Diaper Debate: Cloth or Disposable?
With lots of attention focused on going green, consumers are choosing hybrid cars, bringing reusable bags to the grocery store and recycling everything from soda cans to coffee containers.
Concern for the environment leads many new parents to choose between cloth and disposable diapers, wondering which is better for Mother Earth. For most parents, it comes down to a decision between convenience and minimizing the effects soiled diapers have on the environment.
Disposables: Gone, But Still With Us
Every year, nearly 20 billion disposable diapers are dumped in landfills throughout the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The additional 3.5 million tons of waste from disposables can take decades to decompose, leaving behind traces of dioxin from the paper-bleaching process, according to the Real Diaper Association.
Some manufacturers address this concern by producing eco-friendly disposable diapers containing biodegradable materials. But because trash in landfills lacks exposure to air and sun, the waste is impeded from decaying naturally.
Loads of Laundry
Proponents of disposables often contrast the number of diapers that end up in landfills with the environmental impact of washing cloth diapers. As resources become strained, the water and energy required to wash and dry cloth diapers exacts a toll.
Laundering diapers requires energy, water and detergents that pollute the nation’s waters. Some fans of disposables even argue that diaper service trucks use gas and oil and add to air pollution.
Tereson Dupuy, founder of FuzziBunz diapers disagrees. “We don’t throw away our clothes or dishes each week. We wash them,” Dupuy says. “This is the same mentality. Using an energy-efficient washer and air-drying the diapers cuts a lot out of the energy cycle. No extra trips to buy diapers over and over again. No packaging waste.”
Additionally, contaminated, dirty water from the washing machine goes into the sewer system. The water is treated at wastewater plants. Ecologist say that treated wastewater is much more environmentally friendly than dumping untreated, soiled disposable diapers into a landfill.
What’s Best for Baby?
Convenience and cleanliness in the nursery are the two top reasons parents chose disposable diapers over reusable ones. Disposables have an advantage because babies stay dry longer thanks to the modern materials that keep moisture away from baby’s bottom.
Disposables have a sponge-like pad that contains crystals designed to absorb up to 800 times their weight in liquid and hold it in gel form. The result is fewer incidents of diaper rash. Of course, changing (cloth or disposable) diapers frequently is the easiest, most reliable way to reduce diaper rash.
If you wash cloth diapers at home, The American Academy of Family Physicians suggests boiling them for 15 minutes on the stove after washing. This will kill germs and remove soap residue that could irritate your baby’s skin.
Like many debates, the real impact of disposable and cloth diapers on the environment is unclear. Both choices have advantages and disadvantages for you, baby and the environment.
Claire Yezbak Fadden is a freelance writer.