Waste education series
Wanda Olson and Sherri Gahring, Design, Housing and Apparel
Thomas Halbach, Soil, Water and Climate
Copyright © 2013 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
During the last several decades, disposable diapers have become a widely accepted alternative to cloth reusable diapers. As a parent or caregiver, you need to know something about the various diapering options in order to make a wise choice for your child. This fact sheet provides information on relative performance, cost, and environmental consequences to help you make this choice.
As you read, you will quickly recognize that there are no easy answers to the question of which method is best. Your choice will depend on how you use diapers, on whether you face any requirements by a childcare provider, and on the relative importance you place on the various considerations. You alone can decide what diaper choice to make in your situation and with your set of values.
Disposable diapering products include diapers, liners, and training pants. Most are made from paper-like fiber with a plastic liner and backing. Special features include refastenable waist tapes, elastic waists, double elastic legs, inner shields, gender- and developmental-stage-specific absorbency and shape, gelling material that absorbs moisture, colors and prints, and a wide range of sizes.
Virtually all reusable diapers are made of cotton cloth. The basic model is 21x40 inches, and can be folded to fit the infant. Variations on the theme include prefolded diapers with or without a liner or center panel and preshaped or contoured diapers.
Wraps or covers used with cloth diapers may be nylon, polyester, cotton, wool, or Goretex.(R) Some are breathable, and some have wetness barriers. Most come in a variety of sizes with elastic, snaps, or Velcro(R) to keep them snug. One-piece cloth diaper systems, incorporating a variety of features described for diapers and covers, also are available in several sizes.
If you choose to use cloth diapers, you may either buy and wash your own (at home or in a laundromat) or use a diaper service. Most diaper services provide an initial set of diapers, then pick up used diapers and provide clean diapers on a regular (usually weekly) basis for a fee.
Disposable and cloth diapering products may be combined in a variety of ways. For instance, some users choose one or the other of the two types of products depending on the setting (home or away) and demand on the diaper (day or night).
Figure 1. Costs of different diapering options
It might seem at first glance that disposable diapers cost more than cloth ones. However, it really depends on whether you factor in the cost of your time and on a number of personal variables—how often you change diapers, whether you wash your own cloth diapers or use a diaper service, how often you wash diapers, whether laundry facilities are available at home, etc.
Whether you wish to include the value of labor as you weigh the relative advantages of disposables and cloth diapers washed at home or by a diaper service is up to you.
Costs are for typical diapering interval (2 1/2 years) at three assumptions for the value of time spent doing laundry.
Many people assume that disposable diapers have a greater environmental cost because they create more trash. However, both disposable and cloth diapers affect the environment in a number of other ways, too.
Disposables.The most obvious environmental impact of disposable diapers lies in the fact that they are thrown away. Disposable diapers produce at least 70 times more municipal solid waste–trash–than do cloth diapers. It's been estimated that 2 percent of household waste is diapers. However, it has not been proven that diaper wastes create a health hazard when properly landfilled, incinerated, or composted.
Some disposable diaper makers claim that their products are biodegradable. There are no established standards by which to judge the biodegradability of disposable diapers, so examine carefully claims to that effect. The diaper industry is studying ways to recycle diapers. In some instances, the plastic components are recycled and the paper fiber is composted to make a soil amendment.
Another major environmental cost of disposables lies in production. The 70 percent of the diaper that is made of paper comes from trees, a renewable resource. Tree production requires some plant nutrients, pesticide, mechanical energy, water, and other inputs. It may tend to reduce plant species diversity in the area of production. Energy, transportation, chemicals, water, equipment, and labor are needed to manufacture, distribute, and dispose of the diapers. These environmental costs can be reduced by using recycled paper fiber, though this is not done to any major extent today.
The synthetic 30 percent of the disposable diaper comes from petroleum, a nonrenewable resource. If the diaper is incinerated, the energy value of the petroleum can be recovered.
Reusables.The major environmental cost of cloth diapers is in laundering. A load of home-laundered diapers uses up to 50 gallons of water. About half of this must be heated. Chemicals such as detergents and bleach can add to the negative environmental impact of cloth diapers. Similarly, laundering diapers in a laundromat or through a diaper service has an environmental cost from the use of chemicals, water, and energy.
Production, distribution, and eventual disposal of cloth diapers also have environmental impacts. The cotton from which most reusable diapers is made takes much more plant nutrients, pesticide, water, mechanical energy, and labor than does the production of trees from which disposables are made, and may tend to increase soil erosion and reduce species diversity, too. However, it's important to remember that a single cloth diaper can be reused at least 75 times.
Different studies have come up with entirely different conclusions on the relative "life-cycle" impact of various products, depending on assumptions, definitions, and perspectives of researchers. There is no clear answer as to which type of diaper is best for the environment over the total life cycle of the product. In the end, you are the only one who can weigh the importance of the various factors to you--and indeed, the importance of environmental consequences at all.
Performance means how well a diaper does what it is intended to prevent leakage, protect the infant's skin from diaper rash caused by prolonged contact with urine or feces, and prevent the spread of disease.
Because there is such a wide variety of diaper products, it is virtually impossible to compare the performance of every system. However, we can make some general statements:
- Whatever diaper type you use, you can reduce the frequency and severity of diaper rash by changing diapers more often.
- Superabsorbent disposable diapers hold more moisture and wick moisture better than cloth or other disposable diapers.
- Reusable diapers with multiple layers of different fabrics keep skin dryer than do multiple layers of a single fabric.
- Superabsorbent disposable diapers are better than cloth diapers in preventing leakage because they hold more urine.
- Although disposable diapers contain feces better than cloth diapers with plastic pants, when both are covered with clothing the difference in contamination of toys and furnishings is not statistically significant.
Because of health concerns, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association in July 1991 adopted a diaper standard for child-care settings that requires caregivers to change both diaper and covering when cloth products are used.
For a more detailed comparison of diaper alternatives, you may wish to consult the August 1991 issue of Consumer Reports.