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Friday, October 24, 2008

Cloth diapers may not be as environmentally friendly as we've been led to think + a lesson on misleading reporting

I came across this British news article that says a new government study has shown that cloth diapers are more damaging to the environment than disposable diapers unless parents practice certain measures, like always line-drying the diapers, using them "for years" on multiple children, and not using excessively hot water in the washer.

I was suspicious of the article, though. They seemed to be saying the water temperature in the washer shouldn't exceed 60 degrees Celsius, which is 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Consumers in the U.S., at least, have been told for years to set their hot water heater to 120 degrees for both safety and environmental reasons, so I'm not sure how many people would actually be using excessively hot water in the washer.

But what really confused me was the end of the article, which offers a comparison in which the cloth diapers were "washed at 90C." If "90C" is 90 degrees Celsius, then it converts to 194 degrees Fahrenheit, which seems absurdly high. And that made me think I just wasn't understanding something fundamental.

So I managed to find a direct link to the British government study (pdf). Skipping ahead to the "Conclusion" section on page 21, I found that the true conclusion of the study is that the global warming impact of the "average" use of both types of diapers results in a difference of only 20kg of carbon dioxide equivalents over the course of two and a half years. The disposable diapers come in at 550 kg, while cloth diapers come in at 570 kg.

The report makes the obvious observation that how the cloth diapers are washed dramatically affects their global warming impact. Washing them in fuller loads, line-drying them, and reusing the diapers on a second child reduced their global warming impact to 370 kg in two and a half years. Conversely, tumble-drying cloth diapers increases the global warming impact to over 800 kg.

So what's the bottom line? Cloth diapers aren't always the environmentally friendly choice. And while I haven't done the math, my guess is that, depending on your shopping and laundry habits, it may not always be the most budget friendly choice either. (Neither disposable diapers nor laundry detergent - especially the dye and fragrance free kind, which are recommended for babies - are inexpensive.) On the other hand, if you use the cloth diapers on multiple children, wash as few loads as possible, and line-dry the diapers, you'll probably save both money and energy.

But if you're on the fence about what kind of diaper to use, I'm not sure this is a decision you can make ahead of time. In addition to the factors mentioned above, there are some things you just can't know until after the baby is born. Your child may end up having extremely sensitive skin such that cloth diapers are infinitely more comfortable for him. Or your child may turn out to be so colicky that you don't have the time or energy to line-dry and fold cloth diapers.

One final note about an interesting aspect to this study: according to the article (which, as we've established isn't entirely reliable), British government officials have tried to bury the report. I'm not quite sure why, except to guess that someone high up expected the report to show that cloth diapers are far better for the environment, and is crushed that that wasn't the conclusion.

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  • At 10/24/08, 11:36 AM, Blogger Linds said…

    Something to note here is that in the UK, most of the washing machines are cold fill only.The machine heats the water to the required temp. This would impact the energy required, or make it very different to the machines in the States if they use hot water from the boiler.

  • At 10/24/08, 12:02 PM, Blogger Dedicated said…

    I used cloth diapers for all my kids. Some from the first child, made it to the last. Not all. I stayed away from disposable, except when going somewhere. Which saved me a ton of money. I never used fabric softener and dried them partially after hanging for a while. Like towels, they held a lot of water and dampness, this lowered the drying cost.

    I find that article be wrong. Cloth will disappear in a dump - I hear disposable diapers will be here 1000 + years from now. And if I remember correctly is one of the largest single items contributing to our dumps.

    I guess it is a personal choice. And maybe I am a little old fashioned. I breast fed too. If I had it to do all over again - I would take the same path. I would just enjoy it more.

  • At 10/24/08, 12:08 PM, Anonymous Jennifer said…

    This strikes me as a very irresponsible report on the matter. Cloth diapers have many many benefits over disposable beyond their environmental impact. There are studies that link a variety of health problems, including asthma, to disposable diapers. Diaper rash is more common with the use of disposables. And children in cloth diapers potty train earlier. Those are only a few. To lessen the impact envoronmentally, you can also buy them second hand or buy them from a seamstress who makes them herself - or if you sew, make your own. I don't know whether that study included the impact of all those disposable wipes, but those add up pretty fast, whereas 20-30 good quality reusable cloth wipes would last as long as the diapers do, likely through several babies.

  • At 10/24/08, 1:59 PM, Blogger adrienne said…

    I'm not quite sure why, except to guess that someone high up expected the report to show that cloth diapers are far better for the environment, and is crushed that that wasn't the conclusion.

    According to an article in Parents "Man of the Cloth," at the time this study was released the British government was sponsoring a large cloth diapering campaign.

    It looks like the difference between cloth and disposable has more to do with how much material ultimately ends up in the solid waste stream (landfills, not #2). If you buy disposables (as I do), you're putting far more diapers into the waste stream.

    It's very important to note however that nothing biodegrades in modern landfills which are anaerobic. If you put in an egg salad sandwich today, and dig it up in 20 years, it will still look relatively the same because we force out all the air. That totally stunts the decomposition process even in very perishable items.

    Disposable diapers can be composted or repurposed for extended reuse, but they don't degrade in landfills.

    Similarly gimmicky new ideas like the g-diaper are still contributing to the solid waste stream. Just because you flush something doesn't make it become water. The g-diaper inserts go through the sewers to a treatment plant where the fibers are skimmed off (with tampons and other solids), after some treatment these solids ultimately end up in some type of landfill.

    I think cloth diapers may be the most sound choice for a lot of families and the planet, but there are a lot of flawed arguments regularly used to support the practice.

  • At 10/25/08, 6:31 PM, Anonymous Erin said…

    I love to see "new studies" about how environmentally unfriendly cloth diapers are! I suppose if disposable is so much better than washing and reusing cloth then I should start wearing paper and plastic clothes, change 6 times a day and throw them away. There may be more in the landfill but at least I won't have to worry about the how much water or energy was used to produce my cotton clothing or washing them! Think about how much money I would save on laundry detergent! *note the sarcasm*

    Jeepers! No matter how you spin it - it just doesn't make any sense how disposable diapers are more environmentally friendly than cloth.


  • At 10/26/08, 3:46 PM, Blogger dragonfly said…

    Here's another idea - buy the cloth diapers used! I've bought all my daughters diapers used and they have been totally great. And far, far cheaper (like 50%) than buying new! Plus, with cloth diapers you use far less detergent than you normally would. Additionally, the box of detergent I bought (which is rated number one for use with cloth diapers) was about 5 dollars for the box, I use about a tablespoon a load, I have a front loader that uses less water, and the detergent box will probably last me 2 years, I'm not even kidding. And I always hang to dry! They help lengthen the life of the diapers.

  • At 10/26/08, 6:01 PM, Blogger Clean ClutterFree Simple said…

    You know, I just don't buy this. When you use cloth, you can use them for multiple kids. And they're not going into the landfill. A disposable diaper, unless it's one of the rare and pricey compostible kinds, is FOREVER. My cloth dipes were used on my two kids, and two friends' kids AND I bought most of them used. That's saving resources, no matter what the study says.

  • At 10/29/08, 11:24 AM, Anonymous That One Caveman said…

    If and when we decide to go to cloth diapers, it won't be because of the environment. What matters most to me is my children's comfort and the cost. If we can make them more comfortable and save money with homemade cloth diapers, I think it will be a much better way to go.

  • At 11/25/09, 12:49 PM, Blogger Gretchen R said…

    I disagree with this study on so many levels. First off, cloth diapers that I have used don't leak as much as disposables. Last time we were on a trip, and were using disposables, my baby had 3 blowouts up the back. That's 3 sets of clothes in one day. We couldn't wait to get him back into cloth.

    I agree with what someone said that the benefits of cloth go far beyond environmental. Anyone who says disposables are cheaper are clearly not crunching the numbers right. We've saved thousands--it's not even a comparison. We spent $50 a month of diapers for 2 kids. When we switched to cloth, we spent $300 and were done with buying diapers. Sure, it was 6 months worth of disposables, but those diapers have lasted us 2 years. The cost of washing/care with 2 in diapers has added up to $10 a month.

    Plus, you can get cloth diapers no that are so cute and easy, it makes disposables seem ugly and smelly. Seriously. After cloth diapering my 3 kids, I can't stand the smell of a disposable diaper.


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