With Earth Day fast approaching, I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to write a piece about the environmental impacts of cloth diapers versus disposables. It is really hard to talk about environmental issues without sounding like I go and chain myself to trees in my spare time, but I will do my best! I am not a hard core environmental advocate, but I am a normal (well, normal-ish) person who just wants to do their part to keep our planet nice.
I often hear the argument that disposables are more earth friendly because of the laundry necessary to cloth diaper. This to me is the same as arguing that using Styrofoam plates is more environmentally friendly than washing the dishes! For some reason, it would be obviously wasteful to use disposable dishes all the time, but disposable diapers have become the norm in our society. So, let’s take a look together of what the real impacts of both are, and you can make up your own mind.
1) Resource consumption: It takes almost 1 cup of crude oil to make the plastic in just ONE diaper. That is a phenomenal amount of oil used just to catch poop. We all know that oil is a non-renewable resource that we are really dependent on, so let’s ignore that for a second. There are still the environmental effects of oil extraction and refinement, and the devastating effect of oil spills during transportation to think about.
What about the rest of the diaper? A good bit of the absorbency in disposables is provided by wood pulp. A lot of wood pulp: approximately 4.5 trees per baby in diapers per year. Doing a little highly accurate math, if we multiply the number of babies in disposables by 4.5 trees, we get a whole lot of trees! Yes, forests are technically a renewable resource, but we aren’t planting them nearly as fast as we are using them, and it is impossible to replace complex, ancient forest ecosystems in a short period of time.
Cloth diapers are made using easily renewable materials like cotton, bamboo and hemp. They also use a lot less resources overall, as there is a lot less of them to make! A baby will need 5000-7000 diaper changes before potty training. If you had a stack of 5000 diapers, it would be a lot taller than a stack of 24 cloth diapers, right?
2) Water consumption: This may come as a shocker, but disposable diapers use 47% MORE water than cloth, even including all the laundry. More? But how? Think of all of the processing that needs to happen in order to make those disposable diapers in the first place. For example, the wood pulp needs to be processed, which uses large amounts of water. All of this processing uses many different chemicals, which ends up polluting this water.
3) Energy use: Energy use is a concern to most of us, especially considering the current hydro prices! We are much more aware of the energy that we use in our homes, because we are the ones writing the painful cheques to the power companies. So it makes sense that disposables seem like they use less energy, because they have absolutely no effect on your bills. However, it takes huge amounts of energy to create all of these diapers and transport them to the stores, whether we notice it or not.
Cloth diapers also give us a lot more control over how much energy we use. In our house, we have a high efficiency washing machine which uses a surprisingly small amount of electricity, and we dry our diapers on the line the majority of the time. Our energy costs have not changed at all even with two kids in diapers.
4) Garbage: Oh, the garbage. This is a pretty obvious one, but disposable diapers create a lot more garbage than cloth; about a tonne more. That is a huge pile of garbage! Do this for me: close your eyes (then open them when you realize you can’t read with your eyes closed) and picture your favourite outdoor place – a park, field, golf course, whatever. Then picture it with a 25 foot tall pile of garbage in the middle of it. It kind of takes away from the scenery, right? It is easy to forget about the waste we create when it is kindly whisked away to an unseen landfill, but it is still there, and will still be there in 250-500 years. Yuck!
Everything we do has an impact on our planet. While you are reading this, you are using electricity to power your device and breathing out carbon dioxide. The key is to minimize our impact, and I believe that choosing cloth diapers is a great way to do this.