The hashtag #clothdiapers boasts over 188 million views on TikTok, suggesting that a growing number of young parents are saying goodbye to landfill-bound disposable diapers, and embracing the reusable, eco-friendly cloth alternative.
And while cloth diapers also take a toll on the environment — given the water and energy required to wash and dry them, as well as the cotton production required to manufacture them — the evidence is that parents can be sure that disposable diapers are the less sustainable option.
That’s not to say that parents who choose disposable diapers should be painted as mustachioed villains in the fight against global warming. Parents are all probably doing their best, as they make the choices that best serve their families, budgets and schedules. For some, that requires choosing disposable diapers.
But for those parents who are opting for reusable cloth diapers, environmental experts seem to agree that our already over-taxed landfills — which burp up over 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in methane every year — will appreciate the switch.
What are the environmental disadvantages of disposable diapers?
With a steady increase in the solid waste being produced, and landfills around the country quickly reaching their capacity, the U.S. is spiraling towards a huge garbage problem.
A single baby produces 8 to 10 dirty diapers in just one day — over 2,200 in the first year of life — and more than 3.6 million babies were born in the U.S. in 2021. The math quickly becomes a little terrifying.
Some single-use disposable diapers claim to be environmentally safe, but the very nature of such diapers makes that an impossibility.
“Even though marketed as eco-friendly and biodegradable, many disposable diapers have one secret ingredient, making them just the opposite. And that’s the superabsorbent polymers,” the founder and Chief Editor of EnviroMom, Sylvia Borges, told In The Know by Yahoo.
“It’s the kind of stuff that’s mixed with cellulose pulp that allows the diapers to keep the liquids. And polymers aren’t the eco-friendliest material in the world. They aren’t even recyclable!”
Because diapers don’t break down, it’s estimated that they will sit in our landfills for over 500 years, where they will help to produce lethal gases and toxins.
And these polymers aren’t just bad for the environment; they’re bad for little ones’ skin as well.
“Polymers are a type of compounds baby skin doesn’t like. Often they create rashes. It’s a breeding ground for many bacteria and infections,” Borges explained.
What are the environmental advantages of cloth diapers?
If families are able to use more energy-efficient washers, as well as cleaner soaps and power sources — choices that would benefit our planet regardless — making the switch to cloth diapering can have a positive impact on the environment.
Despite being washed an estimated 146 times in one year, a single cloth diaper should be able to survive for years — not only saving trash from entering our landfills, but saving parents a ton of money as well.
“Besides [creating] a huge reduction in your carbon footprint, cloth diapers are also an enormous money saver,” said Borges. “At the start, you’ll have to buy several cloth diapers. As time passes, that investment starts to pay off, since cotton lasts far longer than disposable diapers.”
Because reusable diapers are generally made of cotton and other organic materials, if they ever do need to be disposed of, they are fully recyclable and degradable.
This means that they are also free of chemicals, fragrances and other irritants that are found in disposable diapers.
What challenges might cloth diapers pose to parents?
When compared to their single-use cousins, cloth diapers certainly come with a fair amount of challenges. There’s no disputing the incredible ease and convenience of disposable diapers — qualities that can be essential to busy families.
“Cloth diapering is much more labor-intensive. It’s more washing, more time-consuming, and, if done improperly, can be unsanitary,” a certified doula and founder of Supported Season, Ashley Blankenship, told In The Know by Yahoo.
Reusable cloth diapers consume more than just more time; they also consume more money — at least upfront.
According to Nancy Arulraj of All Natural Mothering, “The biggest challenge for some families could be the initial investment to start cloth diapering. Depending on the type of cloth diapers you choose, it could cost anywhere between a few hundred to even a thousand dollars to get started.”
As Arulraj explained to In The Know, it’s generally recommended that families begin with 24 to 30 cloth diapers in their stash.
However, buying used cloth diapers — which, if properly prepared and disinfected, do not pose a sanitary concern — is a budget-friendly option for parents, and there are many resources available online to help families learn how to make the process less labor-intensive.
Do parents have to commit 100% to cloth diapers?
Becoming more eco-friendly doesn’t require huge, sweeping changes. In fact, if every household committed to making small, everyday, inexpensive swaps, our planet would no doubt feel the benefits.
“There are definitely options for parents who want to use a combination of disposable and cloth diapers,” said Arulraj. “Some parents might choose to use disposable at day care and cloth when they are home. Or maybe you only want to use disposable while on vacation.”
Arulraj continued, “I am a big advocate for cloth diapers, but there are a lot of times I switched to disposable diapers with my kids. I have used disposable diapers when my kids were sick, when we travel, or simply because I didn’t feel like it. And, that’s totally OK! The best part is that there are no rules when it comes to cloth diapering. You can do what works for you and your family. Do what feels comfortable and makes your life a bit easier.”
In parenting, most families know that it’s all about compromise, and it’s rarely all or nothing. A hybrid approach to sustainability could be the best option for many parents.
If we all commit to making small steps, our actions can lead to big changes — something future generations will no doubt thank us for.
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