Parents who use cloth diapers don’t usually worry about how green our diapering choices are. We feel pretty safe in assuming that cloth diapers are better for the environment than disposable diapers. It seems obvious, right? They fit all the criteria: Reduce (36 diapers instead of 6,000), Reuse (use the same diapers over and over, use the same diapers for subsequent children, and then resell them for someone else to use), Recycle (use old diapers as rags, or make diapers out of recycled materials like sweaters). And as it turns out, we’re right. True, a handful of studies have claimed that the differences are negligible, but the studies were flawed in a lot of important ways. If you don’t want to read a detailed analysis, I’ll sum it up: the studies didn’t look at enough cloth diapering families, and they only took the worst-case scenario for cloth (environmentally speaking) to compare to the best-case scenario for disposable. Conclusion? Cloth diapers with the highest environmental impact have an overlap with disposables with the lowest possible impact. But take a few steps to make your cloth diapering choices more eco-friendly, and your diaper system will beat any disposable options, hands down.
Sound like a lot of work? It’s not. Chances are you’re already doing things that reduce the impact of your diapers on the environment.
1. Evaluate the manufacturing process. The studies comparing cloth to disposable assume that cloth diapers are manufactured with conventional cotton, which requires a lot of pesticides and water to grow. So if you buy organic diapers, consider yourself off the hook. And if organic is out of your budget, consider buying used. Try Diaper Swappers or the Cloth Diaper Swap on Facebook. Or just make your own.
2. Consider location. Many diapers, such as Sustainable Babyish, Thirsties, and Happy Heinys, are made in the USA. Some also use local fabric and materials, enabling you to cut the impact of shipping across the ocean from your diapers’ environmental lifecycle, and others, like Mommy’s Touch, are manufactured solely by work-at-home moms. But a diaper made overseas isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gaelle Wizenberg of Charlie Banana chose a China-based manufacturer for her diapers, not because that’s where the factories are, but because it’s where she lives. Her Hong Kong office is less than two hours from the factory, so she personally oversees manufacturing to ensure processes are as eco-friendly as possible. She also limits shipping by air, opting for more environmental sea shipping. A little research can tell you a lot about the source of your diapers and the company’s efforts to reduce their impact.
3. Adjust your wash routine. In the comparison studies, the way cloth diapers were washed made the biggest difference to their environmental impact. The best option is also the easiest: use a diaper service. (Actually, you could probably be more eco-friendly than a diaper service if you washed by hand in grey water using homemade organic detergent. Have fun with that.) But if that’s too expensive or not available, a high-efficiency washer makes a big difference too. Avoid very hot water (which isn’t good for your PUL anyway) to save more energy; hang to dry and you’ll save even more (while also disinfecting your diapers and naturally getting rid of stains). If all that is too much work, you can do what Wizenberg does for her own cloth diapers: wash the rest of your laundry a little less often. “I used to change my sheets every week,” she says, “and now I do it every ten days. That’s a lot less loads per year.”
I think I change my sheets every two months, and my jeans only slightly more often, so I figure I can probably wash as many diapers as I want.
4. Buy offsets. I know, offsets are greenwashing, and they don’t really mean anything. Right? Well — maybe. Again, do your research before you buy. The best offsets are the ones that put money toward developing renewable, sustainable systems to replace what you’re trying to offset. Thirsties offsets its transportation with Renewable Energy Credits. Charlie Banana buys offsets for their manufacturing from Climate Action, a Beijing-based company that’s developing clean energy for China.
5. Go diaper free. A friend of mine says that cloth diapers are just a gateway drug to elimination communication, but really, if you want to be green, there’s no better choice. EC doesn’t mean you never use diapers, but every catch in the potty means one less diaper to wash in the short term, and for most families, being potty independent sooner means fewer diapers in the long term too. I’m writing this at 1 pm, and Teddy is still wearing the same flat fold I put on him 5 hours ago. It’s still dry. He’s peed four times and pooped once, all in the potty (or, er, the sink, or maybe the bathtub). That’s five diapers I don’t need to wash. (And if you want to learn more about EC, you can find out about local Atlanta meetings by signing up for my DiaperFreeBaby mailing list.)
So are your cloth diapers really green? To tell the truth — they probably are. But could a few simple steps make them even more eco-friendly? Only you know the answer to that.
Me, I should really hang to dry. At least every once in a while. But I’m too lazy, so I’ll probably just wash my shirts less often instead. Nobody minds the milk stains, right?