Which Diapers are the Most Eco Friendly?

So Many Diapering Options - Which One to Choose?

Confused by all the diapering options available, but know that you want to choose the most eco friendly option? You are not alone! As the range of diaper choices grows and methods of manufacture and waste disposal change, it can be really tough to work out which diapers are truly the most environmentally friendly option.

Many Moms are returning to the use of cloth diapers for their babies on the understanding that they are more environmentally friendly, but how eco-friendly are they? What are the advantages and disadvantages to the environment of using cloth diapers instead of disposable diapers? What about eco-friendly disposable diapers - are they any better?

Let’s take a look at the various diapering options so that you can make the best choice, not only for your baby, but also for the environment and your family finances. The choices we are going to cover are:

  • Cloth Diapers
  • Traditional Disposable Diapers
  • Biodegradeable Disposable Diapers

Are Cloth Diapers the Most Eco Friendly?
Are Cloth Diapers the Most Eco Friendly?

Natural Cloth Diapers - The Best Diapering Option?

In recent years, there has been a big push by environmentalist movements towards the use of cloth diapers. The main reason given for this push is that disposable diapers can take hundreds of years to biodegrade fully in landfill sites because of the amount of plastic in them. Though there are widely varying estimates of how long disposable diapers take to degrade, ranging from 10 – 1000 years, it’s true that traditional disposable diapers are a pollutant when disposed of in landfill sites.

Because of this, we do need to think carefully about the products we buy and how they will affect the environment our children are going to inherit, but when it comes to diapers there is no clear cut, superior, option in terms of which is the more environmentally friendly. That's because there are so many factors to consider including:

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  • The Amount of Energy Needed to Produce Each Type of Diaper (e.g. plastics typically take a lot of energy to manufacture, so more coal and gas will be burnt.)
  • The Resources Required to Produce Each Type of Diaper (wood, water, plastics etc.)
  • Costs to The Environment Through Transportation of the Product (how far do the components have to come?)
  • The Energy Costs of Washing Cloth Diapers (cloth diapers need washing in fairly hot temperatures or are sent off for laundering.)
  • Where Your Energy Comes From (renewable sources or gas and coal?)
  • What Happens to Your Waste Once it Has Been Collected by the Garbage Truck (does it go to landfill or an incinerator?)

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We'll touch on some of these issues, though ultimately the choice of which diapering product to use is up to you and what works for your family and your conscience.

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Cloth Diapers Will Save You Money

Fortunately, amongst all the doubt about which diapering product is the most environmentally friendly, there is one aspect that is clear cut. Using cloth diapers will save you money. An average baby through to toddler, will use around 5,000 diapers in the 2.5 years it takes before they are potty trained.

  • The average cost of using disposable diapers is $2,500.
  • Whilst the average cost of using cloth diapers, (including the energy required for washing them) is $1,000.

Natural cloth diapers become even more economical when you factor in the fact that they can be used for all your subsequent babies. So while the initial expense of buying cloth nappies is greater than simply buying a pack of disposable diapers, if you're planning to have several children you will save thousands of dollars in the long run.

A family with 4 children could save a whopping $8,000 by choosing cloth diapers over disposable diapers, which is a very healthy amount of money to be able to add to their college funds instead.

Biodegradable Diapers

A middle way between cloth diapers and traditional disposable diapers, is the eco-friendly disposable diaper.

These are made using as little plastic as possible and tend to use corn starch instead of wood products in the core so that they can biodegrade more easily in landfill. While not fully biodegradable, they are made from around 75% biodegradable products, compared to around 35% for ordinary disposable diapers.

Makers of these disposable cloth-like diapers, do their best to ensure that the production of the diapers has the lowest energy footprint as possible and they are also hypoallergenic, non-toxic and free of harmful chemicals such as chlorine. One of the leading manufacturers of biodegradable disposable diapers has this to say:

"Earth's Best diapers use 20 percent fewer petrochemicals than traditional disposable diapers. In fact, if 10 percent of the disposable diapers in the U.S. were as environmentally sensitive as Earth's Best diapers, we could reduce the consumption of petrochemical-based materials by as much as 20 million pounds a year."

What's So Bad About Disposable Diapers?

So environmentalists are right about how bad landfill is as a method of waste management. Currently about 1% of all solid waste going to landfill consists of disposable diapers! Filling up huge tracts of our Earth with waste, allows pollutants to seep into the water table, our drinking water, and ultimately, the sea. Landfill not only pollutes our water, but also our air through the release of methane (a highly potent green house gas). This alone would seem like an obvious reason to use cloth diapers over disposable diapers, but as mentioned before it's not quite that simple.

What environmentalists sometimes forget to mention is that not everyone’s waste is put into landfill sites. Increasingly our trash, including disposable diapers, is incinerated and the resulting heat and gasses produced are used as a renewable energy source to create electricity. With new technology, incineration is becoming a much cleaner and environmentally friendly waste management process. If your waste goes to a clean incinerator, then disposable diapers may be the more eco friendly diapering option.

While disposable diapers require much more resources in the production stage, they require less than cloth diapers afterwards. This is because cloth diapers need energy to wash them or get them laundered. In fact, when everything is taken into account, there is very little difference to the environment between cloth and disposable diapers. What will make the difference in the end is:

  • Where your trash is taken after it's collected and what happens to it. If your trash is going to landfill, and you want to use disposable diapers for convenience, then choosing to use biodegradable diapers will probably be the most eco-friendly decision.
  • How much energy you use from renewable sources, such as solar, water or wind power. If you're using a high percentage of renewable energy then cloth diapers will undoubtedly be the most environmentally friendly option.

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Cloth Diapers vs Disposable Diapers vs Biodegradable Diapers

Ultimately, there is no overall winner between disposable, biodegradable and cloth diapers when it comes to one having less of an impact on the environment than the other. Your choice will depend on some of the many factors highlighted here such as economic considerations, how your energy is produced and how your trash is disposed of.

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33 comments

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

Very informative hub. Thank you.


healthgoji profile image

healthgoji 6 years ago

Excellent -Once again - things are not always as they appear on the outside - electric cars seem like a great idea until you start thinking about the electricity needed to recharge the batteries and also disposing of the old batteries.


GojiJuiceGoodness profile image

GojiJuiceGoodness 6 years ago from Roanoke, Virginia

Cloth diapers are certainly a good idea; my mom used them for all of her kids. She started using them because they're cheaper, but continued because they are better for you.


JenDobson27 profile image

JenDobson27 6 years ago

Good point healthgoji. No matter what we are evaluating it's important to get both sides of the story and really look into every detail. Cloth diapers can save a lot of money, but I just couldn't do it!


Susana S profile image

Susana S 6 years ago Author

@ Hello hello - thanks :)

@ healthgoji - Yep, it's definitely complex trying to be eco-friendly! Things aren't always clear cut. If more of our power was from renewable sources it would be a lot easier to be environmentally friendly with diapers and cars!

@ GojiJuice - My sister and I were both in cloth diapers as was the norm in the 1970's. I think they can be very hard work, which is why I went for a mix of both cloth and disposable diapers with my babies.

@ Jen - many moms aren't up for cloth diapers and I fully understand why - it's hard work cleaning and drying them!


drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

Susana - you really got to the "bottom" of the subject with this one. Seems like an actual diaper dilemma.


Susana S profile image

Susana S 6 years ago Author

Hi drbj - it certainly is a diaper dilema! There are so many considerations when trying to make a decision about diapering.


lorlie6 profile image

lorlie6 6 years ago from Bishop, Ca

I had my son 22 years ago and biodegradable diapers were just coming on the market. It was such a pleasure to use them after trying the cloth and not exactly 'taking' to them!!

Thanks, Susana-wonderful hub!


a2z50 profile image

a2z50 6 years ago

Seems like we live in a disposable world , doesn't it ?

Great Hub!

Thank you

Ron

As Always Also Rprcarz50


pmccray profile image

pmccray 6 years ago from Utah

Been there, done that, don't want to do it again. Excellent hub regardless.


Susana S profile image

Susana S 6 years ago Author

Wow lorlie - I didn't even know disposable diapers existed that many years ago! It's great that you found a more eco-friendly diapering option than using normal disposable diapers.

Hi a2z50 - yep, we sure do live in a disposable world. It's great that more and more of our waste is being recycled, but unfortunately disposable diapers are not cost effective to recycle.

Hi pmccray - LOL. I don't blame you, it's hard work! I'm done with having babies as well.


heart4theword profile image

heart4theword 6 years ago from hub

I loved using clothe diapers! You did have to do the dunk in the toilet bit, but rubber gloves makes it a piece of cake:)

I was able to stay on budget, and I had enough diapers to do a load one time every 4 or 5 days? I had a diaper pail in the bathroom, with a small amount of bleach and L.O.C. from Amway. This took care of any smell. Unlike others I knew, I had no small, little brown things coming out with our clothes. The diapers were always nice, white, clean.

So I along with Susana, encourage those who are up to the challenge? To use clothe daipers, in the long run, there is less smell to deal with, and the child will be in diapers less time. You do have to change them more often, but it is worth it, to keep your baby dry and lessen the load in the land fills:) Oh and to help the budget!


Susana S profile image

Susana S 6 years ago Author

Hi heart - You make using cloth diapers sound like a piece of cake, so maybe more moms will be encouraged to use them :)


Polly C profile image

Polly C 6 years ago from UK

Excellent hub, Susanna. I am currently using reusuable nappies and find them very good, however I do wonder about the energy involved in washing them, particularly as I frequently wash them hotter than recommended to get them clean. For my first son I used eco disposables, yet I came to realise they were not quite as biodegrable as I first thought. It's a difficult decision.


47yroldmombck2wrk 6 years ago

Hey, as a mom of 4 no cloth diapers are not easy. I have used both. No way are they better. You have to have a can with chemicals to kill the bacteria for the cloth diapers. While the new and improved disposable are conformed to the enviroment. So its up to you. But as a mom of 4 I saw the bad diaper rash from real cloth..Oh, and the diaper pins. I stuck my first with those pins so many times.


Susana S profile image

Susana S 6 years ago Author

Hi Polly - Deciding which diapering product to use certainly is a hard decision to make if it's for environmental reasons. As you say cloth nappies need washing in hot water and so require a lot of energy. At least once you're done with them they are biodegradable or can be sold on as second hand.


Susana S profile image

Susana S 6 years ago Author

Hi 47yroldmom - That's a good point and one I forgot to mention in this article. The chemicals needed to clean cloth diapers are a pollutant themselves. It really is tough to know what's best for the environment.


Polly C profile image

Polly C 6 years ago from UK

Regarding the chemcial thing, you don't need chemicals at all, only ordinary detergent. All the guidelines I have read state that you simply need to store them in a nappy bucket with a lid until ready for washing. If you really want to add something you can add a few drops of tea tree oil to kill bacteria, but it isn't necessary. In fact, I use tots bots bamboozle nappies (not sure if they are available in US) and you should not use tea tree oil on bamboo as it can damage the fabric.


restoremyheart profile image

restoremyheart 6 years ago

I'm from the old days, where that is all we had was clothe diapers, it worked for my family, but we didn't have any other options. If I saw the land fills of disposable diapers, I think I might be sick:( Great Topic Hub!


heart4theword profile image

heart4theword 6 years ago from hub

Just a little clarification, on my earlier comment on diapers: I did not use chemicals, I used biodegradable laundry soap, called SA8, and a stain remover...called Liquid Organic Cleaner. Especially back then Amway was one of the first, to make cleaners without chemicals and fillers. Again, great hub topic:)


Susana S profile image

Susana S 6 years ago Author

Hi Heart - yep it's definitely worth using less harmful cleaners for cloth diapers to be as eco-friendly as possible.


prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

My mother used the cloth and me also for my children in the first month, it is nice as the ones which are disposable are hot, Thank you Susana, Maita


Susana S profile image

Susana S 6 years ago Author

Hi Maita - that's a good point. Babies must get so hot in disposable diapers if they're living in a very hot country :)


Lela Davidson profile image

Lela Davidson 6 years ago from Bentonville, Arkansas

I lasted 6 hours on cloth diapers!


Natasha 6 years ago

We used pampers for the first 4 months of my son's life and he was absolutely miserable, what with the constant rashes, constant blowouts, and oh yeah, the inner lining of the pamper would actually stick to his skin! when we switched to the motherease brand of cloth diapers, all of that ended and a happier baby he became. we are a year on from switching and he has had only 2 rashes. one was just a friction rash because i had the diaper on too loose, and the other was a stealth poop rash. both rashes were cleared up in no time though.


Suze B 6 years ago

Yep, I'd agree that disposible diapers can cause nappy rash. Probably because they are so absorbent we are inclined to leave them on for longer than we should, also they are not breathable.


Myra 6 years ago

I prefer biodegradable diapers but I was wondering about the cost of using biodegradable diapers. They're a little bit pricey, aren't they?


renegadetory profile image

renegadetory 5 years ago from Ottawa, Ontario

I used cloth diapers on both my girls. I found that disposable diapers always gave them a diaper rash. I can't say that my husband and I enjoy rinsing poopy diapers out everyday in the toilet, but I know we're saving money, so it makes it a bit easier.


William 2 years ago

The cheapest way to cloth dapier organically is to buy natural organic (flat cloth) that you fasten in the front with what is called a . I tried doing this at first with my newborn because some suggested it would be easier while the umbilical cord was healing. However, it leaked HORRIBLY because, unlike other dapiering options, it isn't . The next most economical way to cloth dapier is to use with to put over the prefold. The most natural, organic dapier cover is a , but those can be expensive, but the plus side is that as long as the cover does not get any excrement (poop) on it, it can be air dried and reused with a different dapier (prefold) afterwards. Fortunately, in the long run cloth dapiering your baby is cheaper (and more ecologically-friendly) than using disposable dapiers. (Not to mention how much gentler it seems to be on baby's skin.) I, personally, really love pocket dapiers. I use . You can use the same covers from newborn to potty-training and they are really easy to use. They do have , but they are a little more expensive. I prefer the pocket dapier to the all-in-one because I think you can get the pocket dapier cleaner and it dries faster. Hope that answers your question! Also, if you have any natural parenting stores in your area that sell cloth dapiers, many of those same stores also offer classes on cloth dapiering that will really help answer a lot of your questions. Good luck and happy dapiering!


Susana S profile image

Susana S 2 years ago Author

Thanks for sharing your experiences of cloth diapering William! Most helpful :)


Olga 2 years ago

(Paperback) I had high expectation, patrly due to other positive customer reviews, that this book would help me sort through the confusing overload of diapers, diapering systems, covers, products, etc., on the market. However, I was very disappointed: the book is so unrestrained in its enthusiasm that it lack the critical analysis I was hoping for. I also found the book to be repetitive with similar or even verbatim descriptions reappearing in different parts of the book. In short, too many exclamation points, too many rave reviews, not enough substantive comparison of brands.In the end, I do not feel that I am in a better position to make better choices than I was before I read the book. The detailed information in the various diapering catalogs/brochures I have received gave me essentially the same understanding of my choices.That said, the book has a comprehensive listing of various vendors and the products they carry which I did find useful (but, once again, little criticism or analysis of who has better customer service, shipping, etc .just rave reviews of just about everybody and every product). In summary, an O.K. resource, but not fantastic.


Susana S profile image

Susana S 2 years ago Author

Hi Olga, why have you copied and pasted a review of the book "Diaper Changes: The complete Diapering Book and Resource Guide" as a comment here? Anyway, thanks for visiting.


Jen 2 years ago

I think someone needs to do another comparison comparing all the different types of cloth diapers and how energy efficient they are. Your original, flat-type diapers that your grandmother/great grandmother used to use require far less water and energy to wash than your modern-day fitted, pocket, AIO and AI2 diapers. But there's also the extreme environmental impact caused by cotton production. So many different variables....

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