New parents striving for a green and healthy environment for baby are faced with an arsenal of difficult questions: What paint is safe to use in baby’s room? Should we breastfeed or bottle feed? Are organic clothes better for baby? And what about all those reports of toxic toys? But perhaps the most essential eco-question when having a new baby has been on the minds of moms and dads for more than 30 years: Should we use cloth or disposable diapers?
According to National Geographic, about 245 babies are born every minute worldwide, and in the US, more than 4 million babies are born each year, or nearly 10,959 every day. Each of these babies will go through as many as 8,000 to 10,000 diaper changes before they are potty trained. That means that the babies born in the US in 2006 alone will create more than 32 billion dirty diapers—all before they are even old enough to go to school. It’s estimated that the average baby spends 25,000 hours in diapers. Yet a diaper itself is worn for only an hour or two, going from bag to landfill or washing machine after just a few hours of use.
The break down: Creating waste
According to a 1991 evaluation of the environmental impact of diapers by the Landbank Consultancy, an independent environmental agency in the UK, disposable diapers generate 60 times more solid waste than cloth diapers. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 18 billion disposable diapers—or 3.3 million tons—are sent to landfills each year, a fact made more poetic by Julia Butterfly Hill, who said: “Americans throw away enough disposable diapers each year to stretch from the moon and back at least seven times.” Disposable diapers—which are used by only a small percentage of the population—make up the third largest source of solid waste in US landfills. And because disposable diapers are not biodegradable, it takes more than 500 years for them to break down.
The disposal of single-use diapers in landfills also contributes to the 84 million pounds of raw fecal matter that enter the environment each year, threatening the health of sanitary workers, water supplies, and wildlife. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Public Health Association have cited disposable diapers in landfills as a threat to groundwater since trashed diapers are a breeding ground for disease. As many as 100 viruses, including live polio virus excreted by recently-vaccinated babies, can survive in soiled diapers for up to two weeks. These viruses—which can include Hepatitis A, Norwalk, and Rota Virus—can leak and pollute underground water supplies, while air-borne viruses can be carried by flies and other insects. According to Jane McConnell, author of “The Joy of Cloth Diapers,” landfills contain 5 million tons of untreated human waste.
In an effort to keep diaper waste out of landfills, some companies, such as gDiapers, have introduced biodegradable single-use diapers. These are designed with a liner that can be flushed down the toilet (keeping human waste out of landfills) and are made with chlorine-free, all natural fibers that are 100 percent biodegradable.
Natural resources: Waste not, want not
There is no easy answer as to which type of diaper requires fewer resources. Both cloth and disposable diapers consume energy, resources, and water in manufacturing and, in the case of cotton diapers, cleaning. But according to a Landbank Consultancy analysis of Proctor and Gamble’s (the makers of Pampers) data, disposable diapers create twice as much water waste, use three times as much energy, require 10 to 20 times more raw materials, and take up four to 30 times as much land for growing raw materials than their cloth counterparts, even when the increased frequency of diaper changes with cloth is considered. A 1991 study commissioned by the National Association of Diaper Services came to similar conclusions. This study found that throwaway diapers created three times more waste in the manufacturing process than cloth—and that this waste was far more hazardous than the cotton-growing and manufacturing processes required by cloth.
Anatomy of a disposable diaper
The outer layer of a disposable diaper is made from waterproof polyethylene plastic. To keep 90 percent of the babies born in the US each year in disposable diapers requires 82,000 tons of plastic annually. Plastic is made from oil: one cup of crude oil is required to make the plastic for one disposable diaper. According to the American Petroleum Institute, 3.5 billion gallons of oil were used to produce the 18 million throwaway diapers that Lehrburger studied in 1991. Petroleum is a non-sustainable resource. Its extraction and production has causes major environmental damage to soil, surface and ground waters, and local ecosystems, and contributes to global warming.
The inside of a disposable diaper is made from wood pulp and sodium polyacrylate (the chemical used to make disposable diapers “ultra-absorbent”). This portion of the diaper—about 70 percent of the completed product—requires nearly 250,000 trees per year to diaper 90 percent of the babies born in the US each year. It takes 200 to 400 kg of fluff pulp to make disposable diapers for one baby for one year. Cloth diapers, on the other hand, require only about 10 kg of cotton for all the diapers needed by one baby for two years.
Production of the paper in disposable diapers generates sulfur dioxide and particulate matter (dust, soot, and ash) air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil. Sulfur dioxide contributes to acid rain, which can be devastating to forests as much as several hundreds of miles from the pollution source. Toxic chemicals used in paper production, especially toxic solvents and chlorine compounds used to bleach pulp, also pollute the air and water, and threaten the health of humans and wildlife.
Anatomy of a cloth diaper
Cloth diapers, on the other hand, are usually made of several layers of cotton sewn together. Production of conventional cotton results in about $2 billion worth of harmful pesticides and fertilizers being sprayed on the global cotton supply each year. It is considered to be the world's most pesticide-intensive crop. The various chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms, pollute ground and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife—including fish, birds, and livestock. Additionally, up to 70 percent genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds are used in conventional cotton farming in the United States.
Many companies offer cloth diapers made from eco-friendly fibers, such as organic cotton, bamboo, and hemp. These fibers are grown without the use of pesticides and other chemicals and are grown using sustainable farming practices. Choosing cloth diapers made of these materials can lessen the environmental impact of diapering baby even further.
The big debate: Water use and water waste
Some studies have found that the growing of cotton and cleaning of cloth diapers requires more water, and generates more water pollution, than the production of disposables. The farming of cotton requires nearly 400 gallons of water to produce a single cotton T-shirt. Dissenters argue that there has never been an unbiased study that takes into consideration the water used to manufacture the paper and plastic for disposable diapers against the water used to grow cotton and wash cloth diapers.
Without reliable research, Motherhood magazine looked solely at how much water is actually used in the cleaning process of cloth diapers, and found that washing cloth diapers at home uses 50 to 70 gallons of water every three days, which is the same as a toilet-trained child or adult flushing the toilet five to six times a day.
Diaper services, which put diapers through an average of 13 water changes but rely on economies of scale, use less water per diaper. The magazine also found the waste water produced from washing diapers to be relatively benign, especially when biodegradable detergents are used, compared to the waste water from the manufacture of the pulp, paper, and plastics used in disposable diapers, which contains dioxins, solvents, sludge, and heavy metals.
Cleaning up the clean-up
Single-use baby wipes are another waste-intensive component of diapering. In the US, more than 83,000 tons of wipes end up in landfills each year, and they too take years to biodegrade. Reusable cloth wipes will reduce the solid waste associated with diapering even further.
And as an added bonus, homemade baby wipe solutions do not contain the toxic chemicals found in pre-packaged wipes. Baby wipes' cleaning solution can contain alcohol, which strips the skin of its natural oils and can lead to dermatitis; methyl and propyl paraben, which have been linked to breast, ovarian, uterine, and testicular cancer; and artificial fragrances, which can cause sore throats, runny noses and eyes, and trigger asthma.
The high costs aren’t all environmental
Over and above the environmental "expenses" of diapering, there are the hard financial costs associated with both reusable and disposable options.
- A diaper service (weekly home delivery, pick-up and laundry) typically costs around 25 cents/diaper; disposable diapers cost more than 30 cents each.
- Parents spend an average of $2,000 to $3,000 dollars per baby on disposable diapers, from birth to age three. A three-year supply of cloth diapers usually costs between $300 and $800.
- Consumer Reports estimates that the most inefficient washer and dryer system costs approximately $0.78 per load, whereas more efficient models cost approximately $0.44 per load. So washing your own cloth diapers twice a week will cost $0.44-0.78, including water, energy, and detergent. A one week supply of single-use diapers is estimated to cost between $17 and $22.
- With the average US landfill tipping fee about $27 per ton of material (some landfills are over $100 per ton), and the average transportation cost to landfills about $48 per ton, we pay an average of $75 per ton or $350 million annually in the US to get rid of single-use diapers! For every consumer dollar spent on so-called disposable diapers, an additional, hidden cost of $0.10 on average goes to pay for disposal. 
Related health issues
The health risks associated with disposable diapers are many and varied. Between plastic, bleach, absorbency gels, glues, dyes, and fragrances, disposable diapers contain a cocktail of chemicals that can be absorbed through baby's skin or breathed in.
Dioxin, a by-product of the paper-bleaching process used in manufacturing disposable diapers, may exist in disposable diapers, and has been shown to cause cancer, birth defects, liver damage, and skin diseases. Cloth cotton diapers can also be bleached, and may contain traces of the same. The “super-absorbent” gel in disposable diapers is sodium polyacrylate—the same substance that was removed from tampons in the 80s due to its link to toxic shock syndrome—and can cause allergic reactions.
Fragrances in single-use diapers have been reported to cause headaches, dizziness, and rashes, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The US Consumer Product Safety Commission has received complaints ranging from chemical burns, noxious odors, choking hazards from tab papers and linings, plastic melting onto the skin, and ink staining the skin. There have also been reports of plastic tabs tearing skin, and of disposable diapers containing wood splinters.
According to the September/October 2006 issue of Archives of Environmental Health, the chemicals emitted from disposable diapers may trigger childhood respiratory problems, including asthma. A study by the Archives of Disease in Childhood fund that disposable diapers lined with plastic may increase the temperature of the genital area to the degree that they cannot develop normally, contributing to infertility in males.
Studies by Greenpeace found tributyl tin (TBT) in Proctor and Gamble’s Pampers Baby Dry diapers. This environmental pollutant, believed to be one of the most toxic substances ever made, has a hormone-like effect; even small amounts can impair immune and hormonal systems. Disposable diapers may also cause diaper rash. From 1955 to 1991, disposable diaper usage increased from 0 percent to 90 percent; the occurrence of diaper rash increased from 7 percent to 78 percent. And finally, the sulfur dioxide and particulate matter pollutants released during the manufacture of single-use diapers can cause respiratory problems.
In 1990, Proctor and Gamble commissioned a study by Arthur D. Little, which found that laundering cloth diapers consumes up to six times as much water as is used to manufacture single-use diapers, and that laundering also produced nearly 10 times the water pollution created in manufacturing throwaways. The study was widely criticized for using only data collected by Proctor and Gamble and the disposable diaper industry and for containing a mathematical error. It was also discredited for failing to account for the water used in flushing fecal matter from single-use diapers. (An act that is required by the World Health Organization to keep human waste from reaching landfills).
Yet the disposable diaper industry used this information to lobby US legislators and mail 14 million pamphlets and coupons to US consumers. These pamphlets and an aggressive advertising campaign claimed that single-use diapers could be composted and were 80 percent compostable—claims which have never been substantiated. This widely-publicized research and PR campaign was followed by a sharp decline in the use of cloth diapers and the availability of cloth diapering services in the US.
A 2005 report by the London-based Environment Agency concluded that disposable diapers have the same environmental impact as reusable diapers when the effect of laundering cloth diapers is taken into account, especially in the areas of resource depletion, acidification and global warming. But the Women's Environmental Network, another London-based environmental group, and others believe that this study, too, was flawed. It surveyed 2,000 parents who use disposables, but included only 117 parents who use cloth diapers. Further, those taking issue with the study say it focused on terry-cloth diapers only, which take more water to wash and more energy to dry than traditional cotton, and did not consider the effects of using energy-efficient washers and dryers.
- genetically modified organism: A GMO is the result of merging the genetic makeup of two organisms resulting in a desired by-product that could otherwise not be found in nature. Using genetically modified seed is a common practice in conventional farming and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and causing some insects which feed on GMO crops to become resistant to pesticides.
- sodium polyacrylate (SAP): A chemical water absorber, which can absorb 200 to 300 times its weight in water and hold it in a gel.
- Tributyl-tin (TBT): A fungicide that is moderately toxic to mammals.
- Clean Water Action Council - Environmental Impacts of the Paper Industry
- The Diaper Hyena - The Anatomy of a Disposable v. Cloth Diaper
- Greenpeace - New Tests Confirm TBT Poison In Proctor and Gamble’s Pampers: Greenpeace Demands World-wide Ban of Organotins In All Products
- House of Strauss - Conscious parenting: Natural and healthy baby wipes for free! (home made recipe)
- Pesticide Action Network North America - Problems with conventional cotton production
- Iowa State University - Consumer Choices: Diaper Dilemma
- Sustainability Institute - The Great Disposable Diaper Debate
- Wired - The Poop On Eco-Friendly Diapers
- US Geological Survey - Environmental Impacts of Petroleum Production: Initial Results from the Osage-Skiatook Petroleum Environmental Research Sites, Osage County, Oklahoma
- Wiki Answers - How many babies are born every day?
- Baby Center - 17 surprising facts about birth in the United States
- Mothering.com - The Joy of Cloth Diapers
- Ecobaby - Diapers! Disposable or Cotton?
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- Ideal Bite - Would you wear chemically treated paper underwear?
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- Clark University - Pulp (non)fiction: air pollution in the pulp and paper industry
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- Organic Exchange - About Organic Cotton brochure
- US Geological Survey - Water Facts
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- House of Strauss - Conscious parenting: Natural and healthy baby wipes for free! (home made recipe)
- Natural Family Online - The True Cost of Diapering: More Than Money
- BornToLove.com - Chemicals in Diapers Cited as Possible Asthma Trigger
- Nicki’s Diapers - Study: Disposable Diapers Could Cause Male Infertility
- Nicki’s Diapers - New Tests Confirm TBT Poison in Proctor & Gamble Pampers