"It's six of one, half dozen of another". This is something I hear all the time about the environmental impacts of cloth diapers vs. disposables. It is a common belief that the amount of water and energy used to launder cloth diapers is just as damaging to the environment as the impacts of disposables.
I call BULLPUCKY!
Let's look at the big picture first, and then we will discuss the details. Would it make environmental sense to use styrofoam plates instead of real dishes? Of course not. The amount of garbage alone would turn us off this concept immediately. Even considering the water and energy used to wash our dishes is minimal compared to throwing out plate after plate. So why do we believe disposable diapers are environmentally equivalent to reusable? Let's break it down and compare the two.
Intuitively, making 5000-7000 diapers will take more resources and energy to make than 20-24 diapers, right? Yep.
Every disposable diaper uses almost 1 cup (240 mL) of crude oil to create. That means that your baby will use more oil in their diapers than they will use in all the oil changes in every vehicle they will ever own.
The absorbent material in most disposable diapers is made of wood pulp - a lot of wood pulp. Enough that 4.5 trees have to be cut down to make the diapers for one baby each year. Might not sound like a lot, but it equals millions of trees every year being cut down just for babies to poop in. We aren't replacing forests nearly as fast as we are cutting them down, so even though wood is technically renewable, maybe we should slow down a wee bit. In comparison, the crops used for cloth diapers (hemp, bamboo and cotton) are extremely renewable, and much smaller amounts are used (20-50 lbs vs. tonnes of wood pulp).
This is where you think I am going to have to scuff my toes in the dirt and sheepishly admit that disposable diapers are a clear winner, right? Wrong-o, mon ami!
Gro-Via has an excellent article busting this myth. (Click here to read, it's a good one!) It takes approximately 15,300 gallons of water to launder cloth diapers for the entire 2.5 years (or so) that a baby is in diapers. Conversely, disposables take 9 gallons to make EACH diaper!! Let's do a little math. 9 gallons multiplied by 5000-7000 diapers means 45,000-63,000 gallons of water! So using cloth diapers uses between 25-35% of the water than using disposables. Boom, myth busted.
Yep, your washer and dryer consume energy, and it is much easier to notice this energy use since you are the one footing the bill. But if the cost of manufacturing, wrapping and transporting disposable diapers was reflected on your Hydro One bill, you would darn tootin' notice it.
There are lots of ways to reduce the energy use involved in washing cloth diapers. My favourite is to hang dry my diapers, since the dryer is the energy guzzler of the laundry room. Plus it has the added bonus of getting stains out if they are hung in the sun, and diapers will last longer if they aren't subjected to the heat of the dryer.
As well, you can add other clothes into the washing machine while washing diapers to cut down on the total number of loads you do. I do a pre-rinse cycle for our diapers to get rid of any really nasty stuff, then throw in whatever dirty baby clothes are in the hamper to top up the load. They all come out daisy fresh, and I've saved another load of laundry.
I left this for last since it is the most obvious. 5000-7000 diapers equals about 1 ton of garbage. That is a huge pile that will not break down for 250-500 years. It's easy to forget about garbage once it leaves our curb, but it has to go somewhere. You would certainly notice if it was piled up in your backyard for the remainder of your (and your great-great-great-grandchildrens') lifetime. Not to mention that that garbage leaches chemicals (and human feces) into its surroundings. Yuck.
I am not a crazy environmentalist - I drive a car, am incapable of bicycling and occasionally am guilty of throwing out peanut butter jars instead of recycling. But I do like to make green choices wherever I can, and cloth diapering my kids was definitely the green choice!
Stay tuned for Part 3 - Healthy bums!