Baby Diapers: Cloth vs. Disposable

While watching National Geographic's "The Human Footprint," I learned that in an average American baby's pre-potty trained years, they will use about 3,000 disposable diapers.

A lot goes into manufacturing disposable diapers and most people know they don't quickly break down in the dump. This raised the question in my mind, what is better cloth or disposable diapers?

As with most issues related to the environment, this is not a simple question to answer.

First, cloth and disposable diapers are changed at different rates by parents. Cloth diapers are changed10 times a day, while disposables are changed 5 times a day. This means each year a child will use about 3,100 - 3,700 cloth diapers or about 1,800 to 2,900 disposables. This is largely true because older children will need several diapers to absorb liquids sufficiently.

In terms of energy units over the course of one year, disposable diapers use less net energy. Disposable diapers burn 6,900 MJ's of energy. The vast majority comes from manufacturing, which requires petroleum products. The rest comes from packaging and shipping. Cloth diapers burn about 9,600 MJ's of energy. Almost all of that comes from the laundering process, which accounts for 8,200 MJ's.

With regard to solid waste (garbage), disposable diapers lose out. Cloth diapers create about 160kg of solid waste, whereas disposable diapers create about 260kg of waste. In terms of volume (the amount of space in the garbage dump), disposable diapers take twice as much space as cloth diapers., filling the dump much faster. Eighteen billion disposable diapers are thrown away every year and they can take up to 500 years to decompose. They represent the third largest source of solid waste in dumps.

In terms of natural resources, the results are mixed. To diaper all the babies in the United States with disposable diapers, 82,000 tons of plastic and 1.3 million tons of wood pulp are required. However, cloth diapers require 50-70 gallons of water every three days. If parents or a diaper service use laundry detergent without phosphates to wash cloth diapers, the output is water free of toxins or pollution. To manufacture disposable diapers, companies put bleach, solvents and dioxins into water. Of course, both cloth and disposable diapers require agricultural products which are not likely organically grown and contribute pesticides and insecticides to the environment.

Some studies have shown that disposable diapers pose a greater rash threat to a baby's skin. In addition to their poor "breathability," disposable diapers also contain several unnatural ingredients that may have long term health effects on your children. Dioxin is a chemical by-product of the paper bleaching process necessary in manufacturing disposable diapers. Dioxin can cause cancer, birth defects, liver damage and skin diseases. Because the chemical is a by-product of the paper bleaching process, its not found in high concentrations in the actual diaper, but may still be present. Sodium polyacrylate is the absorbent gel that keeps the disposable diapers dry. This product has been removed from feminine hygiene products in the past and there are currently no studies that show the effect of long-term exposure to the product on babies.

All of this is a lot of information to absorb. Keep in mind that if you have cloth diapers laundered by an outside service, this decreases the impact of the diapers on the environment significantly. Less water and less energy is used by diaper laundry services.

If I had to make a decision about which diaper to use on my baby, I would fall on the side of using both. Cloth diapers are difficult to manage when you are out and about. They are more feasible during those times when you will be staying close to home. Disposable diapers are very expensive and result in dumps filling faster with products that will not degrade any time soon. My impression is that a careful balance is the best you can do until they learn to use the potty.

1 comment:

  1. can you let me know what is the side effect of deposible dipers.please mail me in inboxsantosh@rediffmail.com