The Diapering Dilemma

Posted on October 27, 2009 by A Free Man


Now that I’ve got two kids in nappies (diapers for those of  you in North America) I’ve become increasingly concerned about our family’s environmental impact. I was shocked to learn that the average child uses 8 – 10,000 nappies before they are toilet trained. Every time I haul another bag of fetid nappy waste to the trash can, I’ve got a physical, and stinking, reminder of just how much more waste we’re generating now as compared to the carefree days of childlessness.

Like more than 90% of Western parents, we use disposable nappies; largely for their convenience – no bleaching, boiling or washing – just off, wipe and chuck it in the bin. Like a lot of those 90% of parents, I carry with me a fair bit of guilt about disposable nappies. I’ve read studies claiming that disposables account for up to 5% of all household waste and 1 – 3% of all solid waste in the landfill. For a while we used “biodegradable” disposable nappies, but then I read a study that pointed out that nothing really biodegrades in a landfill. The degrading process can only occur in the presence of moisture and UV light and landfills don’t get much of either. Because most parents, myself included, toss dirty nappies away with the household trash we are potentially introducing human feces, and the myriad of pathogens that goes along with it, into groundwater. While disposables may be better at preventing nappy rash than cloth nappies, they may also contain potentially harmful chemicals.

On the surface, cloth nappies would seem to be the greener alternative. They are reusable, reducing the amount of waste generated from each child. Even after they are discarded, they degrade reasonably quickly. Feces in cloth nappies are usually washed out prior to washing and ends up in the sewage system rather than the landill. However, the reason that most parents don’t use them is where the problem begins with cloth nappies – the washing. Washing cloth nappies consumes more energy and produces more waste water than does the production of disposable nappies.

So, which is better for the environment? Cloth or plastic.

Short answer – neither.

An oft cited 2005 study by the British Environment Agency found that neither disposable nor cloth nappies can claim overall environmental superiority. Thus, the differences in the impacts between cloth and disposable nappies are not significant enough to voice support for one nappy type over the other on the basis of environmental factors alone.

An updated study by the same organization in 2008 came to similar conclusions. They found that the a child wearing disposable nappies for two and a half years had a global warming impact of approximately 550kg of carbon dioxide equivalents while a child in cloth nappies for the same period of time was responsible for 570kg of CO2 emissions. However, this was based on tumble drying cloth nappies. Line drying would result in about a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

Both the 2005 and 2008 studies conclude that cloth nappies do not offer a significant environmental benefit over disposables. Good news for the busy parent? Maybe. The fact is that both systems are equally bad for the environment. Another factor to consider is that with the dominance of disposable nappies, kids are staying in nappies longer. In 1950, virtually all kids wore cloth nappies and 95% of them were potty trained by 18 months old. Today, over 90% of kids are in disposable and only 10% of them are potty trained by 18 months.

So, what is the environmentally conscious parent to do? In short, if you have kids there is no good answer. It isn’t just nappies that cause environmental impact when it comes to raising children. Think of all the plastic junk that seems to come hand in hand with a new baby – baths, bouncers, mobiles, rattles, on and on and on. The simple fact is – kids are bad for the environment. People are bad for the environment.

But as I’ve learned, you can’t give them back. Now that you have kids, what is the best way to deal with the seeming tons of waste they generate? Potty training earlier would have a positive environmental impact. However, depending on who you listen to, premature potty training may have a negative psychological impact on your child. Biodegradable nappies do not appear to offer a significant environmental benefit. The company that produces gDiapers, a flushable nappy, claims that everything in their product “will be reabsorbed into the eco-system in a neutral of beneficial way, but I’d like to see some independent verification of their claims before I jump on that particular bandwagon.

If you are in the position to do so, the lesser of two evils is to use cloth nappies, launder them sensibly and line dry. However, the reality of modern life is that many folks can’t take on that additional work load. If you’re one of those people, the pragmatic solution is to use disposables and try to make cuts elsewhere. Nearly every day, The Greenists offers suggestions on how to live a greener life. So, accept the slightly heavier environmental burden of disposables and with the time you’ve saved at the washing machine, make a positive impact somewhere else.


  1. [...] semester comes roaring to an end and I’ve used up all my blogging time talking shit over at The Greenists. Quite literally. [...]

    October 27th, 2009 at 7:19 am
    Pingback by Congratulations to me, many happy returns | A Free Man
  2. When my kids were babies I used cloth diapers, washed them and hung on line. I had the time to do that because I was not working outside the home. I started using disposable diapers with the last child because they were handy when we traveled. This is an interesting post just because I have been wondering if there is much difference between disposables and cloth diapers pertaining to environmental effects. Sounds like they are about the same. Our kids were potty trained early though, but they wanted to.

    October 27th, 2009 at 8:57 am
    Comment by Technobabe
  3. So, the short answer is :D on’t have kids.

    Really, the human population can be seen as similar to any organism, such as a bacterial population, but over a much longer period. Our population is increasing too fast and some day soon we’re going to run out of space, or an energy source, or a build up of our own toxic waste will kill us. It’s hard to think about, as it’s a human right to have kids, but how much energy do we save with all our recycling and ecover using and line drying and turning off the lights when we’re not in the room, and then we have kids, and bring another energy, food and space consuming individual into the world.

    I guess one way to save the world would be if there was a mass suicide. No, no, I insist, you first.

    This doesnt mean I never want kids- of course like the next person I would like a family and a nice house and nice friends and eat nice food and go on nice holidays. But when I think about it, the only real answer to a lot of the world’s problems is to decrease the number of humans, either by having less children, or I’m sure we will all be the death of us.

    Should we just say “fuck it” and enjoy life on cosy planet earth while we can, and then leave the generations down the line to die in a smog filled world with half the number of species it has just now, but an excess of homo sapiens.

    What should we do?

    October 27th, 2009 at 9:18 am
    Comment by SSG
  4. What about using the gDiapers and composting the insert????? -0- impact and you’ve got beautiful compost to enrich your soil!

    October 27th, 2009 at 10:23 am
    Comment by Kim from Milwaukee
  5. “But as I’ve learned, you can’t give them back.”

    Haaa, glad I’m not the only one who tried to give them back.

    In a concession to our diaper use, we are very conscious of other waste creating things with the kids. We compost our vegetable waste from all the cooking I do and we have finally converted the grandparents from buying cheap plastic shit toys to sending a sticker or card and a check for the college accounts. Our kids have only a few toys each(which still adds up) and most of what we do have are gifts and handmedowns. I bought most of my kids clothing for this year’s school used through ebay and consignment. I saved a little money, got nicer stuff than I would buy new and didn’t contribute to a new goods purchase. I moved my business closer to home to reduce fuel use and one of our vehicles is a low emission.fuel efficient hybrid. The husband is also planning to add solar to our house in the next few years and has lately been running around talking about converting our car to run on compressed air(I think he’s been watching the discovery channel again). We really try to be conscious about it.

    However, I will not wash diapers. I know my limits.

    October 27th, 2009 at 12:26 pm
    Comment by chris
  6. Great post! I’m linking to it from my blog.

    I’m a fan of the “compromise” position – use either cloth or disposable diapers, but potty train AS SOON AS YOU CAN. As you mentioned in your article, in the 1950s, most kids were potty trained by 18 months. It is obviously physically possible! I am the author of a potty training book that encourages training before the age of two.

    This way, you can minimize your environmental impact while instilling confidence and a sense of accomplishment in your child. Best of both worlds!

    Thanks again for the great read.

    Suzanne Riffel, author of “The Potty Boot Camp: Basic Training for Toddlers.”

    October 27th, 2009 at 3:34 pm
    Comment by Suzanne Riffel
  7. My sister in law is using cloth diapers and having a great time of it. She’s kind of awesome like that. But I tell you what. Auntie Kate is not so sure she’ll like it when she babysits. I’m selfish like that.

    October 27th, 2009 at 7:38 pm
    Comment by k8
  8. Kim – Just a note. Human excrement does NOT make good compost.

    October 27th, 2009 at 10:00 pm
    Comment by A Free Man
  9. I good friend of mine uses compostable ones (a full nappy, not just an insert). I’m not sure of the details, but I think they’re made of bamboo. They compost them, but obviously do not use the compost on anything they’re going to eat. Having seen their garden, I don’t think they acutally use it on anything, they just let it break down.

    October 28th, 2009 at 7:15 am
    Comment by Kitty
  10. We used cloth diapers, and I have to say that I feel damned good knowing that while I had to run a few extra wash cycles my kids dipes are not languishing in a landfill somewhere. Well, not very many of them, anyway. :)

    As to the water usage aspect, I would be interested to see a few more comparisons. Say a person is used to taking a 15 minute hot shower every day. Cut that back to every other day, or 10 minutes per day. Over the span of time it takes to potty train, does the previous water usage balance out with the current water/energy usage of washing the diapers? Thereby maintaining the prior water/energy usage and therefore making cloth diapers the more effective and environmental solution? There are definitely different schools of thought as to how to wash cloth dipes, as well (how many cycles, what types of soap, etc). I would also be interested to know what statistical impact that would have on water/energy usage. Just my two cents. :)

    October 28th, 2009 at 10:54 am
    Comment by Not Afraid To Use It
  11. I’m not acutally convinced that cloth nappies create more waste – by the time the products that go into dispables are produced, and then transported to the ‘disposable nappy making place’ (remembering that this transportation is in trucks that have their own consumption factors in terms of C02 emissions and water used for washing, maintenance etc), and then these nappies are transported again, creating another round of C02 and water waste etc. Where as cloth nappies are, I should imagine, made from one or two fibres with limited pre-production considerations and are then transported from production to consumption only once over the life of the nappy….. I’m not flying in the face of science, but I’d like to see the breakdown. Then if you have a second child but use the same nappies, all of those transportation considerations disappear.

    October 29th, 2009 at 3:14 am
    Comment by Kitty
  12. I linked to it in the study, but here is the DEFRA study done by the UK government. It’s pretty comprehensive and addresses the questions that NATUI and Kitty had. It is the second study of the kind in the last few years. Check it out if you’re interested:

    October 29th, 2009 at 9:00 pm
    Comment by A Free Man
  13. I read those studies before our daughter was born, and was bothered by the fact they don’t take into account the landfill space disposables take up. They also don’t allow for cloth diapers to be used for more than one child, or used for other purposes after one child is done with them. Cloth diapers are incredibly useful. If we have another kid we’ll use them again, and if a friend has a kid we’ll give them away, they last. We use a combination of both now. In the short term, in water-strapped CA, I sometimes think disposables are the better option, but the fact they’ll still be hanging around in landfills thousands of years from now bothers me.

    October 30th, 2009 at 3:42 pm
    Comment by April
  14. Excellent post! We are using biodegradable disposables after trying several different kinds of diapers (including cloth). They work best for our child and our lifestyle. Right now the diapers go into the garbage but when our municipal compost program is fully rolled out we will be able to put them in there.

    November 8th, 2009 at 1:16 am
    Comment by Jen
  15. April, I have to agree with you. Not all the factors are calculated into that study. I used cloth diapers, and environmentally friendly soap with them. I still have some diapers that I use to clean the car, etc, and the rest I passed on to a mom I knew would use them. We have energy efficient washers to boot. I’m not sure the study takes all of these things into account. I feel good about my choices. It was harder than the disposable but usually being green takes a little more effort. At least I don’t have to wash my clothes in a creek, and I have a machine. Everything is relative.
    As for composting- flush your solids and the city wastewater program will compost them. Do not put them in your garden, that is very unhealthy unless they are sterilized.
    When looking at an environmental impact there is more than the C02 emissions to consider. You have to look at the longterm environmental impact. Such as how much waste does that generate? Where does the waste go? If you use cloth diapers, you are not adding to the landfill and you are using water to wash the diapers that is ultimately getting cleaned and reused. Once water is flushed down the drain it goes to the city wastewater treatment plant is cleaned and released back into the environment. Plastic disposable diapers are pilled up and buried in a landfill. Big difference. If a city has a wastewater program that uses it’s solids to make compost- such as DilloDirt, these solids are reused, sanitized, and NOT put into a landfill.
    Everyone is so concerned about C02 and that is great but it’s only a piece to the greater puzzle of being environmentally conscientious.

    December 30th, 2009 at 2:40 pm
    Comment by Rachtx

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