Our Baby Class

Monday, May 11, 2015

Are Cloth Diapers Bad for the Environment?

The Washington Post recently published an opinion piece entitled "Why Cloth Diapers Might Not Be the Greener Choice, After All." Given the subject and that one of the people quoted shares my name, several people have sent me the piece and asked my opinion.

"Although there is a growing market for all-in-one reusable diapers made from synthetics, most cloth diapers are still cotton prefolds — rectangles of fabric that fit into waterproof liners."

The piece mainly focuses on cotton prefolds, which make up only part of a vast universe of cloth diaper options.  The author spoke to Stephanie Hanson (not me), who was researching her diaper service options and wanted to be sure her diaper service used fuel efficient vehicles.  It's true that diaper services do generally use cotton prefolds.  However, the majority of parents that I know do not use a diaper service, instead laundering diapers at home and using the diapers that work best for their families.  The author, Kendyl Salcito, focuses on the environmental and social impact of conventional cotton production.

"Then there’s the water that cotton pollutes, as one of the world’s most pesticide-heavy crops. In India, cotton covers 5 percent of cropland, but it’s doused with 54 percent of the nation’s annual pesticide use."

The environmental impact of conventional cotton production cannot be debated.  However, this argument leaves out several factors.  Many cloth diaper users make a choice to use organic cotton instead, mitigating this concern.  And, some eschew cotton altogether in favor of other textiles, such as bamboo, hemp, and synthetic fibers.  While bamboo may or may not be better for the environment (bamboo rayon to be more accurate), hemp is a very ecologically friendly crop as well as being fabulously absorbent.

"Roughly 30 cloth diapers serve the function of 4,000 disposables."

This is true, for those who have a single child and then throw the diapers away.  However, we are currently using some diapers that are on their fourth child (hand-me-downs from a friend).  That means these diapers are on their way to replacing 16,000 disposables. When prefolds are no longer worn by the child, they are often repurposed as rags.  I remember my dad polishing furniture with the prefolds I'd worn as a baby. I had to be at least six or seven years old.  While cloth diapers can be repurposed, sold, or given away, a disposable diaper used for a couple of hours ends up in a landfill, where it will sit emitting methane gas in near perpetuity.

She also doesn't take into account that diaper "upcycling" isn't a one-way process.  Families repurpose flour sack cloths, flannel receiving blankets, and t-shirts into flat diapers (like I'm doing this week!). Washing machines are increasingly efficient (and when we were on city water, we did not notice an increase in our water bill when we started doing diaper laundry, even without an HE machine).

Salcito does mention the effort of Cotton Babies, Inc. to make cloth diapers a more ethical option, but Cotton Babies is not alone. As with any purchase, there are always choices that are more or less ethical. Parents who prioritize the environment may opt for organic cotton or hemp. Caregivers who are worried about labor practices may support companies that manufacture diapers domestically or in Canada.  By limiting the argument to cotton prefolds and a single manufacturer, she misses the greater picture.

One final thought: if Salcito is so against the evils of cotton production, does she always opt for other fibers over cotton?

For more on the environmental decision between disposables and cloth diapers, as well as other reasons that parents opt for cloth diapers, visit this page by the Real Diaper Association.


  1. Excellent thoughts. Landfills are not filled with cotton diapers from prior generations but they will be for my great, great, great, great grandkids!

  2. Oops since I cannot edit -- I wanted to clarify that I meant disposable diapers will be filling our landfills for generations to come! :)