Consider these numbers: 36 cloth diapers that are used over and over, possibly for more than one child -- or an average 7,349 single-use diapers per child. One-time use, throw-away diapers are the single largest nonrecyclable component of household garbage, creating one ton of garbage per year, per child! It takes less than 30 lbs. of cotton to manufacture a baby’s cloth diapers.
While growing and harvesting cotton can involve a large number of pesticides and chemicals that are potentially harmful to the environment, organic, or “green” cotton is becoming more and more available. Bleaching cotton for diapers is also taxing on the environment, although unbleached diapers are widely available, quite often at the same price as the bleached variety. Even if you considered the production of non-organic, non-“green” cloth diapers a compromise to the environment, remember that one child only needs a few dozen of them, and these diapers can be used for more than one child.
Wraps and covers used with cloth diapers are made from a variety of materials, both natural and man-made. Some covers are made from wool, some from cotton. Most are made from synthetic fibers, such as nylon, vinyl, fleece, polyester and polyurethane. Fleece is made from recycled soda bottles, which is an environmentally friendly option. But some of the other synthetics are made using processes that produce chemical waste, some of which may be harmful to the environment. A baby will probably need a minimum of 16 wraps and covers over the course of their diapering period (in various sizes), many of which can be used on subsequent children. Again, there is a cost to the environment in producing these diaper covers, but one child needs only a few.
Washing cloth diapers does use a bit of water...roughly 260 loads of wash over a 2 1/2 year period...which is actually less water by volume than would be used by 2 adults each taking a 5 minute shower every day! With the use of nature friendly detergents, the environmental impact is much much less than what goes into producing single-use disposable diapers.
Disposable diapers are made of a waterproof polyethylene outer layer, with an inner layer of wood pulp and synthetic polyacrylate (a super-absorbent crystal), along with a water-repellant liner. Many brands also use fragrances and perfumes in their diapers.
Disposable diapers are not biodegradable and make up a significant amount of municipal waste. A landfill site does not provide the conditions necessary for the single-use diaper to biodegrade. The “Diaper Genie” and its like, effectively mummify single-use disposable diapers into our landfill sites for eternity. Consider the cost to operate additional landfill sites and the depletion of our natural forests.
To acquire the wood pulp for disposable diapers, one billion trees world-wide are cut down per year. Some people stop there and decide the cost of disposables on the environment is too much. But what is done to that wood is even more detrimental to us and our world. Disposables are so beautifully white because the wood pulp is bleached with chlorine gas, producing toxic chemicals known as organochlorines. The most notorious of organochlorines is dioxin, which is one of the most toxic substances ever made by humans. Dioxin is associated with birth defects, miscarriages, cancer, and genetic damage.
Both cloth and disposable diapers have an impact on our environment in the ways they are made, disposed of, and/or laundered. But cloth diapers pose a significantly less threat to the environment in the way they are made, the resources consumed, and most importantly, the small number needed to diaper a baby.