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  • Writer's pictureRCH

Cloth Diapers VS Disposable Diapers

There’s no denying that your new bundle of joy is bound to make a lot of mess, but it’s how you choose to contain it that can have a big impact on the health of your baby, the planet, your wallet, and your lifestyle.

Taking care of your baby is just as important as taking care of the environment that they’re going to grow up in! But it can be confusing trying to navigate the various diaper and baby wipe options available. It’s also important to choose eco-friendly diapers that are going to fit in with your budget and lifestyle.

Cotton or cellulose fluff, cost savings or convenience, laundry or landfill: For some new parents, choosing between using cloth or disposable diapers can feel like a big decision. How do you know which kind of diaper will work best for your family?

Advocates for both cloth and disposable diapers make strident and often conflicting claims about the benefits and drawbacks of each. Depending on who you listen to, you may hear that either disposable or cloth diapers are the cheaper, healthier, more ecological, more convenient, and/or more enlightened way to care for your baby.

Environmental impact

The environmental impact that this new person will have on the world weighs heavily on some soon-to-be parents. One of the more commonly reported reasons parents consider cloth diapers is that they’re more environmentally friendly than disposables, or are believed to be. There’s no question that disposable diapers create more landfill waste: a baby is likely to go through between 5,000 and 6,000 disposable diapers before becoming potty trained. A 2014 Environmental Protection Agency report found that disposable diapers account for 7 percent of nondurable household waste in landfills. Except in very limited cases, disposable diapers (regardless of what they claim) won’t compost or biodegrade in a landfill.

But those bad old disposable diapers may be better than the allegedly green alternatives.

Although there is a growing market for all-in-one reusable diapers made from synthetics, most cloth diapers are still cotton prefolds — rectangles of fabric that fit into waterproof liners. And as a crop and a fabric, cotton undermines its own reputation as safe and green. Safety, a concern raised for some by chemicals and dyes in disposables, is in the eye of the beholder; cotton production is so chemical-intensive that it has been directly linked to poor health outcomes among producers.

As for environmental friendliness, the data on cotton is damning. And if “better for the planet” includes notions of what’s better for its inhabitants, there is a social dimension of cotton diapers that is unequivocally more harmful than disposables. Cotton fertilizers are major greenhouse gas emitters, and trucking cotton from farms to industrial gins, spinners and weavers generates transportation emissions, compounded by repeated energy-intensive heating and cooling processes.

However, the carbon footprint of prefolds, estimated at 570 kg of CO2 equivalent over 2 1/2 years in laundering alone, outweighs that of disposables, at 550 kg of CO2 equivalent.

people were also concerned about water usage in laundering cloth diapers, but with cotton, the water inputs add up before they’re ever washed. Cotton is an extremely thirsty crop. Although roughly 30 cloth diapers serve the function of 4,000 disposables, cloth’s water demands are almost nine times the alternative. Thirty cloth diapers draw an estimated 1,221 cubic meters of water in crop irrigation, processing, weaving, manufacturing and 2 1 / 2 years of washings. Meanwhile, the water used to manufacture those 4,000 disposables comes in at a comparatively modest 141 cubic meters.

Then there’s the water that cotton pollutes, as one of the world’s most pesticide-heavy crops. In India, cotton covers 5 percent of cropland, but it’s doused with 54 percent of the nation’s annual pesticide use. These pesticides seep into the groundwater and eventually make it back to consumers — in their tea, soda and drinking water...

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