Cloth Diapers for Lower Impact

Cloth diapers drying on the line

Real Diaper Week
Real Simple. Real Diapers.

You control the environmental impact of your baby’s cloth diapers through your own choices. You might hear through disposable diaper marketing that environmental impact of cloth diapers and disposable diapers is a toss up. Don’t believe it. As the Real Diaper Association’s What a Waste project has shown, that claim is based on a study that was weighted toward disposable in several important factors—and, still, they could only find a small overlap in impact. Even this flawed study at the heart of so much misunderstanding found that you can reduce the impact of cloth diapers by 40% by your own simple choices. If ever there is a study that removes the weighted factors toward one type of diaper or another, I don’t doubt that we will finally see the data showing the enormous importance of reusable diapers in reducing environmental impact.

Step 1, Choose Cloth Diapers
One of the most obvious impacts of disposable diapers is the waste created as one child goes through more than 7,000 diapers*, creating half a ton of solid waste. By choosing cloth diapers, you save a massive amount of waste from landfill.

Step 2, Choose Natural Fibers
If you seek environmental sustainability, it makes sense that you would choose renewable materials for your diapers, your clothing, your household goods (like glass jars and wooden spoons), and the rest of the stuff you surround yourself with. A lot of reusable diapers are made with non-renewable materials. Though they do save waste, it still requires massive amounts of extraction of oil and gas to create polyester, polyurethane, microfiber, and other popular reusable diaper fibers. Choosing cotton, wool, and even rayon (bamboo) is a step toward sustainability.

Step 3, Wash You Diapers Carefully
How you wash and dry diapers shifts energy and water use. That doesn’t mean that washing on cold has the lowest overall impact, though. According to the cloth diaper laundry science gathered by the Real Diaper Association, soil in the fibers of diapers (and in any clothes) releases more easily at a temperature similar to the temperature the soil entered the diapers. That is, body temperature. Pre-rinsing diapers at body temperature means the diapers will clean more easily, so you don’t need to waste as much water and energy in other stages of cleaning. Real Diaper Association cloth diaper washing guidelines also note that a warm rinse at the end of a cleaning cycle means it takes less energy to dry diapers in a dryer. Of course, if you are going to dry diapers in the sun, that matters less. Water is a renewable resource; most of the energy we use to heat water and air to clean diapers is not. When you make choices about washing cloth diapers, keep in mind overall impacts.

Step 4, Change Fewer Diapers
If you can manage to reduce the number of diaper changes over 2-3 years, you can lessen overall impact. I’m not suggesting that you leave a baby in a wet or soiled diaper, which would certainly cause more skin irritation and discomfort. If you practice elimination communication, understanding and responding to your baby’s cues before elimination, you can skip more diapers entirely. I found that I had to be careful not to miss those cues, though, in order to avoid using more cloths and towels to clean up the floor.

If you want to reduce waste and impact, look at the whole system rather than individual choices. You determine the environmental footprint of your baby’s diapers.

* Our calculations include an average number of diaper changes for each developmental stage.
Newborn at 12 changes a day for 4 months = 1440 diapers
Infant at 8 changes a day for 8 months = 1920 diapers
Toddler at 6 changes a day for 12 months = 2190 diapers
Older toddler at 4 changes a day for 12 months = 1460 diapers
Total of 7010 diapers.

Real Diaper Association is a nonprofit charity that trains grassroots cloth diaper educators. They are the organizers of Real Diaper Week and of the Great Cloth Diaper Change this Saturday. To celebrate Real Diaper Week, we are posting about cloth diapers all week. Parents at 262 Great Cloth Diaper Change events around the world will change their babies’ cloth diapers on Saturday at the same time in order to break the world record for the most simultaneous diaper changes. and will be co-hosting a fun cloth diaper event in Orillia for up 50 babies and their parents.

Real Diaper Week

Image of diapers drying on a line © Péter Gudella |

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