they can contribute to global warming.  Because of the anaerobic (meaning “lack of oxygen” in a landfill), a biodegradable diaper that ends up in the landfill and does manage to degrade ends up producing a lot of GHGs, as the wood pulp and other organic matter turn into our old friend methane, the GHG that’s 20 times as powerful as carbon dioxide.

Biodegradable diapers that are composted in the presence of oxygen (i.e. not buried deeply) will degrade to carbon dioxide, which is better than methane but not as good as not degrading at all.

In some places, trash is burned to generate energy and under those circumstances, burning the disposable actually creates a small GHG ‘credit.’  Waste-to-energy is a whole other can of worms that I won’t go into here; it is probably safe trace amounts of pollutants do make it out into the air after the trash is burned.

It sucks that we need landfills to store all the stuff that we should be able to find some way to use again but can’t or won’t for economic or other reasons.  But if we accept that climate change is a bigger problem than landfill space, we cannot argue that we should use cloth diapers to reduce our environmental impact to the greatest extent possible.

 

4. Chemical Use and Exposure

There are a lot of chemicals involved in the manufacturing of both disposable and cloth diapers.  Everything is a chemical that may be hazardous at a high enough dosage: even water can kill you if you drink enough of it.  What we’re talking about here is chemicals that are known to be or may be hazardous to humans even in quite small doses.

An unusually well-written and -sourced Baby Center article describes the chemicals that are present in disposable diapers and that may be present as manufacturing residues as not sufficient to cause your baby any harm except in exceptional circumstances (i.e. a baby with hyper-sensitive skin).  The super-absorbent material (sodium polyacrylate) in nearly all disposable diapers appears to be mostly inert unless it is inhaled (which means you’d have to tear open the diaper).  Some people find their babies get a rash with disposable diapers and it’s possible that the sodium polyacrylate is to blame, but a journal article cited by BabyCenter found only one case with a potential connection.  In any case, if your baby is allergic to a product then you should stop using it and try a different one, but the vast majority of babies will not have an allergy problem with sodium polyacrylate.  The same goes for dyes and perfumes; most babies are unlikely to have a reaction but if yours does – or if you just don’t want to take the chance, use a different product.

Dioxins are formed when the wood pulp in diapers is bleached with chlorine, and dioxins are really nasty carcinogens.  From the same BabyCenter article: “There doesn’t seem to be enough dioxin in a diaper to threaten a baby’s health, however. In fact, it’s not even a close call: A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2002 estimated that kids get thousands if not millions of times more dioxins in their diet than they get from their diapers. (Dioxins are everywhere in the environment, and they end up in everything that we eat, especially animal fats).”  So to reduce your child’s exposure to dioxins, go vegetarian – and then worry about your diaper choices.

Chemicals are also used in cloth diaper manufacturing, of course – cotton is one of the most fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive crops to grow, and “seven of the 15 pesticides commonly used on cotton in the United States are listed as “possible,” “likely,” “probable” or “known” human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency.”  It’s unlikely that any of these chemicals are still on the cloth by the time it gets to you, but farm workers and people living near fields are much more likely to be exposed to levels high enough to harm their health.  By buying organic you are stating that you care about the health of the people who live and work around cotton farms.

Organic cotton wins on the GHG front, too: a life cycle assessment conducted by the well-respected Stockholm Environment Institute found that organic cotton manufacturing produces about 3kg CO2 emissions per metric tonne of spun fiber, while conventional cotton manufacturing produces about 5.5kg CO2 per metric tonne of spun fiber.  (I’m averaging the numbers from scenarios based on Indian-grown and USA-grown fibers; the authors explain the differences between the two countries as primarily driven by the different mix of energy sources available in those countries but fail to explain why the USA-grown scenario produces fewer GHGs for organic cotton but more for conventional.)

 

5. Diaper rash and skin sensitivity

Our daughter Carys never got diaper rash when she was tiny – she never had the chance.  She would start screaming every time she peed, and we quickly learned that the indicator stripe (which changes color when wet) was the key to maintaining our sanity.  Sometimes she would start screaming and we’d check the diaper to find the indicator unchanged; when the screaming continued we would check again in thirty seconds to find the yellow indicator had turned blue – her response was literally faster than the indicator.

We thought she might have a yeast infection but we would watch her pee with no diaper on and she’d be fine; she just couldn’t stand it against her skin.  The amounts she was peeing were so tiny that when we tried diapers without an indicator (like most ‘eco’ disposable brands) we would end up changing them even more often because we weren’t sure why she was crying and couldn’t tell if she was wet.  At one point we were doing 16 changes a day and it was costing us a fortune.

Cloth diapers can cause diaper rash because the pee sits next to the skin (it’s rapidly pulled away from the skin by disposables) but regular changes will reduce the likelihood of this.  If your baby seems to be sensitive to the type of diaper you’re using, try a different kind.

I had actually bought some cloth diapers (from the consignment store, but they were in really good condition) before Carys was born – planning to cloth diaper after she grew into them.  A month in I pulled them out of the closet and put them in her diaper drawer, planning to try them the next day.  The next day rolled around and I was too scared – we were struggling with breastfeeding as well at the time, and her afternoon naps weren’t great either, and I wanted to know that if she was crying, it wasn’t because she was wet.  I kept thinking I’d try again the next day, and each next day I just didn’t dare do it.  She’s much less sensitive these days, and we mostly change on a rough schedule rather than because she just peed – but now we’re in seventeen month-old grown-up poop, not non-stinky newborn poop, and it’s a hard switch to make.  Which brings me to:

 

6. The poop

My husband is lovely, but my goodness he’s a wuss, and he has a ‘thing’ about poo.  He wore latex gloves for all diaper changes – even just the pee ones – for the first month.  I’m not joking.  There’s just no way he’s going to scrape or spray poo off anything and I knew that if I did cloth I was essentially signing myself up for doing the vast majority of diaper changes – and all of the associated laundry.  The disposables do occasionally start to smell in their can before we take them out but I knew he would think that the smell from cloth diapers waiting to be washed would be way worse, even if it objectively wasn’t.

There are disposable liners that you can put into cloth diapers to try to catch the poo, but after our gDiaper experience I’m not sure I see it working for us.  gDiapers have a cotton outer, a plastic liner, and then a compostable pad that sits inside the liner.  After a day spent gorging on raisins Carys had a couple of big wet poops, and the poo just sits on top of the liner.  This means it gets spread around very quickly, and each time it happened I had to spend a good ten minutes literally picking poo with my fingernails out out of the folds of plastic where the body of the liner meets the elastic around the edges.  Obviously I was handwashing when we were at the huts so this was my only option, but I doubt the ability of my washing machine to get the deeply-embedded poo out of the tight spots in a gDiaper.  Perhaps other diapers don’t have this problem, but I don’t have the time, money, or energy to spend experimenting with the overwhelming number of cloth diapers on the market to find out which ones work for us.

7. The Cost

Many cloth-diapering websites tout the expense of disposables as a major reason to use cloth.  And it’s true; on the surface, you can spend a few hundred dollars on 30 cloth diapers which will last for years (although energy costs from laundering can be significant in some places), compared to thousands of dollars on disposables over the time your kid is wearing them.  But these sites fail to account for the cost of my time – the relatively small amount of time figuring out which of all the cloth diapers is right for us, and the far larger amount of time I’d spend washing all those diapers every 2-3 days, and line drying them in a back yard so shaded that even the solar panel company who had sent us fliers in the mail told us to call them back after we’d cut all our trees down.  LearnVest calculates the value of my time at $44/hour, and with a conservative estimate of 30 minutes of active time per laundry load, it doesn’t take very long for the disposables to look cheaper.

 

8. Market-Scale Considerations

At the end of the day we should make the best choices we can for ourselves but ideally we should also think about the signals that our buying behavior sends to the market.  The people who have the largest positive environmental impact are those who support new systems and technologies that benefit the environment when they are still relatively unproven and expensive.
It’s not the Prius owners who jumped on the bandwaggon in the last five years who have the greatest positive impact, it’s those who bought it in 1997 when Toyota was still trying to figure out if there was a market for a hybrid vehicle.  People who bought one then sent a “Yes!” signal back to Toyota and now we see an explosion of hybrid and electric vehicles that will hopefully help to reduce global warming.  People who bought Seventh Generation and Ecover cleaning products for twice the price – or more! – sent a signal to Clorox, who came out with their Green Works line to capture some of this market and now these products are available in mainstream supermarkets and not just in my local store in Berkeley.
Buying cloth diapers tells the market “I’m sick of trash!”.  Buying unbleached diapers tells disposable manufacturers “I’m worried about dioxins and the massive energy use of chlorine bleach!”.
Just look at baby food, where sales are down due to the “pernicious” trend of parents making their own food at home, and the market for new products that has sprung up to address this.  Try to decide what kind of signal you want to send to the market, and plan your purchases accordingly.

 

The Upshot:

This is a complex topic and there are a lot of variables at play, but I want to give you a digested answer to help you reach your own conclusions and decide which type of diaper is right for you.

 

1. If you believe that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are the major cause of global warming, you believe that global warming is the most important environmental problem that we face, and you want to do everything you can to reduce your contribution to that warming, you can either:
A. Use cloth diapers, wash them in cold water and line-dry them, and then pass them on to a second child when you’re done.  If this is not feasible for you, then:
B. Use disposable diapers.

 

2. If you live in a place where water is abundant and yet you can still feasibly line-dry on a regular basis, use cloth.  If you live in a place where water is scarce, use disposables.

 

3. If you believe that landfill space is the primary environmental problem we face, use cloth.  If you think the amount of landfill space we use is disgusting but the world has even bigger problems, use disposables.

 

4. If you are very worried about your childrens’ exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, go vegetarian to try to avoid dioxins.  Also be sure to buy organic fruits and vegetables, at least for the Dirty Dozen, make sure you don’t live in an area with regularly poor air quality,  never buy new kids’ pajamas (they contain flame retardants which wash out over time), minimize your exposure to Bisphenol A (but also try to keep track of the chemicals companies are now using to replace BPA, which are just as bad and may be worse), and always take your shoes off when you enter your home.  Then worry about chemical exposure through disposable diapers.

 

5. If your kid is sensitive to one kind of diaper, try a different kind.  If your disposables bring him out in a rash in a certain area, use a brand that doesn’t have a colored part in that area, or doesn’t have perfume.  If he still gets a rash with the new disposables, try cloth.  If cloth diapers give your kid a rash then try changing her more often.  If the rash doesn’t go away and you have a high-efficiency washer then your choice might be made for you – the short cycle time and low water use of HE machines can result in ammonia build-up on the diapers, which leads to all kinds of smell, rash, and blow-out problems.

 

My choice?  I believe that global warming is our largest problem, and I want to do what I can to reduce my impact.  I live in California, which is extremely water-stressed.  Even the wet winter currently forecast for 2015/6 won’t replenish our deficit.  Looking at pictures of landfills makes me feel sick, so I reduce the waste we generate in other areas and recycle and compost what we can, but I don’t believe it’s the largest environmental challenge we face.  I’m worried about chemical exposure so I buy organic food, get pajamas at the consignment store, can my own tomatoes (in glass jars!), and don’t wear shoes in the house.  I use disposable diapers and I’m comfortable with my choice, but disposables may not be the right choice for you.

 

We used Target brand for a while to avoid the bleach/dioxin issue but they don’t put the wetness indicator on the larger sizes so we went back to Swaddlers.  Writing this post has reminded me that I’d become lazy in my diaper decision-making as I haven’t reevaluated my choice in a while.  I ordered my first pack of Bambo Natures to try them out – they were the Editor’s Choice coming out of an exhaustive review over at Baby Gear Lab.  They apparently perform well, don’t contain or use a lot of the worst chemicals that can be associated with disposables and they have a wetness indicator.  I wouldn’t mind sending a signal to Pampers that I don’t appreciate the use of chlorine (the manufacture of which uses massive amounts of energy, which generates GHGs – and creates dioxins to boot), and to the other ‘green’ diaper companies that I won’t sacrifice performance on the bum for environmental attributes.

 

 We also tried some Elimination Communication – sitting Carys on the potty when we thought she might need to go, and seeing what happened.  Our nanny at the time was shocked when Carys did the majority of her pees and poops in the potty during the nanny’s first week – Carys was six months old at the time.  It worked fabulously well for us for a couple of months, and then Carys decided she didn’t like it so much after all and just stopped using the potty.  We didn’t force the issue and she currently almost never uses it.  The faster you can get your kid out of diapers the lower your environmental impact – but don’t do it before your kid is ready, or you’re in for a world of hassle.

 

Everyone has the right to make their own decision based on their own set of priorities and to feel good about whatever that decision is, as long as it’s a reasoned choice based on the best available information.  I hope this information helps you to make up your own mind, and then worry about more important things, like whether or not your daughter is going to make the WNBA.

 

Have you been wondering about environmental trade-offs between other products, and wondering which to choose?  Drop me a line in the comments and I’ll try to address your question in a future post.
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7 Comments

  • Reply
    Marian
    December 18, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    Wow! And yet again, I am forced to say… maybe it was not a bad thing that I didn’t have kids!! But completely adore OPK (other peoples kids)!

    • Reply
      statestraveller
      December 18, 2015 at 5:13 pm

      Marian, you’ve done more to reduce your environmental impact by not having kids than any choice I can make about diapers. “Each child ultimately adds about 9,400 metric tons of carbon emissions to the average parent’s carbon legacy — about 5.7 times the average US resident’s emissions over their lifetime.” Just in case you needed another reason to be glad you don’t have kids:-) (Source: http://www.treehugger.com/culture/the-best-way-you-can-go-green-have-fewer-children.html)

  • Reply
    westcoastoftherock
    January 21, 2016 at 11:51 am

    I enjoyed your article. Great read. My partner and I are both in the environmental field so this is how we would work it out as well. I was just curious if you took into account organic growing conditions (the chemicals paragraph) or different material for the absorbent cloth. I have seen quite a few diapers using certified organic hemp or organic bamboo fibers as an alternative. Anyways, food for thought. 🙂

    • Reply
      westcoastoftherock
      January 21, 2016 at 11:54 am

      sorry read again, you did address organic cotton….still wondering about bamboo and hemp

      • Reply
        statestraveller
        January 21, 2016 at 8:01 pm

        Hi westcoastoftherock – you ask a good question that unfortunately is not easy to answer.

        There are a number of LCAs that compare the environmental impacts of hemp with cotton and the answer to the question “which is better?” is “it depends…”. This study concludes that hemp seems to outperform cotton with respect to pesticide and water use, but requires more energy in the processing resulting in higher energy use (and thus greenhouse gas impacts). Figure 3 in this study shows a variety of scenarios under which either hemp or cotton could be better, with USA-grown cotton using more energy than any of the hemp scenarios… So the bottom line there is that you should pick which fiber you prefer if you’ve already determined that reusable diapers are the better choice for you than disposables based on your ability to cool wash, line dry, and use on more than one kid.

        Data on bamboo fibers is far more difficult to find; I have some ‘anecdata’ because I’ve done a bit of work in the textile industry. The process to convert bamboo to fiber is controlled by just one or two companies, and that’s why there aren’t any studies on it (because they don’t want to release the data on their proprietary process). I have heard that there are two ways to convert bamboo (which is essentially a bit like a wood product) to a fiber soft enough that you want to put on your skin: one of which is very energy intensive (imagine beating the fibers) and the other is very chemical-intensive. So bamboo floors are a good idea, but bamboo fibers are probably not so much, at least from an LCA perspective.

        If anyone has data that contradicts my positions here, I’ll gladly review and correct myself if necessary…

  • Reply
    dcappelloni
    February 23, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    Thank you so much for breaking this issue out in to bite size chunks. Will you share the LCA you conducted for this article on your site?
    And lastly, thank you for coming to speak to our class – you did a terrific job of bringing a complex issue to light.

    • Reply
      statestraveller
      February 23, 2016 at 1:25 pm

      Hi Dana,

      Glad you found the class useful. I didn’t conduct an LCA on diapers; the one I refer to was conducted by DEFRA in the UK. The original study is here and there’s an update here. Hope that helps and let me know if you have any other questions.

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