If we could get busy working parents to follow all the steps in the
article below, cloth would have less environmental impact than
disposable. But not everyone has a garden where they can reuse laundry
water, and the lower your income the more likely that you are using a
laundromat. Single parents can often barely manage to pay their
existing electricity bills, let alone the additional amount charged by
green providers. And using cloth diapers requires additional time in a
day which is already full to bursting for people working multiple
As usual, focusing on individual lifestyle changes rather than
collective action at the political, economic and social levels is not
a winning strategy (even taking into account the obstacles in the way
of building effective collective action). John Bellamy Foster has a
good article addressing this:
Reusable cloth vs disposable diapers
By Green Living Tips | Published 11/29/2006
The reusable cloth and disposable diapers debate
Diapers, also known as nappies in many parts of the world, have been
the subject of great debate in relation to which is a more earth
friendly option - disposables or resuable cloth? Having used both, I
would have immediately said cloth diapers had less of an environmental
impact, but that may not necessarily be the case.
An apparently thorough study carried out by an advisory board to the
UK Environment Agency a couple of years ago drew this conclusion -
cloth diapers had equal the impact of disposable nappies. I was quite
taken aback - how could this be?
When both types of diapers were studied, the *whole* lifecycle of the
product was scrutinized - materials, chemicals and energy consumed
during production, usage and disposal. The environmental impact
categories the diapers were assessed against were climate change,
ozone depletion, human toxicity, acidification, fresh-water aquatic
toxicity, terrestrial toxicity, photochemical oxidant formation and
eutrophication. The resulting report was over 200 pages and can be
viewed here (PDF)
To give you some idea of the environmental impact of both reusable
cloth and disposable diapers on non-renewable resource depletion and
global warming, the study states that over the 2.5 years a child would
be in diapers; it would equate to driving a car up to 2200 miles.
Disposable nappies are made from petroleum byproducts and tree
products such as fluff pulp. Cloth diapers are usually made from
cotton - a pesticide, herbicide, synthetic fertilizer and water
While the study doesn't see too much difference between the two in
terms of environmental impact at first glance, I most certainly do
when you take into account several observations made. Disposable
diapers will most always likely be very unfriendly to the planet, but
there are opportunities for minimizing the impact of reusable cloth
The report notes:
"For the home laundered nappy system, the main source of environmental
impact is the generation of the electricity used in washing and drying
So this presents quite a few opportunities to lessen impact by:
- lowering washing temperatures
- use earth friendly washing detergents effective in cold water
- stock up on diapers and wash only when you have a full load
- refrain from using additional wash enhancers
- air dry diapers
- offset your electricity use with green tags, or switch your
electricity supply to a green provider
- reroute washing machine water runoff into your garden or install a
greywater recycling system
- don't iron diapers
The other point to note is the diapers in the study were made of
cotton, and I assume not organic cotton. The growing of cotton
constitutes approximately 25% of the world's insecticide and more than
10% of the pesticide usage. Cotton is the fourth most heavily
synthetically fertilized crop globally. The cotton industry has also
been responsible for massive environmental disasters such as the
destruction of the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and Kazahkstan.
There are alternatives to "normal" cotton - organic cotton. Better
still is hemp. Hemp fabric is said to be three times stronger than
cotton, more durable and has a better ability to absorb moisture. I
haven't seen 100% hemp diapers around, but you can certainly buy
organic cotton/hemp blends - usually around 45% hemp and 55% organic
In summary, while you can't make disposable nappies "greener", you can
certainly have less of an impact on the environment with reusable
cloth nappies through careful purchase decisions and proper usage.
On Tue, Aug 26, 2008 at 8:23 AM, Eric Entemann <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> "Her view on the old argument about cloth versus disposable diapers? A tossup, environmentally speaking."
> This statement, without any qualification, is nonsense.
> If one uses cloth diapers, and launders them in a conservative manner, and dries them on a clothesline, the environmental impact is minimal compared to the use of disposables. Furthermore, when they are no longer needed for their original purpose they make excellent general purpose cleaning and drying cloths. I still have some, 26 years after they last experienced baby poop. I tried to give them away to be used again for their original purpose, but there were no takers. All my progressive friends were using diposables...
> She might also argue a position I have seen frequently in the press: that dishwashers are good, or a "tossup", compared to hand washing of dishes. But that is true only if one uses hot water, continuously running, and harsh detergents during the latter. Trivial calculations show this to be true regarding energy and water use, and pollution produced.
> In other words, one can make almost anything look good by comparing it to the worst possible scenario for the alternative. I think that would include GMO and nuclear power, both of which I find quite frightening, the former out of ignorance but not the latter.