The Environmental Advantages of Cloth Diapers: Reducing Your Impact on the Planet

1 comment by Bailey Bouwman

Cloth diapers can be an eco-friendly alternative to disposable diapers.

We see many parents who are hesitant to try them because of common barriers like  perceived inconvenience, lack of knowledge, initial cost, and concern about cleaning and maintenance. And we get it, some of the barriers like limited access to laundry facilities or high water or electricity costs, washing cloth diapers at home mean that cloth diapers are just not feasible.

And that’s okay, the feasibility of cloth diapering is huge privilege for some families due to barriers to accessing specific resources. 

As we go through this series on the environmental impacts of diapering, it’s valuable to keep that perceptive in our head and ensure that we don't ever let ourselves feel shame or guilt. We live in a complex society in which access to things is not as luxurious as we anticipated.

For some families, switching to cloth diapering is an option, and this information is available for those families to empower them to make the switch. For others, if it’s not feasible - I see you, and we need to work with our community decision makers to ensure that people have access to safe clean homes, liveable wages, and natural resources. 

As a cloth diaper expert, I have had many conversations with parents about the benefits and impacts of cloth diapering and over the years begun to shape an complex and nuisance perspective of whether or not cloth diapering has environmental benefits. 

It's not black and white. It's layered and complicated. 

Reducing Your Family's Landfill Impact: The Environmental Benefits of Cloth Diapers

According to Statistics Canada, the average Canadian household generates approximately 1,500 kg of residential waste per year. Of this waste, diapers make up an estimated 3-5%, which may not seem like a lot, but can quickly add up over time.

For a family with a newborn, it's not uncommon to use 10-12 diapers per day, this can easily amount to hundreds or even thousands of diapers per year

Cloth diapers are not perfect, the stash you buy will one day end up in a landfill. This is where you have the power to make buying choices that align with your environmental goals including the number of diapers you purchase, the type of diaper you purchase, and the materials used in creating that diaper. 

Reducing Diaper Waste: Cloth Diapers vs. Disposable Diapers 

The question stands -  how much waste does a stash of cloth diapers actually produce compared to disposable diapers over the course of a child's diaper-wearing years? 

I want to note that we are only talking about the end use waste in this scenario - the amount of waste you as a consumer put in the garbage can out front after diapering your child. 

Assuming a family uses 8-10 cloth diapers per day and washes them every 2-3 days, they will need approximately 24 cloth diapers to last 2.5 years.

In contrast, a child in disposable diapers will use an estimated 7,500-9,000 diapers over the same period, based on an average of 6-8 diapers per day.

Using cloth diapers, a family will generate approximately 4.8 kg of diaper waste over the course of 2.5 years if they have to throw out their 24 cloth diapers at the end. 

In contrast, a child in disposable diapers will generate approximately 1,500-1,800 kg of diaper waste over the same period. This is based on an average weight of a disposable diaper being 35 grams.

This means that a family using cloth diapers can reduce their diaper waste by up to 95%. It's important to note that these numbers can vary depending on the type and brand of diapers used, as well as individual usage patterns. However, this table provides a general idea of the potential impact of choosing cloth diapers over disposable diapers when it comes to waste generation and landfill space.

There’s a lot of pressure to cloth diaper full time, but I want you to know that you can start small with one diaper per day. 

If you’re considering cloth diapering, think about how you can incorporate it into your lifestyle. Maybe you only cloth diaper during your year of maternity leave, or only on weekends, or just a few day.

Choosing the Right Cloth Diapers: A Step Towards Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions & Landfill Impact

The environmental impact of cloth diapering changes depending on the type of diaper you choose, and how you wash the diapers. You as a consumer influence the amount of waste and energy used.

There are many ways that you can reduce this impact, and ways the cloth diapering regardless of type reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

From Production to Disposal: Why Cloth Diapers Can Have a Smaller Environmental Footprint

While we don't have exact data on the manufacturing impact of cloth diapers, we can extrapolate from general statistics about the textile industry. The production of textiles, including cloth diapers, can have a significant environmental impact due to the use of resources like water, energy, and raw materials, as well as the generation of waste and pollution. For example, the production of a single cotton t-shirt requires an estimated 2,700 liters of water, and the textile industry is responsible for around 10% of global carbon emissions.

According to a study by the UK Environment Agency, cloth diapers use around 3 times less energy, 20 times less raw materials, and 2.5 times less water than disposable diapers over the course of a child's diaper-wearing years. Again emphasizing the need for cloth diapers to be used for multiple children, and with actions that look to reduce the consumption of household resources.

Manufacturing a cloth diaper does come with an environmental cost, its reuse potential means that the overall impact can be minimized. There are also many cloth diaper brands and retailers who look to further minimize these impacts of the textile industry by seeking out new and different ways of creating products that better align with their sustainability goals. 

Maximizing the Environmental Benefits of Cloth Diapers: How Your Actions Impact the Footprint

While it's true that washing cloth diapers does require some water usage, the amount is relatively small compared to other household activities. The average Canadian household uses around 251 liters of water per day, according to Statistics Canada. Compare this to the amount of water used to produce disposable diapers, which is estimated at around 70 liters of water per diaper, according to the National Geographic.

It's important to note that some regions may experience water shortages or drought conditions that make washing cloth diapers at home unsustainable. In these cases, families may need to consider alternative solutions such as using a diaper service or opting for biodegradable disposable diapers. These scenarios remind me that we need to have conversations with our community leaders about the impact that manufacturing and industry has on consumer choices. Overuse of water is attributed to the big guys more than the little guys - but we as consumers pay the consequences by getting to do less.

The choices we make as end-users can have a significant impact on the overall environmental benefits of cloth diapering. For instance, factors such as the type of electricity used in washing and drying, and the detergent chosen can greatly influence the environmental impact of cloth diapers. It's important to acknowledge these nuances to ensure we are honest and transparent about the limitations and challenges of maximizing the environmental benefits of cloth diapers.

Here are some tips to help you minimize the environmental impact of cloth diapers:

  1. Use an eco-friendly detergent: The detergent you choose can have an impact on the environment. Look for a detergent that is free from phosphates, optical brighteners, and other harmful chemicals. Also, try to use a detergent that comes in a recyclable or refillable container.

  2. Keep your wash routine simple: Washing cloth diapers with fewer steps and by combining other laundry can reduce consumption. Try to avoid multiple rinses, too much water, and excessively long wash cycles. Most cloth diapers can be washed in simply and still come out clean.

  3. Hang dry: While using a dryer can be convenient, it uses a lot of energy. Consider hanging your cloth diapers to dry instead. Not only will this reduce energy consumption, but it can also help extend the life of your diapers.

  4. Reuse for multiple children: Cloth diapers can be reused for multiple children, which helps to further reduce their overall impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Just make sure to properly store them between uses. 

The Benefits and Limitations of Composting Cloth Diapers: A Sustainable Choice for Reducing Landfill Waste

We saw the numbers, 24 cloth diapers no matter what the material is significantly less landfill waste than years of disposable diapers.

But what if you could lower that amount even more? Some types of cloth diapers can be compostable or naturally biodegradable. This might be a consideration for you if you're looking for something low waste and minimalist.

Natural fiber diapers, such as 100% cotton or cotton/hemp blends, as well as those made from sheeps wool or alpaca wool, have the potential to be composted in the right conditions, which can help to reduce landfill waste.

According to the Organic Trade Association, cotton is one of the most environmentally-friendly fabrics. We don't have studies on cloth diapers, but we can look at the data on cotton t-shirts decaying and extrapolate that the experience maybe similar for 100% organic cotton flats and similar cloth diapering products.

When natural fiber clothing and cloth diapers have the opportunity to be composted, they break down into their basic organic components, releasing valuable nutrients back into the soil. The time it takes for natural fiber diapers to fully decompose depends on several factors such as temperature, moisture, and the composting system used. Generally, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months for natural fiber diapers to fully biodegrade in a composting system. 

However, if a cloth diaper has synthetic fibers, such as spandex or polyester, or is made with bamboo, it cannot be composted and will contribute to landfill waste. Synthetic fibers break down into microplastics, which can have negative effects on the environment.

Other Ways Cloth Diapers Help Reduce Waste

In addition to reducing landfill waste, cloth diapers also help reduce waste in other ways. Here are some other ways cloth diapers reduce waste:

  1. Cloth diapers can be repaired if they are damaged, extending their lifespan and reducing the need to purchase new diapers.
  2. By using cloth wipes instead of disposable wipes, families can further reduce their waste.
  3. Reduced transportation emissions: Since cloth diapers are reusable, there is no need for frequent transportation of new diapers to stores or homes. This helps reduce the carbon footprint associated with transportation - remember that Canada mostly imports disposable diapers (same is true for cloth diapers). 

We can also look at other environmental impacts such as the use of dioxins and sodium polyacrylate in manufacturing disposable diapers and how when you switch to cloth diapers, we have to use those chemicals less in the regions where diaper manufacturing happens.

But I don’t know if I can shout that importance when many bamboo manufacturers continue to use carbon disulfide, and the textile industry remains this wild west of manufacturing, especially if it’s focused in South East Asia. Transparency in textile manufacturing for many cloth diaper brands is lacking - but we also don't have that transparency in disposable diapering. 

You're probably seeing so many shades of grey - and that's okay, there's no really right answer that this is better than that. You don't have to have a reason to justify using cloth diapers, you're allowed to just use cloth diapers because you feel it's important. 

Cloth Diaper Services and Rentals: Another Sustainable Alternative to Disposable Diapers

Because cloth diaper services largely faded in the 1990s, partly due to some shady behaviour from the disposable diaper industry - a lot of the data we have on this is very old and I'm not sure the best use in modern era. Really, a lot of the data shared is layered and complex and just a snap shot of a very broad topic. 

Cloth Diaper services are still available. Limited, but still around! 

Diaper services are available can offer even larger environmental benefits than washing cloth diapers at home - while reducing many of the barriers that families have.

Using a cloth diaper service can be more energy and water-efficient compared to washing cloth diapers at home, since commercial washing machines and processes are often used. While washing cloth diapers at home requires energy, water, and detergent use, a diaper service can use commercial washing machines and processes that are more energy and water-efficient.

To be honest - I think that Diaper Service is the way of the future and that we need to get governments to support the business model and return to this type of community lending programs to better enhance everyone's way of life. But that's probably a tangent for another day, and one that will take some time to really explain to you. 

Cloth diapers can offer a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to disposable diapers.

By reducing landfill waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and promoting sustainable practices, cloth diapers provide numerous benefits for families and the environment. We encourage readers to consider making the switch to cloth diapers and take advantage of their cost-effectiveness, health benefits, and environmental advantages.

If you're interested in learning more about cloth diapering, we invite you to sign up for our email list to receive valuable information, tips, and resources. Or, check out "Cloth Diapers: The Ultimate Guide to Textiles, Washing, and More" at Nest & Sprout for a comprehensive guide to all things cloth diapering. Let's work together to make a positive impact on the environment and the world we share.

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