50 years ago everyone used cloth diapers, but in the early 1960's towards the end of the baby boom, disposable diapers hit the scene to take care of the increasing amount of baby "boom boom" that these amorous new parents were dealing with. Today 95% of families use disposable diapers. At the tune of 5000 to 8000 diapers per child that ads up to 3.6 tons of dirty diapers (2.1% of America's municipal solid waste). That's a lot of Sh*t!
With all that poop piling up in the landfills people started to question the environmental impact and a largely potty partisan battle began between the cloth and disposable diaper industries... and the cloth vs disposable debate rages on.
Because calculations on the environmental impact of diapers are based on a number of assumptions, there is no hard fast answer to which one Mother Nature prefers. We can say that the majority of the environmental community agrees that when used wisely, cloth diapers are more eco-friendly than conventional disposables. That being said, there are many new disposable alternative diapers that are not as bad as conventional disposables and new parents need to weigh the costs, environmental & health concerns and convenience when deciding which route to go. Here is some information that will help you make that decision...
The two major benefits of disposable diapers are absorbency and convenience. Since disposables are more absorbent than cloth diapers, they are going to keep your little one dryer reducing the risk of diaper rash. It is fine to have an ideological debate about what we should do, but many new parents struggle with the reality of keeping up the new strains of parenthood. When the laundry is piling up, disposables offer a nice alternative.
Many disposable diapers are bleached and as a result contribute to the addition of Dioxin into the environment. Dioxin is a by product of pulp bleaching and a known carcinogen and it bioaccumulates in humans and animals. Summery, Dioxin = bad. There are a number of alternative disposable companies out there that offer bleach free diapers the eliminate this concern.
Another environmental concern is that landfills are not waste water treatment facilities and are not equipped to appropriately deal with the amount of human waste that accompanies the discarded diapers. This raises concerns about that waste winding up in the ground water.
Here's another concern... most disposables contain sodium polyacrylate crystals or "super absorbant polymer" (SAP). The concerns over SAP stem from a study in the early 80's that linked the SAP used in tampons to toxic shock syndrome, and thus removed it from those products. Subsequent studies published in the AMA have concluded that the toxic shock was caused by how the tampons were used as opposed to the SAP. Furthermore, proponents for SAP point out that SAP in diapers is contained inside the diapers and does not come in contact with the baby and cannot be compared to tampons which are used inside the body.
You will be creating less waste and exposing your baby and the environment to less chemicals. While the initial investment of using clothe diapers is greater, generally speaking you will spend less money over the course of you child's diaper days than if you use disposables. Another popular argument for cloth diapers turns their lack of absorbency into a pro citing that it can facilitate earlier potty training because of the child's awareness (discomfort) of the dirty diaper.
Cotton is traditionally exposed to high amounts of pesticides, and if you go with conventional cottons you could be exposing your baby to these chemicals. There are cloth diapers made from organic cotton and cotton alternatives but they can be pricey. Cloth diapers are less absorbent so you have to be more diligent in changing them to prevent diaper rash. This means more dirty diapers and a growing laundry pile. If you launder the diapers at home you are going to use a lot of water (usually hot) in the washing machine. You will also use a considerable amount of electricity running that energy hog, the dryer, but you can line dry to offset this a little. If you go the diaper service route, you'll save time but depending on where you live this might not be a viable option. You should also consider that for sanitation reasons most diaper services use a lot of water (environmental impact) and detergent (can irritate baby's skin).
If you can make it work, cloth diapers is a great way to go, however we know that won't work for everyone. One example where you may not even have a choice in the matter is if you need to utilize day care. Some day care services require the use of disposables. We think that for some parents that can't go all cloth a hybrid approach is a way to go. Taking a more flexible approach, you could use cloth diapers when you are at home and disposable diapers when you venture out.
Here are some alternative disposable diapers that are available that are going to be more environmentally friendly that conventional disposables…