Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Why Cloth Diapers? Part Two: The Environment

Yesterday I rambled on rather impressively about the cost advantage of cloth vs. disposable diapers. And while it’s a substantial part of why lots of mamas go for the cloth, it’s not the only reason. Today, I’ll talk about the second of the three major reasons for considering cloth—something I like to call greeniness.

2. The Environment

Many, though not all, cloth diapering mamas seem to tend to be a little bit crunchy, or at least eco-conscious, so this is a big plus. There is of course plenty of debate on how much better for the environment cloth actually is, because there are a lot of factors to consider:

Impact of manufacture: This includes where the materials come from and how they are produced, as well as the actual manufacturing process. For cloth diapers, this could mean cotton, hemp, or bamboo farming, or  the manufacture of polyester; for disposables, this could mean the manufacture of plastics, wood pulp, and paper. Some disposable diapers, such as Huggies Pure & Natural, also utilize cotton.

So which is worse? It’s true that cotton in particular is a generally environmentally unfriendly crop. But there seems to be a certain amount of evidence that even so, the production of disposables is more damaging. From Wikipedia:
In one cradle-to-grave study sponsored by the National Association of Diaper Services (NADS) and conducted by Carl Lehrburger and colleagues, results found that disposable diapers produce […] three times more waste in the manufacturing process. In addition, effluents from the plastic, pulp, and paper industries are far more hazardous than those from the cotton-growing and -manufacturing processes.
In addition, virtually all disposable diapers are factory produced, but many cloth diapers are hand-made by work-at-home-moms (WAHMs) or by the end user parent. 
Slight win for cloth diapers.
Impact of use: Unless you want to get into a breakdown of the environmental costs of transporting the diapers from the manufacturer to you, the only impact I can think of here is the water, energy, and detergents needed to wash and/or dry the cloth diapers. There are ways to lessen this, such as using HE washers, line-drying, and "green" detergents, but regardless, cloth diapers need to be washed; disposables do not.
Winner in this category, disposables.
Impact of disposal: This is where cloth diapers really shine. I read one estimate that if 80% of American mamas use disposable diapers, that comes up to about 18 billion diapers per year. Wikipedia claims that the number is more like 27.4 billion. Yes, billion with a 'b'. No, I'm not kidding. Disposable diapers can take a very, very long time to decompose, again depending on what materials are used in their manufacture; but needless to say, disposables are a solid contributor to our landfills. Worse, they are a potentially toxic one: human waste is not meant to be simply thrown away. Human feces, especially feces of infants that have been vaccinated, is full of bacteria and viruses that could potentially leach into our water supply. Blech. It's true that as of yet there has not been a significant impact on public health that can be traced back to infant feces in landfills, but it's possible that it may yet happen. 

Cloth diapers, on the other hand, can be reused again and again, including on additional children, and for some types, repurposed for other household uses. Prefolds and flats, for example, make excellent dustrags.
Winner: cloth diapers.
So what's the takeaway on the environmental front? Some say that it's a wash; that there is no clear evidence that cloth diapers are actually more environmentally responsible than disposables.

An October 2008 study from the UK Environment Agency and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs states that in their baseline scenario, the difference in overall greenhouse emissions between cloth and disposables is negligible, but that much lower results for cloth diapers can be achieved by taking some of the steps that I’ve already discussed here, namely line-drying rather than using the dryer, using more efficient appliances, and reusing the diapers on additional children. They also suggest washing fuller loads of diapers and not using water heated to above 140 °F (60 °C).

There you have it: cloth diapers, if washed responsibly, are generally a win for the environment. Bonus for us tree-hugging types!

Up next, I’ll discuss how using cloth diapers can be a plus on the issue of your child’s health.

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