Newborn children begin potty training at about 21 months, and they are about 36 months before they can use the toilet themselves. A diaper is a sanitary product that helps parents easily dispose of fecal waste. As an eco-conscious parent or caregiver, it falls on you to decide what kind of diaper to use. However, choosing an eco-friendly diaper is not all cut and dried. There are only two options, and when it comes to cloth vs. disposable diapers, both choices have advantages and disadvantages.
It is essential to change a baby’s diaper as frequently as needed; this keeps their sensitive skin free from infections. A baby can use about 6-7000 disposable diapers for the first two and half years of life. The baby will need fewer diapers as they master potty training. For most people, cost and convenience influence the choice of the diaper, but we must consider the environmental impacts as well.
Related: 15 Zero Waste Baby Products & Ethical Baby Gift Ideas
Because you only use them once, disposable diapers appear to cost much more than cloth diapers, at about 25 to 30 cents per piece. Still, about 95% of families choose it majorly because of its ease of use. Wearing disposable diapers does not require any maintenance or special preparations. Parents can just buy a pack at any grocery store, and their kids are ready to go. Even better, dirty diapers go in the trash with little fuss.
A disposable diaper is a highly absorbent core layered in the middle of two non-woven fabric sheets. They use elastic to ensure a snug-fitting of the diaper around the babies’ waist and legs. The materials used include wood pulp, polyester non-woven fabric, non-permeable film, superabsorbent polymer, and adhesive.
Diaper manufacturers use synthetic materials which consume nonrenewable natural resources. Furthermore, the use of potentially harmful chemicals may have severe health impacts. We found a published study that shows that disposable diapers contain higher phthalate content than commercial plastic products1. Some of the plastic materials used release volatile organic compounds, which present a risk to children who use them.
The sodium polyacrylate gel that provides the much-valued absorption power in disposable diapers is a superabsorbent polymer (SAP). Research has suggested that absorbent chemicals such as SAPs in menstrual products may be associated with toxic shock syndrome in women2. Although manufacturers have developed better SAPs and recommended frequent diaper changing, parental concern remains.
Parents who want more control over their infants’ environmental cost of fecal waste may prefer cloth diapers. The most significant advantage of cloth diapers is that they are reusable. In most cases, this can help cut back on the costs of all in one diapers, especially when they are passed down from first child to second child.
However, they require a lot of deep cleaning, therefore, accumulate not insignificant laundry costs. There’s the cost of water for washing, detergent, and electricity. You should consider all those before you decide which option is cheaper. Using cloth diapers may also save you multiple trips to the store for replacements yet requires extra loads of washing and energy for maintenance.
A cloth diaper or nappy is a washable and reusable diaper that comprises two separate parts. The first is the absorbent fabric, followed by the outer layer of waterproof material.
Cloth diapers are, of course, what everyone used to use before plastic versions, complete with diaper rash prevention pads and all sorts of features to keep baby’s skin dry, made it onto the market. Before more modern cloth diapering came about, a piece of fabric was used, and clean cloth diapers adorned washing lines of parents everywhere.
Parents like to believe that cloth diapering uses 100% natural fibers and zero plastics. But modern cloth diapers have velcro closures, plastic snaps, and PolyUrethane laminate for waterproofing. They make the absorbent layer from the combination of some of these materials; bamboo, cotton, hemp, polyester, modal, wool, terry cloth, and fleece.
The fibers used in cloth diapers may have been sourced unethically, and the production processes may have a negative environmental impact. Therefore, there is no way to guarantee that the manufacture of cloth diapers is 100% environmentally friendly in most situations.
For instance, manufacturers use formaldehyde to give a water repellent finish to cloth diaper covers. The US National Toxicology Program considers this chemical carcinogenic.
The great diaper debate on which diaper is better for the environment may never have a clear winner. Proponents of cloth diapering have long argued their case for washing diapers and reusing them to encourage more parents to choose cloth diapers. Meanwhile, alongside many parents in favor of convenience and cost savings, the manufacturers have argued the counter. Pediatrician and author Laura A Jana believes there is no clear environmental winner.
In a life cycle analysis carried out by the Environmental Agency in the United Kingdom3, the disposal, energy costs, and manufacturing of both types of diapers were compared. The report concluded that the impact on the environment of reusable diapers might be more or less than alternative cloth diapers depending on how people wash them.
Below we consider the environmental impacts of cloth vs. disposable diapers.
Both disposable and reusable diapers consume raw materials. Compared to cloth diapers, disposables use 20 times more materials and generate 60 times more waste. One baby consumes over 300 pounds of wood in a year, 20 pounds of chlorine, and 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks as disposable diapers before they are potty trained4.
The wood pulp that goes to producing a year’s worth of disposable diaper consumption in North America is about a quarter of a million trees5. About 90,000 tons of polypropylene end up in the landfills of North America through diaper disposal every year. Other plastic materials go into manufacturing disposables. They make these materials from nonrenewable fossil fuels. It is not possible in most places to recycle soiled diapers waste for material recovery.
Some disposables claim to be compostable, and the concept of making compost out of used diapers may provide some sort of material recovery. Yet, the resources consumed in production might undermine the material savings of compostable diapers.
Cotton is the oldest and most popular fiber; however, cotton farming has environmental and social issues. The cotton plant is a water-thirsty crop that can negatively affect the water supply to communities where it is farmed.
Water usage continues as you clean cloth diapers in the wash, which could be as frequently as three times a week. A highly efficient laundry machine uses around 15-30 gallons for a full load, while older models may use as much as 50 gallons per load. Cloth diapers use around twice as much water as disposable ones, resulting in more waterborne wastes.
Both produce emissions during manufacturing and transportation when considering cloth vs. disposable diapers. Any diaper brand that imports production materials will accumulate shipping carbon emissions. However, the frequent trip to the store to get new disposable diapers can increase your carbon footprint.
Cotton, the most preferred material for cloth diapers because of its absorption qualities, is a high emission crop. The pesticides and herbicides used in cotton farming contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. So cotton diapers may be organic but have a carbon footprint as high as disposables due to how the fiber was farmed.
Washing cloth nappies consume energy and generate carbon emissions. However, if you wash in full loads with cold water and practice exclusive line drying, that could help reduce both by 40%.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the third-largest consumer item in landfills is disposable diapers representing 4% of solid waste. Usually, a disposable diaper goes straight to the landfill and takes about 500 years to decompose. Every year about 30 billion disposable diapers are added to North American landfills. The global consumption of disposable diapers is over a hundred billion units annually.
Health and safety guidelines advise that parents dispose of their babies’ fecal matter through the sewage system. However, a large percentage of disposable diapers end up disposed of via trash cans.
Disposable diapers are not recyclable and mostly not biodegradable. The different materials in them make it impossible to recycle them traditionally. There is distinct unavailability of technological solutions for cost-effective diaper recycling.
There are biodegradable diapers made with cornstarch. These diapers help reduce waste from disposable diapers, but not every parent has opportunities or desire for composting.
No type of diaper in the cloth vs. disposable diaper debate completely escapes culpability in environmental pollution. Manufacturers of disposables and cloth diapers use chemicals to achieve the qualities that attract new parents to their products. These can include extra absorption to reduce diaper rash and keep the baby’s skin dry. Today we even see more diapers for later in life while children are toilet training.
Chemicals like chlorine and dyes are used in manufacturing disposables, and these can leach into the environment during production and in landfills. Additionally, these chemicals may cause irritations to an infant’s skin and have been associated with asthmatic symptoms.
Cotton farming accounts for 25% of all agricultural insecticides and 10% of chemicals.
The plastics in generic disposables will not biodegrade. It will exist long after the baby who wore it is old and has passed away. Even compostable diapers will not decompose in the airtight environment of the landfill. Some cloth diapers contain synthetic fibers that could shed microplastics as they are washed.
The human waste in disposable diapers can leach out and contaminate groundwater. However, the wastewater from cloth diapers and cloth wipes goes through sewage treatment facilities. Therefore, there is less chance of contamination of the water supply system.
Related: Check out our guide to biodegradable baby wipes for options that naturally break down.
Whether you decide to use disposables or reusable diapers, prioritize making your choice as environmentally friendly as possible. Here are some tips to help you do that
One factor that discourages parents from choosing cloth diapers in the cloth vs. disposal diapers debate is the time required to wash cloth diapers and reuse them when cloth diapering. A way around this is to substitute cloth diaper use for disposables to fit your schedule. At first disposable diapers may prove the winner on convenience alone. However, you can use cloth diapers when you have time to empty the contents into the toilet and wash in full loads.
You may find it better for the environment to use disposables during periods when you don’t have time to do laundry. This is because you should not leave used cloth nappies unwashed for too long, as this may encourage bacteria growth, rapid discoloration, and fiber degradation. Having to throw away a cloth diaper prematurely amounts to a high carbon footprint and resource waste and can quickly mitigate any environmental advantage.
They make biodegradable diapers with green materials like cornstarch or wheat.
Biodegradable diapers end their natural life cycle as soil nutrients. The manufacturing costs of biodegradable diapers may be higher than the regular choice. Still, it is significantly more eco-friendly when conventional disposable diapers can take 500 years to break down into microplastics that will pollute the environment.
Picking a diaper brand that uses innovative green production processes and materials reduces your carbon footprint. Choose brands that use unbleached organic cotton or alternatives like bamboo or hemp.
You can also consider the kinds of dyes, chemicals, and packaging used to finish the product. All these significantly impact how eco-friendly your diaper of choice is.
Doing this will benefit the environment and benefit your child as well.
While the lack of recycling technologies limits much of the potential positive environmental impact of disposable diapers, the environmental benefits of reusable cloth diapers are primarily dependent on how long they remain in use and how they are washed.
As such, the choice for your baby of cloth diapers vs. disposable diapers is far from straightforward. Whereas modern cloth diapers stack up favorably on the surface when it comes to the environment, as your baby grows, convenience and the human cost of extra work will no doubt inform the choice. And those extra two to three loads of washing a week for cloth diapering all add up to additional eco-cost.
Furthermore, with manufacturers making a huge variety of claims from adjustable sizing through the innovative inner liner technologies to secure your purchase, forearmed with the pros and cons is perhaps the best way to go. Therefore, the final word boils down to choosing to use cloth and disposable diapers with the most sustainable materials in the most eco-friendly way you can afford in terms of time and commitment.
Chan Jin Park et al. (2019) Sanitary pads and diapers contain higher phthalate contents than those found in commercial plastic products. Reproductive Toxicology.
Shibly, M.M.H, Hossain, M.A et al. (2021) Development of biopolymer-based menstrual pad and quality analysis against merchandise. Bulletin of the National Research Centre. Vol 45. Article 50.
An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies (pdf). Defra & WRAP (UK), 2008. Science Report – SC010018/SR2
J.R. Ajmeri, C.J. Ajmeri (2016) Developments in the use of nonwovens for disposable hygiene products
Joe Schwarcz (2017) Diapers - cloth or disposable? McGill Office for Science and Society. McGill University.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.