Are Cloth Diapers Worse Than Disposables?

Posted on March 11, 2009 by Allie

According to National Geographic, the average child uses about 4,000 disposable before hitting the toilet training stage.

You’d think this figure would clearly mean that cloth diapers are the way to go.  But when I looked up family cloth for yesterday’s post, I stumbled across an article from Times Online.  The article says a study done by The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Britain didn’t deliver the expected answer.  The results were so surprising that there was even an attempt to sweep them under the carpet.

From the article:

The report found that using washable nappies, hailed by councils throughout Britain as a key way of saving the planet, have a higher carbon footprint than their disposable equivalents unless parents adopt an extreme approach to laundering them.

To reduce the impact of cloth nappies on climate change parents would have to hang wet nappies out to dry all year round, keep them for years for use on younger children, and make sure the water in their washing machines does not exceed 60C.

But, according to the study, even with line drying, cloth diapers still have a bigger carbon footprint than disposables.

I’m not a mom, so I don’t really know anything about diapers, but if you’re interested in researching some disposable diapers that are eco-friendlier, check out gDiapers and Seventh Generation.

If the findings of this study correct and the article’s allegations of the study being swept under the rug are true, I think it’s very sad.  It’s more important to look for lifestyle options that will actually lesson our carbon footprint than it is to look for options that give the appearance of being eco-friendly.  I think when it comes to being green, we all need to make a commitment to doing the best we can, and continuing to make adjustments as we learn more about best practices.  It’s okay to to say, “Hey, we used to think this was the best way, but now that we know better, we’re going to do better.”

I wonder where “family cloth” figures into this.  Does the energy consumed in washing those rags negate the benefits?

17 Comments +

  1. I have some friends using gDiapers. I need to ask them how it’s working out.

    March 11th, 2009 at 2:52 pm
    Comment by mickey
  2. As far as your last question – I highly, HIGHLY doubt that is the case. At least for me.

    I took a few t-shirts I didn’t want (and would have donated instead, which may have eventually ended up in the trash!) for my cloth TP. They take up two handfuls of space (because we can measure volume in handfuls, right? Hehe.) in my washer, and I linedry them.

    My recycled TP? Was shipped from California, is wrapped in plastic, and had to use a LOT of water to be made into TP.

    I’d venture to say, it’s FAR less of an environmental impact for me to use my cloth TP.

    March 11th, 2009 at 3:33 pm
    Comment by ashley.star
  3. yes but if you use cloth you can have a couple of children use the same diaper. A lot of mom’s line dry there diapers. What study’s do show is we all use earth friendly washing soap. NO one bleaches there diapers now a day’s. There is tons of water adn bleach used in making paper diapers.
    For those of us on a budget it is the way ot go. My heat and water bills haven’t gone up in the 20 months I have cloth diapered. I don’t have to run out if there are no diapers. I can just wash some or take some from the bin.
    The UK Is much different then the US for washer and stuff.
    You still flush parts down the toilet for G diapers. I haven’t heard much good about them.
    7th gen you still throw away and are adding to our land fills.
    They are ok wh have used them before. They still have the chemicals in them to keep the pee in them.

    March 11th, 2009 at 3:41 pm
    Comment by sara
  4. sorry my comment is all over. I was fighting off a toddler from touching the laptop.

    March 11th, 2009 at 3:43 pm
    Comment by sara
  5. I wonder also if the impact should be determined more locally rather than one sweeping generalization across the board. Someone living in an area that often issues sprinkling bans b/c of low rainfall may be better off using disposables regardless, whereas in other areas, cloth may be a clearer winning choice.

    March 11th, 2009 at 5:40 pm
    Comment by Cheryl
  6. One study can always show what you want it to show…

    I find it hard to believe that the plastics and bleach and chemicals are better than water used to wash.

    March 11th, 2009 at 6:08 pm
    Comment by Heather
  7. If you read the article, it says that the people doing the study hoped it would show cloth diapers were better.

    March 11th, 2009 at 6:43 pm
    Comment by Joseph
  8. I think the entire “carbon footprint” question is meaningless, confusing–an ill-defined concept that can be twisted to mean anything anybody wants it to mean.

    What we know for certain is that disposable diapers, unless they’re made from recycled materials and biodegrade (yeah, right, Pampers), using them destroys a lot of trees, and takes up a ton of landfill space. How exactly is a piece of cloth more damaging? Do they assume that you’re buying new? If you make your own? Do they consider that disposables require paper and plastics, that they don’t degrade?

    It’s question of prioritizing. I find it far more important to keep stuff–especially non-biodegradable stuff–out of our landfills than to worry about the theoretical impact of my purchases on global warming. By that token, we should all give up coffee and tea and not buy fair trade products. To be absolutely clear: I don’t doubt the impact of global warming, and I don’t question that our individual lives has an impact on it. What I do question is whether it should be THE one thing we consider when making the choices we do.

    March 11th, 2009 at 9:25 pm
    Comment by Jules
  9. One consideration that I doubt these types of studies include is that using cloth is way, way, way cheaper than disposables. By using cloth on all three of my kids, I have been able to save tons of money, which makes it possible for me to afford other eco-friendly products that might otherwise have been out of my budget.

    March 12th, 2009 at 1:46 am
    Comment by Erin aka Conscious Shopper
  10. We used cloth diapers on our two kiddos except for traveling and I have to agree with Jules and Erin. It is cheaper by far, less to go into landfill and we reused the diapers for the two children as long as they held up. We then used the old diapers for assorted dust and cleaning rags, Plus I have noted that in some instances, parents tend to change the child a bit less because of expense with disposables. Not good.

    March 12th, 2009 at 1:42 pm
    Comment by Roger
  11. I agree that keeping things out of the landfills seems it would be much better than using disposeables because laundering uses so much power. Would it then be cheaper for us to not wash our clothes and buy new? somehow I highly doubt it.

    We also have to consider the chemicals that are in these diapers that we’re putting on our children. I’m sure the washable ones don’t have weird chemicals that help absorb and dry.

    March 12th, 2009 at 2:33 pm
    Comment by Chiot's Run
  12. I see what you are saying, but I am not sure it’s an equal comparison. Diapers that are made to be disposable versus clothing that isn’t. It isn’t going to be more energy efficient to throw away durable clothing, than to wash it. But if we all wore paper gowns all day, maybe it would be.

    The landfill reduction and cost savings are benefits, but it seems like the energy savings is not what many of us thought it would be.

    March 12th, 2009 at 2:43 pm
    Comment by Maggie
  13. I really wish they would have done further research and given details on the cloth diapers. Disposable diapers are so harsh that our sons both would break out with huge red sores on their skin just from contact with the diaper.

    I made about 90% of our diapers from recycled clothes and the diapers that I didn’t keep for our next child I passed on to someone else to use. I feel very confident that this caused a much smaller impact than if we would have used disposable diapers.

    March 13th, 2009 at 9:10 pm
    Comment by VeganMama
  14. [...] yes, the post mentions that Allie found out that cloth diapers and such have a higher carbon footprint than using disposable products, but that we need to [...]

    July 27th, 2009 at 9:18 am
    Pingback by (Green)Grounded » Blog Archive » Hey Mama, Don’t Be Nappi!
  15. Well it largely depends on what you think makes something better. I think that disposible are easier and tend to keep bums drier. However, i think that cloth diapers are safer, environmentally friendly and children usually potty train much easier and faster.

    December 31st, 2009 at 12:50 am
    Comment by Cloth Diapers
  16. I love using cloth prefold diapers and love how they make the best all around cleaning rags around the house they last forever. Also don’t over look any of your kids under cloths undershirts and panties are aslo really nice too

    March 11th, 2011 at 1:54 pm
    Comment by jenny bridgeport
  17. I find this post disturbing, not because it seems to imply that cloth diapers have the same “carbon footprint” that disposables do (that may well be), but because it seems to place being eco-friendly above the welfare of our children! For instance, I cloth diaper our baby because I don’t want to expose him to the chemicals present in disposable diapers, which can be very harmful (especially to boys). I do happen to like that I’m not throwing thousands of disposables in the landfill, but my son’s health is of FAR more concern to me than some nebulous “carbon footprint.” If I start placing more importance on the earth/environment than I do on my own children, how does that make me a good mother? I am definitely not saying parents who use disposables are wrong (that’s a personal and individual decision), but I am saying that we cannot worship the environment so much that our children take second place. We should be good stewards of the earth, certainly, but we should definitely value people more than trees. :-)

    Just my two cents!

    ~ Shannon

    March 21st, 2011 at 4:18 pm
    Comment by Cloth Diaper Mama

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Tip of the Day

If It Doesn’t Smell, Don’t Wash It

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According to Real Simple, if every American made an effort to launder less — cutting out just one load of laundry a week per household — we’d save enough water to fill seven million swimming pools each year.

So if it looks clean, and it smells clean, call it clean and wear it again. Consider hanging worn clothes out on your clothesline to freshen them up between wearings.


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