There are many considerations. These include the energy involved and the air,
water and solid waste pollution that is generated when the raw materials are
created or extracted and when the products are manufactured. Also to be
accounted for are the environmental harm that might occur during the
distribution and use of the products, as well as the waste that enters the
environment following their use.
Disposables use more natural resources to manufacture (including 250,000
trees a year in the U.S. alone) and take up room in landfills when discarded. On
the other hand, the reusable diaper consumes energy, water and detergents every
time it is laundered.
Analyzing all of this involves conducting a lifecycle assessment, which is a
complicated and imperfect process. It also involves measuring, monetizing and
comparing things that we’re not used to judging, including the relative
significance of the problems created.
As you sort through the research that has been conducted on diapers, you’ll
find confusing and often conflicting information. That’s because most of the
available lifecycle assessments have been sponsored by industry.
For instance, a lifecycle study was conducted for Procter & Gamble (which
manufacturers Pampers and claims to have invented disposable diapers) by the
Arthur D. Little, Inc. consulting firm in 1990. It found that home laundered
diapers use twice as much energy as disposables. Not so, said Carl Lehrburger,
Jocelyn Mullen and C.V. Jones, who authored another lifecycle analysis in 1991.
They found that disposables consume seventy percent more energy than the average
reusable diaper per diaper change. That study was conducted for the National
Association of Diaper Services.
The Arthur D. Little study used information provided by Procter & Gamble,
rather than independent data. It also failed to account for the water used in
flushing away fecal material from disposables, which is a practice recommended
by Proctor & Gamble and other manufacturers on their diaper labels. Moreover, it
was criticized by the Washington-based Center for Policy Alternatives for a math
error that made disposables appear cheaper than they were. Nevertheless, P & G
hired the huge Burson-Marsteller PR firm to pitch its pro-disposable message to
the public and to the U.S. government.
Meanwhile, in the U.K., the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) hired an
independent agency, the Landbank Consultancy, to review and evaluate the data in
the Little study and another industry-funded German study. Published in 1991,
the Landbank Report found that, compared to cloth diapers, disposables use
twenty times more raw materials, three times more energy and twice as much
water, and generate sixty times more waste. It also found that disposables
require between four and thirty times as much land for growing component
materials as do cloth diapers.
Using the Landbank Report, WEN and its U.S. branch successfully challenged
the disposable diaper industry’s deceptive advertising claims of environmental
and health outcomes.
Also in the early 90s, the Canadian government commissioned a study that
concluded reusable diapers were environmentally preferable to disposables and
its Environmental Choice Program gave its eco logo to cloth diapers and diaper
services. A later Canadian review by Marbek Resource Consultants of the same
studies the Landbank Consultancy examined reached similar conclusions. The
Marbek review also noted that studies which omit transportation tend to favor
disposables, because they don’t consider the impacts of transporting both raw
materials and finished products, nor the energy used to shop for disposables.
In October 2008, An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and
reusable nappies by the U.K. Environment Agency and Department for Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs stated that reusable diapers can cause significantly less
or more damage to the environment than disposable ones, depending mostly on how
parents wash and dry them. The “baseline scenario” showed that the difference in
greenhouse emissions was insignificant. (In fact, disposables even scored
slightly better, although critics say that finding is incorrect due to faulty
methodology, including unequal sample sizes). However, much better results were
achieved with tweaking one’s use of reusable diapers, especially in relation to
laundering. Washing them in full loads, line-drying them outdoors all the time
and reusing them on a second child lowered the global warming impact by forty
percent from the baseline scenario, or some two hundred kilograms (four hundred
and forty pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalents over the two-and-a-half years of
usage, equal to driving a car approximately one thousand kilometers (six hundred
and twenty miles).
There are other environmental concerns with diapers of both types. According
to the Pesticide Action Network, cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in
the world, immediately affecting the health of farm workers and adding to the
overall environmental chemical burden. Chlorine bleaching of the paper for
disposable diapers and the cotton for conventional cloth diapers creates dioxin,
a persistent toxin that can cause cancer and other health problems. Some
countries have banned chlorine bleaching from the manufacture of disposable
diapers and some companies have independently decided not to use it.
According to a 2000 study by Greenpeace International, most brands of
disposable diapers contain Tributyltin (TBT) – a toxic pollutant known to cause
hormonal problems in humans and animals. It began to push for a world-wide ban
on it and other similar chemicals.
One of the criticisms of cloth diapers involves the amount of water used to
wash them. It has been estimated that laundering diapers from birth to
toilet-training in a high efficiency front- loading washer will use
approximately ten thousand gallons of water. To put that number into
perspective, over the same time period, a faucet dripping once per second would
waste almost six thousand gallons of water and the average toilet flushing five
times a day would use over twenty thousand gallons. Watering the average lawn
uses twenty thousands gallons each year. So the extra water usage at home could
easily be alleviated by fixing that drippy tap, taking shorter showers or
planting more water-efficient landscaping (all good water conservation practices
at any rate).
Another consideration is that the wastewater from washing cloth diapers is
relatively benign, while the waste water from the pulp, paper and plastics
industries can contain solvents, sludge, heavy metals, unreacted polymers,
dioxins and furans.
There is some controversy about the amount of water and bleach used by diaper
services. However, a 1993 lifecycle assessment of disposable and cloth diapers
conducted by the University of British Columbia found that diaper services use
thirty-two percent less energy than home washing (nineteen percent less than
disposables) and forty-one percent less water. The Marbek study came to the same
conclusion, also noting that the energy advantage is increased the more local
Finally, so-called “disposable” diapers are not actually disposable at all.
The estimated twenty-seven billion disposable diapers used each year in the U.S.
results in millions of tons of used diapers added to landfills each year. And
there they sit, parcels of plastic full of human waste that partially and slowly
decompose over centuries. New “biodegradable” brands are only slightly better
because nothing will degrade locked in plastic garbage bags piled tightly in
Some jurisdictions incinerate their waste, and there have been some expensive
and unsuccessful attempts to compost single-use diapers. The problems with and
cost of disposing of single-use diapers is so high that some governments
subsidize families to help cover the cost of buying and laundering cloth
So it appears that while both cloth and disposable diapers have an impact on
our environment in the ways they are made, transported, disposed of and/or
laundered, the damage from cloth diapers is smaller than that of disposable
diapers. And there is a third, even greener alternative, called Elimination Communication,
which uses no diapers at all!
Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life
Magazine's editor, a journalist with over 35 years of experience and the author of twelve books.