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Cloth Diapers vs Disposable Diapers

Cloth Diapers vs Disposable Diapers

As a parent or soon-to-be parent, you may feel overwhelmed with the myriad of decisions you are faced with making when suddenly you are supposed to become an expert on all topics baby. For some families, the choice between cloth or disposable baby diapers was easy and has been obvious to them from the beginning. If you are like many who are unsure of what kind of diaper to put on your little one, we would like to help you make an informed decision. Cloth diapers are reusable, yes, but aren't disposable diapers more convenient when it's time for a diaper change? We have set out to collect credible and unbiased information regarding cloth vs disposable diapers to consider all the pros and cons of each diapering style including investigating which is the most eco-conscious choice, the effect of each on your wallet and the skin care considerations for your little one.

The Sustainability debate: Cloth vs. Disposable Diapering

Many people think cloth diapers are more environmentally friendly than disposable diapers. But, we should consider the question of, what are diapers made of? Cloth diapers are washed and reused which in theory should be kinder on mother earth. The truth is, they can be but are rarely so in the average American household. There has been a lot of misinformation spread regarding the sustainability in cloth diapering, so for anyone wishing to make the greenest choice we want to present all the facts that can help you make an informed decision.

An independent study done in the UK follows the life cycle analysis of disposable diapers vs cloth. The life cycle analysis follows the environmental impact of each diaper type throughout its whole life; from the harvesting of the raw materials to their conversion into diapers and subsequent disposal after use. This study followed the diaper needs of a child for approximately 2.5 years of its life. Average potty training age in the U.S. is higher but to give you some perspective, the environmental impacts of any diaper use for 2.5 years of a child’s life is roughly comparable with driving a car between 1,300 and 2,200 miles which is roughly around driving from San Francisco to Seattle and back.

It is difficult to ascertain the environmental impact of disposable diapers as each is manufactured very differently. Parasol diapers are thinner than conventional disposables and this reduction in weight represents a lower global warming impact than conventional disposables. For the sake of the study, however, disposables have been generalized to represent the average disposable diaper. The update to the study, to reflect more recent manufacturing practices and laundering energy requirements, concluded the environmental impacts of using cloth can be higher or lower than using disposable depending on how they are laundered and used.

Disposables are Greener than Cloth in Most American Households

The global warming impact of disposable diapers decreased between 2002 and 2006 by 13.5% and is predicted to have continued to decrease due to manufacturers employing greener energy and changing the diaper requirements to be thinner and less wasteful for the environment.

Cloth diaper use, on the other hand, has become increasingly more harmful in recent years as laundering subscription services are on the rise and modern parents choose to wash and tumble dry vs conventional hand washing and line drying methods that were used in the past. So, we should consider the question, what are these diapers made of and what is their impact on the environment? This independent study done in UK followed the entire life of a cloth diaper and its use. It took all considerations, from cotton production in the U.S , including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. required for its production, along with its manufacturing process, and consumer use such that requires washing and drying, all the way to its subsequent eventual disposal.

Turns out that:

  • If you tumble dry all your cloth diapers you are looking at more than 43% higher global environmental impact than disposables
  • If you wash with hot water (the study compared 194 F instead of 140 F) global warming impact is more than 31% than disposables.

Basically, any family that is washing their cloth diapers with hot water and opts to tumble dry them is creating such an energy intensive requirement that the global warming impact of their diaper choice is 75% higher than if they were to use disposable diapers. Families using laundering subscription services will still find that energy use at the laundry along with vehicle use in the delivery and collection of diapers will be a significant contributor to global warming.

This conclusion is without even considering there are alternatives to landfills that many countries and a few states in the U.S. use such as incineration for energy recovery. Additionally, there are many facilities that are currently experimenting with post-consumer diaper recycling. A facility in Italy is currently capable of recycling used diapers and other personal absorbent hygiene items. The entire industry and parents around the world are overjoyed that in the near future we may be able to recycle disposable diapers all around the world and diapers in landfills will be a thing of the past.

When are Cloth Diapers a More Environmentally Friendly Choice?

While conventional cloth diaper use is usually more harmful to the environment than using disposable diapers, there are definitely certain choices that can reduce their impact and even make them a greener solution than disposables. This will require greater commitment from parents to pay special attention to the laundering methods and their likelihood to reuse across a different child.

Cloth diapering users can reduce their environmental impact by:

  • Line drying outside instead of tumble drying
  • Washing with water no hotter than 140F. (The issue here is properly disinfecting the diaper at that temperature)
  • Always washing in a full load
  • Reusing diapers on other children.

Simply using cloth diapers is not necessarily more environmentally conscious. Being particularly careful of how you acquire, wash and dry them will be very important. Washing diapers in fuller loads or line-drying them outdoors all the time will reduce the environmental impact over conventional disposables by a little under 16%. Achieving a combination of the tips above to reduce the environmental impact can make cloth up to 40% greener than disposables which will ultimately be the best choice for mother earth.

Some of these choices might be near impossible for the modern parent that might not have enough time to line-dry. Moreover our concern is that by washing diapers with energy-efficient (low temperature) settings, you are not effectively killing the bacteria.

Skin Care Considerations in Cloth vs. Disposable Diapers

Ultimately a baby’s skin is healthiest when it is clean and dry. There is no question that continuous exposure to moisture and feces is the leading cause of diaper rash. When comparing cloth vs disposable diapers in terms of absorbency and ability to draw moisture away from baby’s skin, disposable diapers will always out-perform cloth. Additionally, it has been proven that irritant diaper dermatitis occurs at a higher frequency with cloth diaper use than disposables.

Either type of diaper can lead to rashes, depending on the duration between diaper changes and sensitivity of the baby’s skin along with other factors. However, disposable diapers keep babies drier and better prevent rashes caused by moisture.

Budget considerations

Diapers can represent a considerable investment in the life of any parent. Disregarding the sizable time requirement to clean cloth diapers (time is money no matter who you are!) cloth diapering can save you some money. However, once you take into account the cost of enough cloth diapers and the water and utility bills, the amount of money saved may be less than you’d expect. Cloth diapers represent a large upfront cost and subsequent monthly utilities, whereas disposables will be a constant over time. Without a doubt, premium disposable diapers will be a higher level investment than cloth in the long run.

Should I use cloth diapers or disposable diapers?

Skin care for the baby will always be better with disposable as they are built with better wicking capabilities to draw moisture away and have a higher retentive capacity. Cloth diapers will require more changes to avoid excess exposure to humidity to your baby’s bum, including a higher commitment on the parent’s part to overnight changes - this in an effort to keep the baby’s skin dry which will result in healthier skin, less rashes, and a more comfortable night’s rest for your little one. Knowing the limitations in cloth diapers’ absorption qualities can lead parents to opt for cloth during the day when they can monitor changes more easily and disposable during the night to secure better night’s rest for the parents and a more comfortable, dry night for the baby.

Disposable diapers will offer convenience to the modern-day parent-on-the-move. Thoughtful cloth diapering will be very time intensive. Premium diapers that are thinner and more sustainably sourced than conventional will give you peace of mind being a greener choice as compared to laundered and tumble dried cloth diapers, and will keep your baby’s skin drier.

The choice in cloth diapers vs disposable is a very personal one and we are 100% behind whatever the parents think is best for the baby and their budget and parenting style. We hope this article has been able to provide more information towards the best choice for your family, including budget, sustainability and skin considerations.


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