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Why Use Cloth? Part 2: Environment

"It's six of one, half dozen of another". This is something I hear all the time about the environmental impacts of cloth diapers vs. disposables. It's a common belief that the amount of water and energy used to launder cloth diapers is just as damaging to the environment as the impacts of disposables. This is simply NOT TRUE!

Let's look at the big picture first, and then we will discuss the details. Would it make environmental sense to use styrofoam plates instead of real dishes? Of course not. The amount of garbage alone would turn us off this concept immediately. Even considering the water and energy used to wash our dishes is minimal compared to throwing out plate after plate. So why do we believe disposable diapers are environmentally equivalent to reusable? Let's break it down and compare the two. 

Disposable Diapers - Are They Really Convenient?

Disposable diapers are a popular consumer product. Although they offer convenience, they do have several dangerous environmental drawbacks.

Most of us don't think further then what we put at the curb to be picked up -" Out of sight, out of mind" But have you ever wondered how damaging disposable diapers really are?  Not only do disposable diapers account for being the 3rd highest volume category of household waste per year, but they also pose serious risks to the environment and people alike. The Environmental Protection Agency reports that about 20 billion disposable diapers are dumped in landfills each year, accounting for more than 3.5 million tons of waste.

Natural Resources

The single-use life cycle of disposal diapers perpetuates their continued consumption, the enormous amount of resources to produce before its discarded. All this, causing undue stress on our natural resources, where we are left with multi-generational long term effects of dealing with it afterward. 

In fact, the wood pulp in disposable diapers represents some quarter million trees being extracted each year. As our natural resources are being depleted as a result of keeping up with increasing demands, the cost of sourcing materials and transporting products adds to an already hefty environmental footprint. There is really nothing convenient, simply from discarding a diaper. 

Water Consumption

A review of websites of some disposable diapers claims that the amount of energy and water used in the manufacturing and washing of cloth diapers are considerably higher than those required for disposable diapers. In fact, this is simply not accurate.
Single-use diapers use more water than cloth diapers, as its the way they are manufactured. In fact, disposable diapers take 9 gallons of water to make EACH diaper!! While cloth diapers may require water to produce, with water-efficient laundry machines and the opportunity to reuse cloth diapers on subsequent children, the carbon footprint is reduced. Conversely, it takes approximately 15,300 gallons of water to launder cloth diapers for the entire 2.5 years that a baby is in diapers. Let's do a little math. 9 gallons multiplied by 5000-7000 diapers means 45,000-63,000 gallons of water for disposable diapers!  Simply by switching over to use cloth diapers, you would be using between 24 to 34% of the water than using disposables. In other words, disposable diapers use 66 to 76% more water than cloth diapers. The real water impact is in the production of one-time use products, not in the laundry room. Boom, myth busted. 

Disposable diapers are reported as being the 3rd highest volume category of household waste. Disposable diapers do not degrade well in a landfill. What's more, disposable diapers take about 500 years to decompose. Another concern is the millions of tons of untreated human waste added to landfills each year through plastic diapers become a breeding ground for disease, leaching its surroundings, that can contaminate groundwater. 


"Archives of Environmental Health” found that diapers release volatile organic chemicals. Toxic chemicals such as toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and dipentene have been linked to adverse health effects in humans with long-term exposure.

Disposable diapers often contain dyes and dioxin, which is formed as a by-product of the chlorine bleaching process. Even diapers that are marked as being "chlorine free", do not escape this scrutiny either. At first glance, they appear to look like a healthier option, found in many health food stores, leading one to assume they are a safer option. However, an investigative report uncovered that they are purposely bleached to look brown. 

Babies are vulnerable, given their developing nervous, reproductive systems, and hand to mouth behaviors, where it has been reported that this inner material has been known to attach to baby's genitals which can cause skin irritations and allergic reactions. Studies revealed that by increasing absorbency, absorbing liquid for a long duration of time without replacement cultivates an environment of growth of toxin-producing bacteria.

Good news

This is why cloth diapers are so attractive to many parents, no longer needing to worry about harmful chemicals that are being used or what type of material components are making up the diaper – all this is limited and controlled by you, the parent. Not only is it one less thing to worry about, as a parent you are confident in knowing that you have the best possible option for your baby’s health, protected from harmful chemicals while reducing your carbon footprint. 

Be sure to check out the first article in this series, Cloth Diapering to Save Money.
as well as Part 3 - Healthy Baby Bottoms!
Check out some great laundry products, check here.

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