Ask Sam: Cloth Diapers or Disposable? Give It To Me Straight!

Oct 3, 2018

Credit Flickr Creative Commons | ethan john

Every other Friday on Morning Edition NHPR’s Sam Evans-Brown tracks down answers to questions about the environment and outdoors for our listeners in a segment we call “Ask Sam.”

Danielle in Epsom asks: “I’m hoping you can answer a question many new parents face today: cloth vs disposable diapers. I’ve heard that cloth diapers are more environmentally friendly because they don’t end up in a landfill. But washing them must use a lot of water and cleaning chemicals, so are they really better? Also, have you heard of compostable diapers, and are they the answer to this problem?”

Aaaaah the diaper question.

For starters, I’m very skeptical of compostable diapers. Many things marketed as compostable or biodegradable are actually only going to compost in an industrial-scale composting facility, not in your backyard pile and definitely not mouldering in a landfill. So unless you pay for a commercial composter to pick up your waste, you’re not helping the problems compostables are hoping to solve.

Also, one quick horror story: I have vivid memories of digging out an old compost pile at the farm I once worked at for a family that bought compostables for their first child. At the bottom of the pile was layer after layer of these supposedly compostable diapers that even after several years in an aerated bin had not broken down.

Point 1: Beware of manufacturer claims.

I do sympathize with this question, because there’s a lot of motivated reasoning out there when it comes to diapers. This is because there are manufacturers on both sides who stand to make money based on the answer you select, and because there are a lot of people cherry-picking arguments from the side they already agree with, and amplifying one side or the other.

That said, there are some real facts out there: I found two so-called life-cycle analyses, one done in the UK and one done in Australia. The trouble with any analysis like this, though, is that if you’re making a rigorous comparison of impacts, you have to recognize is that some of the impacts are not comparable! How much does water use matter compared to carbon emissions? How worried are you about landfill expansion vs. the practices of the cotton growing industry?

For a moment, let’s focus on the carbon emissions. The UK assessment finds that under their baseline assumptions, disposable diapers (or "nappies," as the Brits say) actually result in slightly lower carbon emissions, but THOSE ASSUMPTIONS MATTER. If you are washing the diapers in a full load of laundry, line-drying them, and reusing them for a second child then you can use 40 percent less carbon by laundering your own diapers.

The more you already do to reduce your personal impact the less CO2 will result: washing with cold water, having an efficient washer and water heater, all of these things help.

Point 2: Your laundry habits matter.

Generally speaking though, we’re talking pretty small potatoes.  

“About thirty cloth diapers equal 4,000 disposable diapers,” says Jennifer Moore Bernstein, a lecturer at the University of Southern California did this research herself for a recent piece she wrote on the burden that environmentalism places on women, “That’s kind of the metric that’s been established.”

So if you figure that a kid uses between 2,500 and 3,000 diapers a year, reusable diapers tend to do better than disposables over the two and half years (or more!) that the child is in diapers. The longer you use your cloth diapers, the better you’ll do when it comes to their overall environmental savings, assuming you follow some energy efficient laundry practices. After two and half years, you could save 200kg of carbon, which is... drumroll please...

...less than what’s contained in two tanks of gas.

What about the waste though? If somehow, overnight, the entire nation returned to our pre-WWII diapering habits and every family in America switched back to reusable diapers, the EPA estimates it would shrink our solid waste stream by about 1.6 percent. Which is not nothing… but it puts the waste challenge in perspective.

The idea I’m trying to communicate is that the scale of the impacts from this particular life choice are not immense. If you’re looking for the low-hanging fruit, this ain't it. On that front, the front-runner is pretty clear: becoming a vegetarian can cut out more than fifteen times as much carbon from your personal footprint.

Point 3: Reusable diapers won’t save the world.

So why are reusable diapers such an omni-present question for anyone who becomes a parent and considers themselves environmentally conscious?

It’s a powerful social signal.

“If this is a way to connect with your tribe, I think that’s okay, and I don’t think that’s something that should be denigrated,” says Bernstein, “And I wonder if we can stop trying to justify our decisions based on the math, and instead just be like, ‘I like this.’”

But that said, it’s important to remember that not everyone can manage all the rigamarole. Thirty reusable diapers might cost $400 up front, and while it's true that you might save around that much over the life of the diapers, if you’re living paycheck to paycheck it might be hard to find that initial slug of capital. Not to mention having time to devote to that extra laundry and easy access to a washing machine

“So there’s a certain level of privilege just to be able to access the cloth diaper system from the beginning,” Bernstein says, “I think it’s when it starts getting weird and judge-y that it becomes problematic.”

Long and short of it: if you’re willing to put the work in, reusables are slightly better environmental choice, but not so much that it's something to be lording over anyone who is unable to follow your lead. And when you consider that the more easily you’re able to afford cloth diapers, the more likely it is that you’ve achieved a level of consumption on other fronts that may be much more problematic, this seems like a pretty minor thing to be spending your time worrying about.

That’s Sam Evans-Brown, host of NHPR’s Outside/In which you can subscribe to where-ever you get your podcasts, If you’d like to submit a question you can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to oustidein@nhpr.org, OR call the hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER.