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Which are greener: cloth or single-use diapers?

Ask Natural Life:
Which are Greener: Cloth or Single-Use Diapers?
by Wendy Priesnitz

Q: My husband has calculated that our new baby could use over 6,000 diapers before she’s toilet-trained. I have a hunch that it’s not as obvious as it might seem whether cloth or disposables are better from an environmental perspective. What do you think?

A: Intuitively, reusable diapers (or “nappies” as they’re called in some countries) would seem like the best choice. But you’re right that it’s not a straightforward issue.

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.

Related Article

Diaper-Free: Elimination Communication
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.

Water Use

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 the service.

Solid Waste

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 landfills.

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 diapers.

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 40 years of experience and the author of 13 books.


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