Saturday, October 25, 2008

Studies that make me mad: Disposable vs. Cloth Diapers

There are a few studies out there that I've read about lately that frustrate me. Their conclusions are suspect and they go against much of what I stand for as a parent. I'll be checking back in with more of these as I find them, and we'll get to the bottom of it all!

Today's study is: Cloth Diapers are worse for the environment than Disposables

I have been a cloth diaper user since Lacy was a newborn. I have only used a few packages of disposable diapers because I felt like they were less convenient and worse for the environment. I've often heard critics of cloth say that the washing and drying of cloth diapers add up and make them worse for the earth than disposables. This study seems to validate the critics' conclusions.

Or does it?

Look closely at what they are saying, and you'll see that they leave out a lot of information that is important. Let's tear this apart, shall we?

In the article, it states:
To reduce the impact of cloth nappies on climate change parents would have to hang wet nappies out to dry all year round, keep them for years for use on younger children, and make sure the water in their washing machines does not exceed 60C.
First of all, one of the main reasons I chose cloth diapers was because I could reuse them from child to child. My water heater is set lower than 60C/140F (probably more like 50C/120F). While I don't hang my diapers to dry, I do wash my diapers with other items. That may sound gross, but most parents I know will wash clothing that gets pee, poop and sometimes vomit on them with other items. I also haven't changed a poopy diaper in well over a year, so that factor isn't even in the equation (thanks, EC!). I'm seriously not doing any more laundry than a disposable diaper using mother. So how would my environmental impact be greater than that of 'sposie users?

But I know I'm not typical. Most people will separate their diapers and wash them alone, often on hot, and dry them in the dryer. I think it is fairly typical to save diapers for the next child, or sell them if a family is only going to have one child.

Even with typical cloth diaper use, the environmental impact is still less than that of disposable diapers. Let's talk about the manufacture of both kinds of diapers for a minute, shall we? I found a great, unbiased article on the manufacture of disposable diapers. It talks about all the different chemicals used in disposable diapers, and how the absorbent polymers are actually waste materials from other products, so that's good. It also says, "In diaper production, however, considerable amounts of both non woven material and polymer particles are wasted." In fact, another study showed that disposable diaper's manufacture produced three times as much waste as the manufacture of a cloth diaper. Considering most people only need a couple dozen cloth diapers but babies using disposable diapers go through more than 5000 diaper changes during their diaper-wearing days, the difference is enormous. That same study also showed that disposable diapers produce seven times more solid waste than cloth diapers.

Also not mentioned was the issue of biological waste in our landfills. Most people will not dump the contents of their infants' diapers into the toilets, even though the package clearly instructs caregivers to do so. I don't blame them-- I wouldn't dump out a diaper if I didn't have to, either. But since I had to, I installed a little sprayer to the side of my toilet. This makes it so much easier and less messy than the way my mom had to do it. I remember her dunking my brother's diapers all the time. So gross. Good thing there are alternatives to that out there! The biological waste from my home goes into our septic tank, where it can be emptied and properly treated by waste management companies who are skilled in this type of thing.

Another factor not considered is the transportation issue. For a cloth diaper, raw materials are harvested or manufactured and shipped to companies who make them into fabrics. Those fabrics are sent to wholesale distributors who either sell them directly to diaper manufacturers or to fabric shops/fabric co-ops, who sell to smaller cloth diaper manufacturers. Some of the bigger guys may weave/knit their own fabrics and make them into diapers in the same plant. Those diapers are made and probably packaged in the same plant, and then either shipped to retailers or directly to customers, depending on the type of operation you're talking about (there are literally hundreds if not thousands of cloth diaper manufacturers, many of them moms working out of their homes).

For disposables, the raw materials are harvested or manufactured and transported to a manufacturing plant, where they are made, then packaged probably at the same plant, placed on a pallet and shrink wrapped. These are shipped off to a warehouse somewhere. Then they are loaded again and shipped to a retail store where customers buy them and drive them home in their cars. It doesn't sound like much of a difference, but when you multiply it by 100 packs of diapers, it adds up quickly. Cloth diapering parents only buy diapers a few times.

Personally, I made my own diapers for the most part. I also bought a few items used and a couple from WAHM's (Work At Home Moms). Maybe 5-10 trips to the store or deliveries to me at home for the diapers I have used for my kiddos. I also have the luxury of not having a trash can fill up too quickly, having very little garbage, and only running out of diapers when the power goes out (or mama forgets to start the load... but that never happens around here!).

If you have a baby bum in your house, and you're not already using an alternative to disposable diapers, I encourage you to try out cloth or take the elimination communication plunge. Here's a shop to get you going on the cloth, and no special equipment is really needed to start with EC!

1 comment:

Erin said...

I love to see "new studies" about how environmentally unfriendly cloth diapers are! I suppose if disposable is so much better than washing and reusing cloth then I should start wearing paper and plastic clothes, change 6 times a day and throw them away. There may be more in the landfill but at least I won't have to worry about the how much water or energy was used to produce my cotton clothing or washing them! Think about how much money I would save on laundry detergent! *note the sarcasm*

Jeepers! No matter how you spin it - it just doesn't make any sense how disposable diapers are more environmentally friendly than cloth.