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We have a lot of friends who use cloth diapers, and I've heard some say that cloth diapers are actually more un-ecologically friendly than disposable diapers. I have a hard time buying that. I can find some sources going both ways online:

You’d think this figure would clearly mean that cloth diapers are the way to go. But when I looked up family cloth for yesterday’s post, I stumbled across an article from Times Online. The article says a study done by The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Britain didn’t deliver the expected answer. The results were so surprising that there was even an attempt to sweep them under the carpet.

From the article:

The report found that using washable nappies, hailed by councils throughout Britain as a key way of saving the planet, have a higher carbon footprint than their disposable equivalents unless parents adopt an extreme approach to laundering them.

Washing cloth diapers uses fewer resources than you might think. It takes about the equivalent amount of water as flushing a toilet five times a day. And, cloth diapers have half the ecological footprint of disposables even when you throw in the energy your washing machine uses.

So... which is it? Are cloth or disposable diapers more "earth friendly"?


Now, I'm prophesying a lot of questions about what "more earth friendly" means... I'm open to suggestions. Here's some examples of at least some variables that I can think of:

  • Disposables: primarily composed of polypropylene nonwovens and filled with wood pulp and SAP, examine biodegredation time, risk of pollution, land fill space...
  • Cloth: made from cotton, though they are far more complex than the diapers my parents used on me, require many loads of laundry per day, detergent, perhaps pre-treatment, and a general "work flow." As an example, friends of ours dump any solids into the toilet, flush that and then put the diapers in a pail filled with water. When the pail is full, they dump it and flush that. The diapers are washed in cold water only once. Then washed again in warm with detergent, and then finally dried.

Again, this is a ballpark example of some of the factors involved. I'm not even sure I'm aware of all the factors involved to make a comparison; thus, for any answering via research, feel free to list and comment on the metrics listed in those who have studied this issue.

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Interesting question. The key to validating the first source from the Greenists is figuring out what they meant by "extreme approach to laundering them". –  NickC Aug 5 '11 at 16:37
    
As a possible first approximation to check there is a weaker claim I have heard: when taking everything into account (water, electricity, washing machine amortization), the disposable diapers are sometimes claimed to be cheaper than the classic cotton washable diapers. –  Suma Aug 5 '11 at 19:02
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I think it's a fallacy to only consider carbon footprint when comparing how "GREEN" cloth diapers are compared to disposables. There are other factors (biodegredation, chemical makeup, petroleum use) that are just as important. –  JNK Aug 7 '11 at 11:54
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I think I am going to put up a seperate question about Carbon Footprint. It seems to me to be as irrelevant as the atom count in your body. It is effective because of the large number but in the end is there any relevance to it? If not then this question, as posed, would be irrelevant too. –  Chad Aug 8 '11 at 14:56
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@Chad: 1) My "current criteria" never changed. Check the edit if you can see it. All I did was remove "carbon footprint" as the top level bullet. 2) My question never implied it was an "effective measure" or that "I believe in it." I just realized that this question might be met with some uncertainty about how to quantify "better" when answering... so I tried to brainstorm some starting points. I've always left it up to the answerer to provide whatever metric they want. –  Hendy Aug 8 '11 at 21:46

2 Answers 2

The book The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices (published 1999) spends several pages on this topic in chapter 6, under the section heading Don't worry or feel guilty about unimportant decisions. In summary, the conclusion was that the environmental impact of each was roughly the same, but in different ways. Cloth diapers have a greater negative impact on water resources, while disposable diapers have a greater negative impact on landfills.

Since the late 1980s, several studies have been done on the environmental impact of cloth and disposable diapers. One funded by Procter & Gamble, the largest manufacturer of disposable diapers, found the "production, washing and disposal of cloth diapers consumed over three times more energy than disposables."1

Perhaps the most comprehensive analysis was done in 1993 by Franklin Associates. "The authors factored in the differing rates at which babies go through cloth versus paper diapers, and the plastic pants and pins used with the cloth variety. They also clearly distinguished between home laundering of cloth diapers and diaper services." Their findings include2:

  • The differences between types of diapers were less dramatic than in the earlier studies.
  • Commercially laundered cloth diapers required 13% more energy than disposable diapers.
  • Home washers and dryers used the most energy--27% more than disposables
  • Diaper services used the most water, about 2.5x more than disposables
  • Home laundering required slightly more than 2x more water than disposables
  • Disposables produced twice as much solid waste as either cloth alternative
  • Air pollution emissions were roughly comparable for disposable and commercially laundered cloth

Please note that as far as I am aware, these studies do not consider the newer generation of cloth diapers, which are smaller (therefore less bulk to launder and dispose of), and presumably more efficient and easier to clean, etc. Whether these newer cloth diapers change the environmental impact of cloth diapers in any meaningful way, I don't know. I suspect there have also been advances in disposable diaper manufacturing in the last 20 years which have also not been accounted for.

Another thing this, and other studies I have found, seems to ignore, is the potential for toxic substances in disposable diapers, or toxic cleaners used to wash cloth diapers. From a toxicological standpoint, I would venture a guess that disposable diapers release more toxins into the environment; especially if using earth-friendly cleaners for cloth diapers. But this is only speculation, and may affect a person's individual choice on which to use (and how to clean cloth diapers), but fails to account for the average impact of a population using either type.

Furthermore, (not really related to this question) the book makes the point that neither has a very great impact, and there are much more important things we can worry about when it comes to reducing the environmental impact of our daily lives.


1 David Stipp, "Life-Cycle Analysis Measures Greenness, but Results May Not Be Black and White," Wall Street Journal, February 28, 1991, B1: "Reassessing Costs of Keeping Baby Dry," Science News, December 1, 1990, 347.
2 Beverly J. Sauer et al., "Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis of Children's Diaper Systems," Environmental Toxicology and chemistry 13, no. 6 (9914): 1003-9.

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Thanks! This sounds like the right track. If you ever have a chance to track this down and insert some quotes, that would be absolutely fantastic. –  Hendy Aug 20 '11 at 16:10
    
I'm a lot surprised by how you point out "neither has a very great impact" when disposable diapers at least double a household's daily garbage output. But then, I also understand that 50% of landfill waste is construction materials, so maybe household garbage isn't terribly significant anyway - especially since a significant portion of the other 50% would be commercial garbage, like food waste from grocery stores, restaurants and such. –  Ernie Nov 18 '11 at 21:53
    
@Ernie: Interestingly, the book also talks about the exagurated perception that landfills are too full :) –  Flimzy Nov 18 '11 at 21:58
    
Still interested in a quote or two to highlight this; at that point, I think I can accept this answer. Thanks! –  Hendy Dec 3 '11 at 1:50
    
@Hendy: I finally got my book back tonight, and have updated my answer accordingly. I hope this is helpful. –  Flimzy Nov 24 '12 at 3:52

Brian Dunning addressed this question in episode 249 of his skeptical podcast called Skeptoid.

While his analysis is reasonably brief, he claims that

at the end of the day, that the only truly significant environment impacts of each are landfill space for disposables, and water for laundering cloth.

And his conclusion is

Read any study that tries to take an objective, unbiased view, and you'll find that the research is unclear, comparing landfill space to water usage is an apples-to-oranges comparison, and that any benefit upon the environment conferred by either product is likely to be pretty insignificant.

He gives several references for his opinions in the footnotes of the episode guide. I have not reviewed his references personally. But, knowing Brian Dunning's reputation as a Skeptic, I am quite comfortable assuming his argument will be based on solid research and reasonably free of bias.

My interpretation of Brian Dunning's point of view, in the context of the original question, is that there is no objective measure to compare the "cost to the earth" of the two approaches due to their significantly different characteristics (i.e. landfill vs water usage). This is similar to asking whether car pollution or deforestation is worse for the environment. They are both bad in different ways and there is no common scale by which each can be measured against the other.

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This doesn't answer the question. –  David Apr 11 '12 at 3:45
    
Hi Dave, I have updated my answer to try and address the question more directly. I seem to get caught on this site between answers that are too speculative (i.e. my opinion) vs answers that do not directly address the question (i.e. external references) :S –  Brian Hinchey Apr 12 '12 at 5:30
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It does not answer the question, it shows the question is unanswerable instead in a current form, because "more Earth friendly" is not well defined enough, it is therefore not a questiom, rather a discussion point. –  Suma Apr 12 '12 at 8:02
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@Suma I think a demonstration that the original question cannot be answered counts as a perfectly good answer. It would only be discussion if it were unreferenced opinion. –  matt_black Nov 24 '12 at 17:06

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