A quick google search lead me immediately to an article by the Washington Post dating May of 2015 about why cloth diapers *might* not be “the greener choice afterall”, citing one main reason being the tremendous impact cotton manufacturing has on the environment, as well as the water consumption involved in the manufacture and use of cloth diapers.
Well for starters, how do we know what goes into a disposable to make that claim? Most disposable diaper manufacturers do not give a full disclosure of what goes into their diapers. Add to the nuisance, you have companies, like Pampers (not to necessarily throw them under the bus because they all do it, but as example), who will vaguely tell you what is in their diapers in a deceptive way, like they do here. There isn’t a single mention of cotton… simply vague “fiber” references. But then look around their site and the sites of retailers who sell their product and you’ll almost always see mentioned in the description box or under the Materials label that their diapers contain cotton. Having watched an episode of How It’s Made for disposables, I think it’s safe to say cotton fiber goes into pretty much all disposable diapers, mixed in with wood pulp. So if you compound whatever tiny amount of cotton is in each disposable by the average of almost 6,000 diapers just one child uses how much cotton is actually consumed in disposables compared to cloth? And how can anyone make the definitive claim that cotton cloth diapers are worse than disposables in that respect if we can’t compare figures properly? My prefolds and flats have been used for two children and still have lots of life left in them. So compare the cotton used in upwards of 12,000 disposable diapers to three dozen cotton flats/prefolds. If I have another baby, you can add another 6,000 to that figure. But since manufacturers are not required to disclose what goes against our babies’ genitals 24/7, I can’t make the claim that more or less cotton is used in the overall use of disposables vs cloth. I mention it anyways, though, because it is often not even considered when drawing the comparison of the two, namely because we don’t know exactly what is in disposable diapers. Some people want to claim forced-labor-for-cotton-this and cotton-pesticides-are-hard-on-the-environment-that, but the fact is, whether you use disposable or cloth diapers (cloth diapers having a few exceptions), you’re going to wind up using cotton and, unless you’re buying GOTS-certified organic cotton, you’re potentially profiting off horrific maltreatment of laborers and equally disturbing, environmentally disastrous farming practices. There’s a brief but excellent article by GroVia about true certified organic cotton. So, frankly, making this claim about cloth diapers not being eco-friendly or humane on this basis without regard to the use and sources of cotton in disposables is not only bias but downright hypocritical, no matter how “minuscule” it seems.
Now, the next common argument addressed in that post is how the water and energy used to launder and dry them makes them far less eco-friendly than most realize. Well, once again, you have GroVia to the rescue with their Wash Away the Water Myth, which explains how “the real water impact is in the production of one-time-use products, not in the laundry room”. It’s another short-but-sweet article I recommend taking a look at.
I also love the well-resourced article by Small Footprint Family that explains:
“Even factoring in the water and energy used to launder cloth diapers, in the full-cost accounting, from farm to factory to storefront, compared to cloth diapers, disposables: create 2.3 times more water waste, use 3.5 times more energy, use 8.3 times more non-renewable raw materials (like oil and minerals), use 90 times more renewable raw materials (like tree pulp and cotton), and use 4 to 30 times as much land for growing or mining raw materials.”
I’m also so glad to see someone actually say it:
“…water is a renewable resource [emphasis mine] . . . trees, natural gas and landfill sites are NOT! Second, I personally would rather spend my tax dollars at our water treatment plants – than to use this money to hauldisposablediapers out to, and maintain, our already overflowing landfill sites.”
Thank you, Born to Love! I recommend reading this article, it touches on important facts. For the record, trees are only considered a renewable resource if they’re regrown at the same rate or faster than they’re harvested. So far I haven’t found any indication that disposable diaper companies make any effort to replant trees, but I also haven’t taken much time to research that topic. If you find or know anything about this, let me know in comments!
It can be incredibly difficult to find definitive research one way or another. Who can you trust? Which study is most accurate? Well, just consider that, when generally looking up studies for your own research, especially ones cited by big companies, make sure you “follow the money” as they say. The unfortunate truth is that certain companies will fund studies to promote their products. So let me explain how this works: Company A says “hey, we’re looking to hire some scientists to do some investigative research to prove XYZ, and if they can prove XYZ, they’ll get paid. If not, then they will not receive funding (or will receive substancially less funding). This has happened with global warming research, crib studies, diaper studies, pharmaceutical research… and there are researchers out there who have admitted that they will alter or omit data in order to get paid for their work.
So here’s my take on the comparison of the two, just using logic in a world of potentially untrustworthy information. When it comes to sourcing materials, it seems like common sense to me: the higher number of required materials that go into (a much higher number of required) disposable diapers far outweigh the number of materials that go into cloth diapers. All those materials must be sourced, hauled, manufactured into usable product, assembled, and distributed, and then the consumed product must be hauled away and maintained in a landfill. The more materials, the more processes, the more energy consumed, and the more waste produced. Add to that, buying single-use diapers is an ongoing event until your child potty trains, and so, too, the energy and materials required is an ongoing affair, not a one-time calculation. Yes, manufacturing, distributing, and laundering a couple dozen cloth diapers does require energy and create some amount of “waste”, but while laundering is an ongoing event, cloth diapers are manufactured once and distributed once, then used numerous times before being discarded (if not first re-purposed around the house). Considering all the extra energy and the extra resources required to source, manufacture, pack, distribute, and haul away disposable diapers again and again and again, I don’t see how anyone exercising logic can claim disposables are more eco-friendly. Now let’s get even more down-to-earth… literally. When it comes to biodegradability, I know that PUL is only slightly more biodegradable than disposable diapers. This is why using wool covers becomes all the more advantageous, but that’s a topic for another day. When using covers with prefolds/flats, you only need about 10 covers in a comfortable stash for one child which, with replaced elastics, can be sometimes used for multiple children. The cotton prefolds and flats (wool covers as well) can biodegrade in as little as 6 months. So many cloth diapers don’t even need to be hauled away… simply re-purposed around the home, then composted. Some cloth diapers, like all-in-ones, aren’t always repurposed before thrown away (although they can be!), and moms are going to be quicker to resell diapers with any amount of life left in them before throwing them away. Can’t do that with a disposable! But even it comes time to throw them away, you’re talking about less than one trash bag worth of waste that diapered perhaps multiple children compared to numerous trash bags of single use diapers just one child produces. It’s too easy to forget we have a legit trash problem. So I put it in perspective this way: if you had to pick, which would you choose? 6,000+ used disposables in your backyard for over 500 years or 24 all-in-one cloth diapers for about half that time? Or what about just 10-15 covers? Better yet, what if it were just a few dozen flats, prefolds, and wool covers composting for less than a year in your backyard?
I know which one I’d pick.
Do your research and decide for yourself which is most eco-friendly.
In my opinion, even with the dozens of variables, the answer is obvious.