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Cloth vs. Disposable: The Environment is Indifferent

By Jacinda |

Are Cloth diapers better for the environment?

Cloth diapers certainly are cuter, aren't they?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m “team disposable.” I’m just too lazy for cloth. Even packing them up for someone else to wash is a burden I cannot bear. I’m lame, I know. So you can imagine my delight when my husband started reading aloud from this article in the Dallas Morning News. The article begins with a bit of background about the history of disposables and how they were slow to catch on in the late 50′s before becoming the standard by the 70′s. But that now, as we know, cloth diapers are making a resurgence, especially in notoriously “green” markets. It then goes on to say…

Today, saving the environment — and keeping anything that isn’t “green!” away from baby — is driving interest in reusables. The green question is especially vexing as both sides bandy scientific studies involving so many variables that the Natural Resources Defense Council considers the issue a wash when it comes to disposables in a landfill versus reusables in the laundry.

“We don’t recommend one over another,” said Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the environmental action group and director of its solid waste project.“A compelling argument for getting rid of disposable diapers absolutely does not exist. It’s a personal choice, but it really can’t be made on environmental grounds. There are costs both ways,” he said…

There are a lot of “what abouts” in the cloth versus disposable debate. There’s the cotton, pulp, petrol and industrial agricultural complexes to contend with on both sides. And what about the landfills, a subject that comes up a lot.

Disposable diapers, according to Hershkowitz, comprise about 1.5 percent of all municipal waste generated in the United States, and municipal waste makes up about 2 percent of all waste from all sources. As someone who cares, he’s been looking for answers to the diaper dilemma for decades, “and there’s just no clear position to take. I wish it was that easy, but it’s not.”

There are other reasons to use cloth, including long-term savings, avoiding disposable diaper chemicals, and all the cute color options. But I have to confess, this news warms my cold, black, disposable-diaper-loving heart. One less reason for this mama to beat herself up.

Is “the environment” your main reason for using cloth? Does this make you consider switching to disposables or have you fallen in love with cloth for other reasons?

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About Jacinda

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Jacinda

Jacinda Boneau is a fabric designer and founding partner of Prudent Baby, the premier DIY destination for crafty moms seeking ways to make their lives even more stylish and beautiful. She can also be found on Take 10 with Jaime and Jacinda and contributing to Babble Home. Read bio and latest posts → Read Jacinda Cannon's latest posts →

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37 thoughts on “Cloth vs. Disposable: The Environment is Indifferent

  1. Meagan says:

    We’re doing cloth for two main reasons: cost (we’re using a service but we will still save a bit) and training… I’ve heard when the time comes it’s way easier to potty train a kid in cloth because disposables are just TOO comfy and they take away any incentive the child has to learn to use the toilet. We’ll see.

  2. Allison says:

    The primary reason we use cloth (more specifically plain old Indian prefolds with affordable prorap covers) is the savings. I currently am potty training an almost-3-year-old and have a 3 month old baby and would honestly be spending close to 35 bucks a week if I were using my favorite disposable brand. I am always a little suspicious as to who sponsors these “studies”, but depending on the type of cloth diapers you use and how savvy you are about your washing I could see it being a wash in terms of ENERGY consumption. However, I like knowing that my children won’t leave a lasting legacy of thousands of diapers sitting in a landfill for hundreds of years, but that’s just me.

  3. Traci says:

    I’m not completely one-sided in this debate. We used cloth full-time for 8 months with our oldest son and then switched to disposables. Our new baby that’s coming will probably be part-time cloth, part-time disposables. I have fallen in love with both. I love the cuteness and money savings that cloth gives but I also love the convenience of disposables. I hate to say it but environmental reasons aren’t on our list of either.

  4. Amy says:

    We are cloth diapering also for the HUGE savings in the overall cost. Some people have said I spend money washing them, but I disagree. I spend more throwing them away. We pay for trash pick up and it’s based on the amount you toss. Those things take up a lot of room in the trash. Not to mention I can’t stand wiping the gel leftover stuff off my baby. What is that gel stuff that comes out of the diaper? I’m not talking about the “cheap” diapers either. I must agree with Allison about the research and who is conducting it. Could you imagine how much money would be lost in the disposable diaper industry if cloth diapers were found to be “better”.

  5. Lindsay says:

    I’m doing cloth, but not for the environmental reasons I’m doing it because I’m dang cheap. My son is 1, and I’ve spent about $400 on reusable diapers for him – a lot of that on extras because he’s had some rash issues (unrelated to the diapers) and I needed something thinner to allow air-flow. You could reasonably diaper a baby (or 2 or 3) for less than $150. My diaper budget with my first was $50 a month for diapers and wipes, so I am pretty happy with the fact that with my son, I’ve only spent 8 months worth of diaper budget for his entire diapering career.
    The other benefits are just a bonus. I wash my dipes 2-3 times per week, and it’s really not much work at all. In fact, the hardest part for me is just getting the dang things put away, and not using them out of the basket. But I had the same problem putting disposables away from the package, so that’s a wash too…

  6. Jess says:

    I used cloth only because my son had a bleeding rash that even prescription creams couldn’t help, but cloth did. He was only cloth diapers for about 4 months, and I used dreameze all in ones. They weren’t too bad to use when e was only nursing, but life got gross when he started eating solid foods. And now he’s in disposables and has no rash issues any more :) so in this battle I’m team mom and baby!

  7. Debbie says:

    Best thing I’ve read all day! Now, if you could just find some sort of study that says organic isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I’m yours for life.

  8. Lucky says:

    LOVE this! Awesome! I would have loved to use cloth but I had no support. :( Oh, well, a little less work for me!

  9. J says:

    we love our cloth diapers. Not for environmental purposes. I agree on that stance, its a toss up. I use cloth for all of the good reasons you listed: savings, chemical free, and cuteness.
    Other organic things that aren’t so organic: bamboo cloth. It takes a ton of water and chemicals to make. Bamboo is not naturally soft.

  10. Cassandra says:

    I just posted a blog about this actually. For the first six months of my baby’s life, it was, in fact, much cheaper to use disposables. It wasn’t until the brand we were using raised their prices and the difference in actual size between different diapers became less substantial that we finally decided to invest in cloth. And even at that I’m hoping against hope that she won’t grow out of the size we got because she’s a very tall girl and diapers have a tendency to fall off her butt. If you get a cheap brand with reasonable quality, I seriously do not believe that cloth saves money. Maybe you get a little extra in the long run depending on when you potty train, but how much time are you wasting on top of it? And before anyone says anything about the time wasted driving to the store, we bought diapers once a month for $40.

    The only legitimate argument I’ve found for cloth over disposables is all the chemicals present in disposables that you’re slapping right up against a very sensitive part of the body. Not knowing what exactly is rubbing against your child’s genitals is a concern and would be why I was still happy to finally switch to cloth. Plus we would already have them when another baby comes along and they have extra uses once there are no more children. Or even put them away as heirlooms for grandbabies!

  11. faye says:

    i used both during my toddlers infancy. if i were to have another, i think i would def go the cloth route. we contribute to the landfills already which im not comfortable with, and it is cheaper. my son who is a toddler now and going thru potty training, im using just underwear for him. since he goes pee in the potty, having the undies get soiled, he knows more when he has to go to the bathroom, and its nothing for me to just wash them out. the chemicals in the disposable diapers scare me too. but the convenience of having the diapers be cloth, cheaper, interchangeable, and reusable for another child down the line, makes my choice easy.

  12. faye says:

    cassandra touched on a good thing to mention. time. i am a stay at home mom, and the extra minute (literally) that it takes to wash out the diapers, was nothing to me. someone who works full time or two jobs or something, i can see the time being an issue.

  13. faye says:

    and i think there is more value to cloth than just money. it all depends on the person and their personal value system. for me, i valued knowing my child was safer than if i had continued to use disposables. however, if the disposables had been chemical free, and decomposed. THAT is another story altogether. ok that is all for me lol

  14. abby says:

    I, like so many other, use cloth for the savings. It is also the primary reason I breastfeed. It was what kept me motivated those first hard weeks.

  15. PlumbLucky says:

    Background: work fulltime out of the house. Two kids in diapers. Part of my job description is dealing with MSDS. A small part of my decision had to do with that last part – some of the chemicals aren’t nice.

    It does NOT take me that much time to wash diapers. Even every other day like I have to with two in them. I don’t hand wash the darn things. Throw them in with soap, 2 minutes. Throw them in the dryer, 2 minutes.

    That said: my reasons aren’t necessarily “environmental”, unless you consider the “environment” I’d be wrapping my kids’ behinds and genitals in were they in disposables. However, even that wasn’t the only consideration. Its the fact that their skin does NOT tolerate something in disposables. Period. Babe the Younger’s is bad enough that it got “the look” from the pediatrician. You know, that look. The “you need to do something about this blistering bleeding butt rash before I actually HAVE to report this as ridiculous as that sounds” look.

    So I spend appoximately (letsee – probably 10 active minutes a load) roughly 30-40 minutes a week on diaper laundry, and the kids butts are happy. Life is good.

  16. Sara says:

    Hey, if you don’t mind the thought of all those diapers sitting in a landfill for all of eternity, go for it. I personally can’t stand it.

  17. Eli Poist says:

    So I did cloth from birth to potty trained. Disclosure: I work full time out of the home and travel for business with my child 1 week a month.
    There are three reasons I did this:
    1. Cost: We purchased 48 prefolds, 16 diaper covers, and one dry bag for holding the dirties until we did laundry every two days. Total cost for the diapering time of my child about $200. When my child outgrew one diaper cover size I traded up to the next size selling the used ones on diaper swappers and buying the next size up with the proceeds. When it was time to sell the “stash” of diapers I had several friends who were cloth diapering and passed them on to them.
    We were also very lucky to have child care that used cloth!
    2. Environment: It wasn’t a “I’m saving the universe” mantra it was a “The POOP GOES IN THE POTTY” mantra. Most people who use disposables have to buy the diaper genie to cut down on smell because they are not putting the poop in the potty before chucking the diaper into the trash. This is my issue with the environment. The poop should not be in a landfill.
    3. My child’s bottom: In three years of diapering my child there was only 1 occasion of diaper rash and that was due to an antibiotic I was on and passed through my breastmilk. ONCE. We were given a tub of diaper rash cream and told by many parents who used disposable we would go through it. We threw it away after three years of never using it.

    So cloth is a choice. There are times disposables are needed and I fully support that choice. It is wrong to pin the use of cloth fully on the environment in the debate between cloth and disposable.
    Here are two links to posts I’ve written about Cloth…
    http://yandeathome.blogspot.com/2008/04/cloth-diapers.html
    http://yandeathome.blogspot.com/2008/05/cloth-diapers-bonus.html

  18. Lacey says:

    I personally will be using both. I don’t pretend to be “green” I like to think of my self as a deeper shade of yellow. Celery even, but not green.
    I am choosing cloth for home, and disposables for any time I’m away and don’t want to carry a load of crap in my purse.
    I don’t take a strong stand on either cloth or disposables but I do like that cloth will save us on the cost of diapers. I have to pay for my garbage removal and would be paying as much for the increase of water and hyrdo as I would be to put a couple extra bags at the end of the lane every week.
    I don’t LIKE the thought of the diapers going to the landfills, but I also think that the disposable diaper industry has come a long way in that they have come out with biodegradable disposable diapers as a “green” option. Although not available in Canada yet as far as I know, I will be trying to use those as often as I can get to the States to buy some.

  19. Elissa says:

    I have to confess that or baby had been in cloth since birth, so I don’t really know first hand about disposables. I love cloth! Yes, the environment was one of our concerns and, with sustainable fabrics, cold washing and mostly line drying, I have trouble believing that the energy consumption (for our nappies) is greater. To me though, all I had to do was smell a disposable nappy to know that I didn’t want it near my babe’s sweet, soft, little booty. They reek of chemicals! The other thing that has confirmed it for me is that we have had no leaks, no poo explosions, no nappy-related reasons for extra clothing changes in the whole six months that we have been using them. (gotta be saving energy there, right?) My friends using disposables on the other hand all have many, many stories about poo up the back, down the legs, all over baby, the pram, the car seat, the mum, etc. Sure, I’m happy to wash my son’s nappies, but I’m not crazy about the idea of having to cart around three spare outfits the babe, and maybe one for myself too. Call me lazy, but it doesn’t seem worth the effort.
    A thet end of the day, people are going to use whatever they want to use, studies or no. I’m happy with cloth but, if disposables are what works for you, I say go for it.

  20. Bea says:

    I use disposables for my convenience. We work full time and live in an apartment. Each load costs us almost $5 to run unless we do laundry at Mom’s. I can’t think of anything I’d like to do less than spend my evenings doing laundry (be it clothes or diapers.). we do other environmentally friendly things instead.

  21. Stephanie B Cornais says:

    Jacinda!!! This hurts my heart! No, but seriously, I do not use cloth for the environment, I use cloth to keep the chemicals that are in disposables away from my daughter. They have been so easy for me, but if I had three in diapers I might be singing a different tune.

  22. Jessica says:

    Don’t leave it up to “experts” to make the call. For me, I’ve used disposables but switched to cloth on my second child. Best decision ever, I can’t imagen going back.

    #1, the savings in $ is worth it!! I don’t buy disposable wipes either, so that is a big savings as well. My diapers were about $230. And now I use them for my third and they are still in great condition. There are expensive diapers out there, but it’s much better to find as cheap as possible. They are still going to work. Also, I wash about twice per week, and hang dry. So that’s really not costing a lot there.

    #2, no stinky diapers sitting around! I live in a condo so I have no outside garage I can put dirty diapers in. My upstairs bathroom used to be so stinky no matter what kind of fancy diaper pail I had. When I switched to cloth, it was gone. First of all, you wash the crud down the toilet with a sprayer (where it’s supposed to be), then it’s in a zippered wet bag, and mine don’t leak any smell. So I am really happy with that.

    #3, I am glad about cloth being better for the environment. It’s not hard for me to put the two and two together. Not trying to zing anybody because it’s your choice. I’m not saying you’re a bad person at all, I’m just saying that for me, I feel good about that.

    Also I do think that it does have an effect on potty training. My child that was cloth diapered was trained before he was 2 1/2…which is good for a boy, and it was easy. The other who is in cloth now, is only 18 months. Anyhow, that’s my opinion on the matter.

  23. Bonnie says:

    We’ve used cloth since day 4, but after a week of disposables while travelling I can honestly say that I think cloth is easier. On my kid, we had a blowout or two per day in disposables. In 3 months of cloth, we have had one (and my GOD that was a HUGE DUMP). So it’s washing an entire outfit vs washing diapers. And it’s not fun to pull a poopie onesie over a wiggly, giant-headed baby. I also like that it’s supposedly easier to potty train after using cloth, it’s WAY cheaper, and it’s actually super easy to wash them. I also think it’s healthier for their skin. And I have a very hard time buying that manufacturing a brand new diaper, shipping it across the country, and throwing it in the trash each time you change your baby is environmentally the same as washing a prefold for the 200th time, but I’d use cloth either way.

  24. Lindsay says:

    Some of the comments have gotten…um… a little aggressive. My background: full time student, full time job, full time wife, and full time identical twin girls. Yup, Full time disposables. Like so many other things related to the first few years of a baby’s life, you have to do what works for YOU. (And of course, be smart about it.) For ME, using disposables means I am more present with my babies. I spend less time stressing and attempting to catch up on laundry (because it is never done). My disposables are delivered by subscription once a month, automatically, through Amazon’s mom program. It’s the cheapest I’ve found them, and it keeps our home in balance. You aren’t lazy, Jacinda, you just know how much you can fit on your plate!

  25. Lindsay says:

    Many cloth diapers aren’t made for preemies, so some moms get used to disposables right off the bat.

  26. Ann says:

    I just think it is dumb to use disposable anything when you don’t have to-environmentally, financially, and as a general way to look at the world.

  27. Grace says:

    I use cloth, but not because of the environment, and I don’t have a problem with people who use disposables. We do it to save money. I don’t mind the slight effort it takes, and I have had FAR more blow-outs and leaks with disposables than with cloth. We use disposables a few times a week for babysitters, nursery, or if we go on a longer trip. I appreciate this article because it just shows how people get so excited about things being “green” because the label says so and don’t give it any more thought. Also, for a lot of people doing cloth is MUCH more expensive than disposables because they buy the fanciest schmanciest diapers with all the bells and whistles made from ultra-organic moon-dust cotton. And then they have to buy 5 of everything and have more diapers than their kids could ever hope to poop in once. That’s not very green or cost-effective, if you ask me.

  28. Theresia says:

    The argument that cloth and disposables are equal when it comes to the environmental impact is absurd – those studies are seriously flawed. No one can argue with the cost-saving benefits. You can cloth diaper your baby from birth to potty training for as little as $300 with profolds and covers. You can go with all the bells and whistles and fancy cloth diapers and still only spend a fraction of what it costs to buy disposable diapers that will sit in the landfills for hundreds of years. After you’re done using these diapers you can sell them for about half the price you paid for them and someone else can use them again – or you can use them on your next baby. There are also wonderful hybrid options available now such as GroVia – and their inserts are compostable… so you can have convenience and have less impact on the environment.
    If you have questions, let a professional consultant help you:
    http://www.diaperparties.com/

  29. Cassey says:

    I agree that it could be a wash if you cloth diaper just one child. But if those cloth diapers last you for two or more children, I think there’s no doubt that it saves money and is better for the environment. Cloth diapering any child after the first one is basically free except for laundering costs and also has no new negative impact on the environment (again, besides laundering them). On top of that you can line (or rack) dry them and use an energy and water efficient washing machine – even more savings financially and environmentally. I’m definitely not dissing ‘sposies – I completely understand that cloth isn’t for everyone. I just think those other factors need to be taken into account when weighing cloth vs disposable.

  30. Sam says:

    We use cloth for cost savings and cuteness. It was a hefty initial investment ($500), but since my son turned 6 months, the cloth diapers have paid for themselves vs. disposables. Every month using cloth is like money in bank. Plus they’re so darn cute!

    I know the wash routine sounds like just another thing to squeeze on your plate, but it’s really, really easy. Cloth isn’t for everyone, but don’t assume you can’t do if you’re busy. Cloth diapers fit into all kinds of lifestyles!

  31. Meagan says:

    @Ann Sorry, but you will never convince me to use cloth menstrual pads or reusable tp (or even recycled tp- it feels awful).

  32. Ann says:

    @Meagan- I think the “have to” in my statement can be interpreted in many ways. If I didn’t have my own washing machine in my house, I would probably have more trouble using cloth, but I do, so using cloth is very much a viable option for me. I do actually use cloth menstrual pads at home, but at work it really isn’t a practical option. I get that these things gross people out. What bothers me is that a lot of the reusable are really much easier to use then people think, and that prevents people from even trying them.

  33. Julie says:

    Cost was the sole reason I got into cloth with my second child. 185 bucks and I’ve got all the diapers I need thru potty training. I get tired of being told that I can purchase disposables for the same price as cloth. Look at that number and tell me that again. No, I did not purchase used. And no, that’s not the price for prefolds either (though I received some as a gift and love them), for those of you who shudder at the idea of “old-fashioned” diapers. Organic bamboo lined pockets is what I bought. Now that I’ve been dealing with them for 5 months, I can also say that I love them because of the lack of blowouts from poop. All the ones we’ve had have happened in the few disposables we’ve used. Can’t beat that! However, I also believe that what you choose to diaper your child with is your choice. So if you like what works for you, then do it!

  34. Andrea says:

    I’m sorry. This is ridiculous. You can choose to cloth diaper or not. You can choose to breastfeed or not. You are the mama. It is YOUR choice, but to say that 24 or 36 fabric diapers washed a couple of times a week and easily used for 4 or 5 YEARS of cloth diapering several children is equal to THOUSANDS of disposable diapers being made and thrown away after one use is bogus. Who sponsored those studies?

    Personally, I am not green for the environment’s sake as much as for my daughter’s and avoiding the chemicals was my primary motive. The huge cost savings we have as we now cloth diaper our SECOND baby and the less waste we have because of it, is a huge plus. Also, I think it’s totally okay to take a break from cloth diapering in various seasons of life. Maybe if it weren’t such an all or nothing prospect, people wouldn’t be so turned off and overwhelmed by the prospect.

  35. Angie says:

    The study concerned was actually flawed in several ways. Firstly, it assumed that those washing cloth nappies would wash every day at 90 degrees. It assumed that those nappies would then be tumble dried from straight out of the washing machine, and *ironed* (seriously – does *anyone* iron cloth nappies?). Most importantly, it based it’s findings on using cloth nappies for one child only.

    Most people who use cloth wouldn’t dream of washing them at 90 unless their child had a tummy bug of some kind – 60 is more than sufficent – I’ve never washed mine at higher than 40 (except for tummy bugs). Line drying (preferably outside) is much kinder to nappies, and is carbon neutral in terms of energy consumption, and really, anyone who has time to iron a stack of cloth nappies with a baby in the house has my full respect, but I suspect that they are few and far between!

    I had 24 new nappies when my daughter was born – and a whole stack of pre-loved ones which had done 4 children already. They have now done 4 children, plus my daughter and my friend’s child, and will be coming back to me for my 2nd child in the winter.That’s 6 kids in the same nappies – and I have no doubt that they will be still be in good enough condition to pass on again. I’ve never heard of anyone who uses cloth nappies, and then throws them away after using them for one child – I think that’s the main issue with the study quoted above – if you use the nappies for more than one child, the energy consumption in the manufacture (which is generally the when the most energy is used) is spread over several children, whereas it is limited to one child for ‘sposies.

    The landfill issue is a concern – the fact that something takes so long to break down surely must be worrying, but I’m concerned that this study is getting such widespread coverage when it clearly doesn’t reflect normal use of cloth nappies….

  36. Angie says:

    7 kids – I clearly can’t count! :)

  37. Sarah says:

    I started using cloth for a list of reasons and in the begining none of them had to do with the enviroment. Here are my reasons:

    1) It was the standard for HUNDERDS of years, so why change a good thing?

    2) I would much rather buy cute clothes for my kids, then have to shell out for diapers twice a month.

    3) I HATE the way pads feel on my woman stuff, so why would I make my kid sit in something that I already find uncomfortable?

    4) I’m lazy and would rather stay home and wash diapers then; get showered/dressed, pack up the kids, and go to the store whenever I need diapers. No one cares if I’m hanging diapers up to dry in my pjs at 2 in the afternoon.

    5) My kids get horrible rashes in disposables, they have a reaction to the absorbant stuff in them.

    and lastly

    7) Cloth diaper detergent comes in FUN Smells (move over clean linen, HELLO Raspberry and Warm Brown Sugar!!) and being a clean freak (yes I sniff my fluff) scents just make it so much more fun.
    :o D

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