Cloth diapers seem like the obvious choice for greener parenting. But in the last 10 years, there have been several articles written claiming that it isn’t the case. In the disposable diapers vs cloth diapers debate, there are a lot of contradictory studies which makes it hard to know for sure. There is an obvious waste creation issue in the use of disposables, but there is water and electricity usage to consider for cloth. Plus, there is a manufacturing impact to consider for both.

When you read and analyze the studies, it can be hard to know who to trust. Some of these studies are even funded by groups with an obvious agenda, such as the disposable diaper companies themselves.

Is Cloth Diapering Better for the Environment?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is no PERFECT solution. People have an impact on the planet. There is no way we can live here and not have an impact. I will never say that cloth has no environmental impact because that’s not true.

Everything has an impact. Cloth diapers are not automatically a greener choice, and some people may have habits that hinder the overall eco-friendliness of cloth diapers.

If your main motivation for using cloth is to reduce your environmental impact, then it is even more important for you to be conscientious when making purchases and developing a laundry routine.

However, some studies assume “worst case scenario” care and usage for cloth diapers when they are making their comparisons. As a result, they say that cloth diaper usage is just as damaging to the environment as disposable diapers. I think it’s important that we don’t just look at stats based on assumed usage, but rather look at how are they ACTUALLY used.

That would be like saying that everyone who drives a car emits the same amount of CO2 per mile without giving any consideration to what kind of car they drive. A Nissan Leaf does not have the same impact as a Hummer. It’s also not fair to say all cloth diaper usage is as bad as disposables.

What is really boils down to is that the most thorough studies on this subject are dated and have limitations. Things have changed a lot in the cloth diapering world over the past 10+ years, not only in cloth diapering options but also in water and electrical efficiency. Studies from a couple of decades ago (or more) should not be used to judge how eco-friendly cloth diapers are in 2021.

So, is cloth diapering better for the environment? While it is true that some people’s cloth diapering practices may not be as green as you’d think, with a few eco-friendly tweaks to that routine, YES, cloth diapering is better for the environment.

Let’s look at some facts and figures to show you how that is.

Criticisms Against Cloth Diapers

The criticisms against cloth diapers all have to do with the amount of water and electricity they require to launder.


The criticism starts with the cotton many diapers are made from. Conventional cotton can be resource-intensive and have lots of pesticides used on it. Many of the stats quoted by the disposable diaper companies and others focus solely on the use of conventional cotton as if that is the only material cloth diapers are made from. If you have been around this website (or other cloth diaper websites) long enough, you know this is far from the truth.

Many cloth diapers are indeed made from cotton. Conventional cotton production has room for improvement in its eco-friendliness for sure, but organic cotton addresses many of these concerns. It uses no toxic chemicals and up to 71{9994046f29331ee04cc0b5e07eb28364315ea03ccc2f01b5a43e8b85b372d1e9} less water in its production. This is due to the fact that organic cotton uses less irrigation than conventional and is 80{9994046f29331ee04cc0b5e07eb28364315ea03ccc2f01b5a43e8b85b372d1e9} rain fed.

Because almost all of these studies consider conventionally grown cotton as the only material cloth diapers are made from, it skews their findings. Many quality cloth diaper brands produce their diapers with organic cotton, bamboo, hemp, or synthetic materials like microfiber. Each material has it’s own environmental pros and cons, but they are not all equal.

Production isn’t the only time critics point out the water use. There is heavy criticism with how much water is used to wash cloth diapers. To be fair, cloth diapers do need to be washed in water. That is a fact.

It’s also true that many people DO use lots of water, maybe more than they need to, to wash their diapers.

However, many cloth diaper families do follow water-saving practices in their home. There are also ways to minimize the amount of water used to wash diapers by using some common sense laundry practices.

Water Usage in the Care of Dirty Diapers

There is more assumed about cloth diapers than they are only made of conventional cotton.washing-cloth-diapers

In most of these studies (such as this one), it is often assumed that the diapers were soaked in buckets of water with a chemical sanitizing solution before being washed. That is no longer a common cloth diapering care practice. It is not recommended by any manufacturer anymore because it is hard on the diapers and can be unsanitary.

The study also accounts for fabric softener usage on the majority of loads and measures that as a source of pollution. If you are unaware, fabric softeners are strongly advised against for cloth diapers because they negatively impact absorbency. It is unlikely that any cloth diapering family is using much fabric softener, especially a family that is trying to be green.

There are all sorts of things this study assumes that I’m not going to get into here. You can read it yourself if you want to. It’s also important to note that this study is almost 15 years old now, and much of the data it is analyzing is even older than that.

To be fair, the study did acknowledge its limitations in the conclusion, and it also says that if there are any changes in typical diapering routines or manufacturing, then a new study would need to be done. 15 years ago, the options weren’t as great as they are now. But that’s exactly my point–this study is based on dated diapering methods, and should not be used to say cloth diapers in 2021 are just as bad for the environment.

It is this study that many people are still referencing when saying that cloth may not be worth people’s time. But I don’t feel (and many cloth diaper users would agree) that their take on the average care for cloth diapers is accurate for modern cloth diapering.

Another important point regarding these studies– not everyone who uses cloth diapers does so to lessen their environmental impact, and that should be considered when analyzing data. If someone IS trying to lessen their environmental impact, they may do some things differently than someone who just wants to cut costs.

What Goes Into Disposable Diapers?

Disposable diapers are made from plastics, wood, chlorine, dyes, adhesives, and fragrances.


The manufacturing of wood pulp uses an awful lot of water, and also requires an incredible amount of trees to be cut down. Keep in mind that for the whole 2-3 years your child is in diapers, you’re looking at an average of 6 disposable diapers per day if you choose to go that route. That is over 5000 diapers used per child that were manufactured and tossed in a landfill. They also take up to 500 years to decompose.

With cloth diapers, you can get by with a modest stash of 25-30 diapers total, and with proper care, you can reuse those diapers for multiple kids. The synthetic materials (TPU or PUL) used in most diaper covers are expected to decompose within 4-5 years (though the goal is to keep them out of the landfill for as long as possible!)

Beyond the materials used in disposable diaper manufacturing and the amount of waste it generates, disposable diapers in landfills emit methane, a greenhouse gas. This has to do with the human waste being thrown out and not dealt with properly.

You will notice that every diaper package says that you should remove solid waste before tossing (in which case, might as well go for cloth then, right? Isn’t that the main perk for choosing disposables?) I have yet to meet one person who removes the waste from a disposable diaper.

It is not healthy for the groundwater supply, and it has a potential impact on global warming to leave waste in the diaper. To be honest, I don’t know how big that impact is. It may be practically nothing. But the world isn’t really in a position to ignore any impact within our control.

None of this is said to shame families that made the choice to use disposables. There are many valid reasons people would choose disposables over cloth, and I support all families choosing what is right for them. There are also brands of disposable diapers out there that work to reduce many of these concerns and have a green reputation.

Other Reasons to Use Cloth


There are several reasons to use cloth diapers beyond reducing a family’s environmental impact. Just because cloth diapers have an environmental impact, too, doesn’t mean they are not worth it (you will be hard pressed to find a way to exist in this world at all that isn’t “bad” for the environment). If cloth diapers are even a little helpful, that makes it worth it to me.

But there are other practical reasons, such as saving money. Serious money can be saved using cloth, and especially if a family is planning on more than one child, those savings are compounded.

Some people are also concerned about the chemicals in the disposable diapers for health reasons, and some babies have allergic reactions to those chemicals.

And some of us just choose cloth because we like them! We find them cute, or we are weird and enjoy the chore.

Not everyone who chooses to use cloth diapers is doing it to save the world. They are doing it because it is what is best for their family.

How Can We Make Cloth Greener?


So now that we know that choosing to use cloth doesn’t automatically reduce our footprint drastically, how can we change that? What if we DO want to reduce our footprint with cloth?

Choosing to do the following things for your cloth routine WILL make cloth a far greener choice. None of these common sense laundry practices or other suggestions were accounted for in studies.

Depending on your washing machine, water quality, etc. you may not be able to follow ALL suggestions. But even doing some makes a big difference.

IMPORTANT: While anyone can give most of these suggestions a try, tread cautiously with suggestions 2-4. Perhaps consider those suggestions something you can mix and match, or try one at a time. You don’t want to cause issues with your wash routine and not know which suggestion may have caused it.

What works to get diapers clean for one family may not work for another. The efficacy of a cloth diaper wash routine depends on several factors, and there are many variables that may impact it. Because of that, you may not be able to do all of these suggestions. That’s okay! Just do what you can do.

  1. Use the CORRECT amount of water.
    • Do not use too much water–not only is that a waste of water, but cloth diapers usually don’t get as clean when the water level is too high. It messes with their agitation.
    • Don’t use too little water, either: Trying to get by using the smallest amount possible will certainly cause your diapers to build up an odor over time and not get as clean, which means you will end up having to do multiple washes to fix the issue. In the end, you’re using more water that way.
    • Use this resource to help you determine how much water you need to wash your diapers.
    • Do not presoak diapers.
  2. Consider a new laundry detergent.
    • I have long recommended Tide Original Powder detergent because as far as getting diapers adequately clean, it’s perfection. However, Tide is not the greenest choice. It has many chemicals that pollute our water. If you want to be as green as possible, you will want to choose a plant-based detergent. NOTE: Do this with caution. See below.
    • Here are some of the highest rated eco-friendly laundry detergents that also work well for cloth diapers. Not all plant-based detergents are strong enough to clean human waste, so it’s important you go for a tried and true option. Start your research with the resource I linked above. Personally, I have used Biokleen with success. Feel free to experiment, but if it isn’t working, a green detergent isn’t the only way to make your diaper wash routine “green.”
    • Remember–no softeners on your diapers! I also avoid softeners on my regular clothes. They really are not needed.

  3. Keep your wash routine simple.
    • As you are developing your wash routine, start with the least amount of steps possible and choose low-key cycle options…within reason. You can probably get by with a low key routine in a regular washing machine, but if you have an HE machine, you will most likely need to use the heavier cycle options.
    • Keep a log of what options you set on your washer, water levels, detergent amounts, etc. If you feel like your routine didn’t quite work, you will have a better idea of what to tweak.
    • I recommend starting with a rinse cycle or light wash with a little detergent, then doing a regular wash with the full amount of recommended detergent. The fact of the matter is that diapers will indeed use more water to wash than clothes. It’s kind of unavoidable because… you know….they’re covered in poop. Some people may need an extra rinse at the end to remove all detergent residue, but not everyone needs that. Do only what you need.
  4. Wash on cold or warm instead of hot.
    • This will save energy. This depends on your detergent as some don’t work as well on cold, but plenty of them do.
    • Many cloth diaper manufacturers recommend washing on hot because you will probably see best results that way. That doesn’t mean cold or warm won’t get your diapers clean. I have washed on cold many times with no issue. THAT SAID, this might not always be the best choice. If you switch to a plant-based detergent as I recommended in step 2, I would probably keep using hot.
  5. Consider a microfiber catcher for your washing machine.
    • Every time we wash our clothes (or diapers made from synthetic materials), microfibers start to break down and get drained out with the water. They are essentially little tiny beads of plastic, and we know how detrimental plastic pollution can be, especially to the ocean.
    • The Cora Ball is a ball designed to be thrown into your washer to catch the loose microfibers and trap them so they don’t pollute the water. Using this with all your laundry is a great idea.
  6. Hang your diapers up to dry instead of using the dryer.
    • This will save considerable energy, and may also help your diapers last longer. Longevity is important if you want to use your diapers with multiple kids.
  7. Consider the TYPE of diaper you are using.
    • All-in-two systems take up far less space, which means you can wash more days of changes at one time. That greatly reduces the amount of laundry you need to do overall. This has potential to cut the water/energy usage DRASTICALLY–maybe even in half!
    • Pockets, all-in-ones, and fitteds may take up the most space. If you want to reduce the amount of laundry you do, maybe consider using less of those types of diapers.
  8. Consider the MATERIAL in your diapers.
  9. Wash your own diapers instead of employing a diaper service.
    • Washing your own diapers will subtract the emissions from the diaper service vehicles from your environmental impact equation.
    • You will have more control over how much water is used and whether or not the dryer is used on the diapers.

If you follow some of the above steps, cloth diapers will certainly have a landslide environmental victory against disposables.


While it’s possible to use cloth diapers in a way that isn’t green, almost all modern cloth diaper usage is much better for the environment than using disposable diapers. If we use some common sense approaches to our laundry routine and are willing to consider some tweaks, we can use cloth diapers in a way that is drastically better for the environment than disposables.