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Cloth Diapers and the Environment

The Diaper Debate according to Babyworks:

Quick - which is better for the environment?

A product which is made of a freshly cut down tree, which is then milled into paper, consuming lots of water and energy in the process, which then has chemical agents added to the paper to make it absorb moisture, and then has plastic added to the outside to make sure the water does not get past the wetness of the paper, which is then used for a few hours, then landfilled?

OR

A product which is made of harvested cotton, designed to be used for many months or years, washed 2x per week in a washing machine, with non polluting detergent?

The answer is obvious, isn't it? But this is not the diapering debate as it is usually presented.

Since the "debate" according to the disposable manufacturers centers on laundering, we will explore that in detail below.

Towards a Real Diapering Debate

First, can anyone think of ANY other disposable product that markets itself as being the environmental equal of products you wash and reuse?

For instance:

You don’t hear a “debate” created by the makers of plastic water bottles, trying to convince you that their product is environmentally equal to reusable water bottles, or to washing and reusing beverage glasses. In fact, they are currently under fire for the enormous amounts of waste they are creating.

I’m not aware of any ads from paper plate or plastic utensil manufacturers about the amount of energy used to wash dishes, and that because it’s so much easier to use paper plates and throw them away after eating anyways, why not use them all the time, because after all it’s a “draw”?

And takeout food places rarely proclaim, “It takes SO much energy to cook your dinner and then wash your dishes, that you can help the environment by eating takeout every day.”

No, most makers of disposable items position themselves simply as convenience products that you use in a pinch, and then discard. For that is truthfully what they are. And most consumers partake of disposable products and takeout food occasionally.

If disposable diapers presented themselves THAT way, they would be far less appealing. It is more effective marketing-wise to create a debate, so that a consumer feels he or she is choosing among “environmentally equivalent” products, rather than to admit the fact that “we are making a convenient product that will wind up in the landfill after a single use.....to the collective tune of one ton of garbage produced per baby.”

IN FACT - most manufacturers of consumer products tout their efforts to reduce waste as their main strategy towards environmental responsibility.

 

For decades, the slogan for environmentally responsible choices is the 3 R’s:

“Reduce (consumption), reuse and recycle.”

Let’s create a new diapering debate in which we discuss whether cloth or disposable diapers best fit within THAT environmental context - as we do with every single other consumer product.

 

Laundering

Because the central argument in the “diapering debate” as it is currently popularized seems to hinge on the water and energy it takes to wash cloth diapers, we should explore this topic in detail.

Doesn’t washing cloth diapers use water and energy?

Of course it does. Just like doing other laundry. Just like washing dishes. Just like taking a shower. We will look into just how much water and energy each of these activities uses below, as well as into an important issue for consumers, the cost of doing laundry/washing cloth diapers.

If you try to gather information by looking up articles on the diaper debate on the internet, you’ll generally find information such as this, found on WebMD, which says in it’s article, “Solving Your Diaper Dilemma”, simply that:

“Cloth diapers use up large amounts of electricity and water for washing and drying.”

(While you might think that articles such as this are objective, if you read the fine print on the byline of this article, you will see that it is funded by Huggies.)


In pursuit of information about the environmental effects of washing diapers, you will find more useful information by researching “laundering”, not “the diaper debate,” articles which are written by people who do not have a horse in the race.

For instance, I found both of Michael “Mr. Electricity” Bluejay’s websites to be very informative:

http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/laundry.html (information about washing)

http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/dryers.html (information about drying)

On these sites, you will find extensive breakdowns, charts and costs, on water and energy consumption used for washing and drying laundry, in all types of machines. (You will also find a wealth of cost and energy saving tips.)

You’ll read that:

1) The average top loader uses 40 gallons of water per load. Front loaders use 40-75% less water and 35-80% less energy — just 10-24 gallons per load. (You’ll never hear mention of front loaders or energy star top loaders in “the diaper debate” according to disposable manufacturers.)

2) You can save a lot of energy by using cold rinses when washing diapers. In fact, you can save about $75 per year if you have an electric water heater.

3) It costs about .39 per load to wash on hot, rinse on cold, in your typical top loader, with a gas water heater. About .50 per load, with an electric water heater.

4) It costs about .36 per load to to dry the laundry with an electric dryer, about .34 per load for a gas dryer.

(Of course, as Mr. Bluejay states, “Your actual cost will be different according to your actual local rates for electricity, water and perhaps gas.” Nonetheless, they are a meaningful ballpark.)

 

SO HERE IT IS - THE COST OF WASHING CLOTH DIAPERS

With a top loader, it would cost about .80 per load to wash and dry your diapers with gas appliances, or about .89 per load with electric.

Washing diapers twice a week with a traditional top loader would thus cost an average of about $1.68; three times a week, $2.52.

Or, $87.36 per year washing diapers twice a week, $131.04 a year washing them three times per week.

Your costs would be less using a front loader, or if you hang your diapers to dry.

To complete your cost estimate, add in the cost of detergent or other additives you use to wash your diapers. These vary widely by size and brand purchased. Here are two scenarios:

Washing pocket diapers with Allens’ detergent, which at $50 per gallon does 512 loads of pocket diapers, washing 3x per week, would be, at 156 loads per year, and about .09 a load, around $14/year. In part, this is so low because pocket diapers use 1/4th the amount of detergent as other types of diapers.

Washing prefolds with Biokleen Premium Plus Powdered Detergent, 5 lb. size, at $13-$15 and doing 54 loads, would be an average of .25 a load. At about 120 loads per year (washing every 3 days), about $25 a year.

If you use a two piece system, add in extra low, gentle, warm temperature cycles three times per week if you machine wash your diaper covers. (Covers can easily be hang dried to save energy costs.)

Washing covers: On warm, extra low gentle cycle, 3x per week: about .06 a load for gas, .08 a load for electric. At 156 loads per year, an average of: $10.92 per year.

So a very reasonable ballpark, including water, detergent, washing diaper covers, at 3x per week, could be around:

$157 per year to wash cloth diapers - maximum

Less, if you wash diapers 2x a week, use a high efficiency washer, or hang your diapers to dry.

 

So, how does washing cloth diapers compare to your other household activities in terms of water use? Does it really take “enormous” amounts of water and energy in comparison?

(Remember, some of these activities like showering and washing dishes are done by many households on a daily basis; washing diapers, 2 or 3 times per week.)

 

Cloth Diapers and Other Laundry: 15-50 gallons of water, depending on your machine, from the most to the least energy efficient.

Taking a Shower: Unrestricted, 5-10 gallons of water a minute, or 30-60 gallons of water for a 6 minute shower. (Using a showerhead water restricter can save 2.5-7.5 gallons per minute; closer to 15 gallons total).

Taking a Bath: 40-50 gallons of water.

Running the Dishwasher: About 20 gallons per load, conventional (though energy star appliances produced after August 2009 are under 10 gallons).

Hand Washing Dishes: 5 gallons without tap running, up to 30 gallons if you leave the tap running while you wash them.

Watering the Lawn: The King of Water Use: 140 gallons per hour.

Flushing the Toilet: Average of 3 gallons per flush; 24 gallons a day for 8 flushes. (Low flush toilets can get down to 1.5 gallons per day).

BY THE WAY - since you flush “flushable diapers”,depending on whether you have a new, low flush toilet, or an older toilet, you might use anwhere from 84-280 gallons of water per week, if you flush them 8x a day. If you flush them 10x a day, you might use 105-350 gallons of water per week!

It actually appears that it could use MORE water to flush the flushable-disposable diapers than it is to wash cloth diapers.

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To put these statistics into perspective for your own family, just multiply the times you do each of those activities per day over the course of a week to get the total number of gallons, and see if cloth diapers are the major culprit in water use. You can alter the figures based on whether or not you have energy efficient appliances.

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Of course, be sure to use non polluting, environmentally friendly products for all of your cleaning and laundering needs.

 

Other Environmental Arguments Against Cloth Diapers

This is my favorite, found again on WebMD’s Diaper Dilemma piece funded by Huggies (and other places as well):

“Commercial diaper service delivery trucks consume fuel and create air pollution.”

Here’s a perfect example of the spin put into the diaper debate.

An objective article would compare “fumes and fuel” generated by BOTH diapering systems.

Don’t giant semi trucks delivering disposables to the local stores in most every city in the U.S. consume even more fuel and create even more pollution than once per week diaper service trucks driving in the very few cities they are still available? And what about the countless car trips made by millions parents of parents to the store to buy disposables?

And what about people who wash diapers at home? They generally make only a handful of trips to buy cloth diapers and supplies in comparison.

 

“Cotton Growers Uses Pesticides”

True, conventional cotton growing is a pesticide intensive crop, so this situation has enormous scope, considering all that is made of cotton.

But is the answer to this problem to single out and quit using cotton diapers, which make up an infinitesimal fraction of the cotton used overall? Or might it make more sense to make the growing of conventional cotton a kinder and gentler process, and to address this problem in the context of all cotton products. (Do you ever hear discussion of not wearing jeans or not using other cotton products because cotton growers use pesticides? Probably not, though you might hear discussion of sweatshop issues.)

If you are concerned, you can avoid this issue entirely by choosing organic cotton diapers, or diapers made with hemp (which is generally considered to be naturally organic, since it is a tough, pest resistant plant often grown in environments inhospitable to pests.) Or you can buy other non-cotton fabrics like bamboo or fleece.

 

UNIQUE ENVIRONMENTAL ASPECTS OF DISPOSABLE DIAPERS:

(Viewer Warning - my opinions sneak in here)

- Every baby using disposable diapers will generate about one TON of waste filled paper and plastic diapers, destined for landfills. This includes both “conventional” and “natural” disposables. Multiply that by the millions of babies diapered in disposables.....and you have a LOT of garbage.

(My common sense tells me that generating this much garbage is less desirable than running the washing machine - I don’t need an “expert” to figure this one out.)

- In homes where disposable diapers are used, the diapers can make up 50% of the family’s weekly garbage. In fact, we could accurately call disposable diapers “wearable garbage”, which would allow people to feel the truth of what they are.

- I find no indication that disposable diapers are made of recycled paper content; if not, they would be made of virgin wood pulp (e.g., by cutting down trees). We don’t know whether they come from sustainably grown trees, from old growth forests, or what. My own value system tells me that cutting down trees to make disposable diapers is not the best use of trees (but then, I like trees - both their beauty and all they do for us, environmentally. I may not actually “hug” them but I certainly respect them and am in awe of them as God’s creation). I would rather see a tree used to build a house for a family to live in than to make a throwaway diaper.

- Considering this, it is ironic that many makers of disposables (especially “natural” ones) feature beautiful trees and images of nature in their advertising materials. One sample disposable diaper we received even had a tree graphic watermarked on the rear end. Be aware of advertising images that link images of nature to products that destroy nature. It is truly a fascinating study in sophisticated marketing. It would be rather like a burger chain using images of a happy cow on its burger wrapper.

- I have yet to find data on the amount of water and energy used to turn a tree into a disposable diaper. I will continue to research this one (and see if the disposable diaper companies know.) Nor do I know the scope of the environmental effects of producing the chemicals used inside the diapers, nor of chlorine-bleaching them. And then there is the matter of the plastic added to the outside - not only its manufacture, but its pervasiveness in the environment.

- One thing you find with disposable diapers that you won’t find with cloth is them being discarded in random places: on the beach, on the roadside, on the sidewalk, floating in the ocean or on a lake, even in the wilderness. (This is gross.)

 

THAT ALL SAID:

1) We do not “judge” people who use disposables.

2) Our desire is that people be informed with the facts, so they are able to make an informed diapering decision, without the prevalent “spin.” There is really not a debate. There is only a choice based on the facts.

3) I simply ask that the Diaper Debate fit into a broader context of all consumer products - reusable vs disposable. Is it better to have consumer products that are used once and then thrown away, generating large amounts of trash, or ones that can be washed and reused for long periods of time, which will use some water and energy in the process? It makes no sense that it is better to wash and reuse all products except diapers.

 

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