disposable-diapers-vs-cloth-diapers
Green Home, Reducing Waste

Disposable Diapers vs Cloth Diapers – Which Is Actually Greener?

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 studies out there that seem to contradict each other which makes it hard to know for sure sometimes. There is the 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 is hard to know who to trust. Some of these studies are funded by groups with an obvious agenda, such as the disposable diaper companies themselves.

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. I will admit that using cloth diapers is not automatically a greener choice on its own, and some people may have habits that close the gap between cloth and disposables as far as eco-friendliness goes.

If your main motivation for using cloth is to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, then it doesn’t make sense to be frivolous in washing or drying routines or to ignore materials used in the diapers when you make your purchase.

However, some studies done 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 as much CO2 per mile as a large SUV without giving any consideration to what kind of car they drive just because they could have a vehicle that emits that much. It’s not exactly fair (or accurate) to say that all drivers have the same impact when 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 almost 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 decades ago (or more) should not be used to judge how eco-friendly cloth diapers are in 2019.

While it is true that some cloth diaper practices may not be as green as you’d think, with a few eco-friendly tweaks to that routine, YES, using cloth is a greener choice. Here we will 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 required and the amount of electricity they use up.

cotton-in-cloth-diapers

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.

However, many cloth diapers are indeed made from cotton. While it is true that conventional cotton production has room for improvement in its eco-friendliness, organic cotton addresses many of these concerns. It uses no toxic chemicals and up to 71% less water in its production. I’ve even seen stats that claim up to 91% less water! This is due to the fact that organic cotton uses less irrigation than conventional and is 80% 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. So many quality cloth diaper brands produce their diapers with organic cotton, bamboo, hemp, or synthetic materials like microfiber.

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.

Frustrating Assumptions

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 14 years old now, and uses some data that is 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. 14 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 2019 are just as bad for the environment.

While the group who did the study acknowledged the need for further research in some areas and updated research in the future, this is the study that many experts 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.

Of course, many people may still be following old-fashioned routines. However, 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, and fragrances. There are other materials involved, too, like adhesives.

disposable-diapers-made-from-trees

The manufacturing of wood pulp uses an awful lot of water, as well, 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 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, you also need to consider that 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.

This is just said to defend families that choose cloth to try and make a difference but are told they’re oblivious. I don’t believe their efforts are wasted.

Other Reasons to Use Cloth

saving-money-with-cloth-diapers

Remember that there are several reasons to use cloth diapers beyond the desire to reduce a family’s environmental impact. Just because cloth diapers have an environmental impact, too, doesn’t mean they are not worth it. Even a little bit of an advantage (especially in this day and age) makes it worth it to me.

But there are other practical reasons, such as saving money. Serious money can be saved using cloth (though serious money can also be spent if you have a fluff addiction), 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?

eco-friendly-cloth-diapers

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 (such as water hardness). 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 switched to Biokleen because of it’s proven track record to get diapers clean without harsh chemicals. If you have an HE machine, it may be difficult to get the amount of detergent you really need if you go with plant-based. Feel free to experiment, but there are a lot of factors that go into adequately washing diapers, and it may not work out.
    • 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. Some will obviously not be suitable (such as “express wash” or “light wash”–you will definitely need more than that. But I recommend starting with regular options before diving directly into heavier options if you want to make your wash routine as efficient as possible. However, if you have an HE washer, it is probably wise to start directly with the “heavy wash” options because you will need to get a little more water than what the HE will naturally give).
    • 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. I used to recommend an extra rinse at the end to remove all detergent residue (and it still may be needed sometimes), but it very well may not be needed. Many people do not do double rinses at the end. That’s some water savings right there!
  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. Experiment with cold water if you use a more mainstream detergent, but make sure the manufacturer says it works in cold water, too.
  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.

Conclusion

While it’s possible to use cloth diapers in a way that isn’t very green, almost all modern cloth diaper usage is much 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 definitely use cloth diapers in a way that is drastically better for the environment than disposables.

Holly Lee

I'm Holly and I'm the mom of two awesome young boys. We have been cloth diapering for 5 years. My family and I live in Minnesota with our dog, Ruby, and cat, Gherkin. Outside of Rocking the Cloth, I am also a middle school teacher. Thank you for visiting Rocking the Cloth--feel free to email me at holly@rockingthecloth.com if you have any questions or concerns. I'd love to help!

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14 Comments

  1. Cathy Cavarzan says:

    I think when all is said and done at the end of the day is what works best for you. I believe still that cloth diapers are greener and always have been. If for no other reason then the sustainability of using cloth diapers that last. Whereas you are throwing your disposables away daily and where do you think they end up? In our landfills. Are they biodegradable? yes, many are but even that takes time to break down. I say cloth.

    1. Holly Lee says:

      I agree, Cathy! I think each family needs to do what works for them. We all have different goals, motivations, desires…at the end of the day, we all make the choices that make the most sense to us.

  2. stefan says:

    Of course, I agree with you that using cloth diapers is the way to go. Just think how it would be if we were using disposable underwear and socks just because it is a bit inconvenient to wash them.

    I totally loved using cloth diapers when our girl was very small, I also prewashed them before putting in the machine.

    In today’s world, I think we can’t afford to produce this amount of waste anymore and should consider using reusable products as often as possible.

    1. Holly Lee says:

      I agree, Stefan! Love your examples. Another example is using disposable plates and utensils on a daily basis…no expert would recommend doing that, but then they seem to think it’s a draw when it comes to cloth. But hey, if we eat off a paper plate, we can save water! Lol. And at least paper will decompose! But yet we still agree reusable dishes are better. It just strikes me funny that it’s much more debatable when it involves poop. 😉

  3. Agobr says:

    I personally don’t recommend the use of disposable diapers as well this is because they have bad effects on the environment and are costly to use too. I also think one of the reason most people use these disposable diapers is due to the fact that it is less time consuming and requires no washing as well. just like you said a child can use up to six diapers in a day or even more this makes it more expensive to use than the cloth diapers. 

    I want to say thank you for this wonderful educational write up this will go a long way to help educate the people on the best type of diapers to use.

    1. Holly Lee says:

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  4. zuchii says:

    From all indications cloth diapers are greener than the disposable alternative. Have you ever thought of the millions of waste generated every day from disposable diapers? how are they been disposed of what is the impact our environment? answers to this question Would help us rethink our strategy and consider the good old ways of dealing with babies waste.

  5. Steve says:

    My wife and I have used both cloth and disposable, so we have seen the advantages and disadvantages of both. We really enjoyed using the cloth diapers, except because we rent, the landlord was possibly going to raise the rent because his water bill went up a good deal, which led to us stopping. However, we have always said that if we had another child and were in our own house, we would absolutely use them again. Thanks for writing this really great article!

    As a side note, I NEVER knew you were supposed to empty the waste from the disposable first! Holy cow!

    1. Holly Lee says:

      Hi Steve! That’s too bad about the water bill. Most of the time, it’s only about 2 loads of laundry a week and that’s too bad he would nickel and dime you over two loads of laundry. Oh well.

      Glad you enjoyed the article!

  6. We have tried both options cloth and disposable nappies and we have 4 kids.  We would have stuck with the cloth nappies over disposable but our kids kept getting bad rashes from the nappies which made it very hard to stick with.  Also the added time it takes to wash all your nappies on top of all the other chores, cleaning, school drop-offs, office work, it all just gets too much.

    I think most people are always going to use disposable because they are so convenient, just rip one off and throw one back on your away.  Humans are just lazy and will always take the shortest route and that’s where cloth nappies lose I’m afraid.

    In my opinion, someone needs to invent a better product that captures the mess and then you can easily just rinse and replace.  I think most people would go for this option if it weren’t so much work and you didn’t need to take them apart separate them, wash them, then dry them etc. 

    This is an interesting topic that needs to be looked at deeper, there must be a better solution to nappies, maybe no nappies, we just go back in time!

    1. Holly Lee says:

      That’s too bad you guys were getting rashes! Too late to troubleshoot now, but that usually happens when the diapers aren’t getting clean enough, or it could have been the diaper covers; we use PUL and TPU nowadays for waterproof covers most of the time, but back before that was more common and people were using vinyl or rubber pants, rashes were more common because of the lack of airflow those allowed. Thankfully PUL and TPU are much better.

      There are so many advances in the cloth diapering world now. As for “rinse and replace” you might be interested in all in two cloth diapers. Here is another post about low-maintenance cloth diapers.

      Hope you found this helpful. Have a great day!

  7. Hi Holly

    You have written a very in-depth look at the diaper debate. I am old enough to say mom used cloth diapers when I was growing up on the brothers and sisters because it was all we had. I have always thought it was more eco friendly than it is, thanks to your educating me. I do know it does save money for sure using cloth diapers.

    I did not know that all those micro-fibers were being released by our washers, so I will be getting a Cora Ball for sure! I would like to know something, you say not to presoak diapers, so are you saying we should just rinse the diaper, and put it into a storage pail without water? I was wondering if that would get quite stinky doing that? 

    Thank you for all the information on diapers, it was very enlightening for me!

    Chas

    1. Holly Lee says:

      Hi Chas! Glad you enjoyed the article. I do think cloth diapers are overall more environmentally friendly, but the way we use and care for them does matter more than some might think, so it’s important to make sure we are conscientious about those areas, too!

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