Which Kind of Diaper is Best for Both Planet and Parents?

Making diaper duty less of a mess is something every new parent can rally behind. But how much of a mess will your choice of diaper make for the planet? Unfortunately, there’s no clear (or clean) winner. Cloth diapers are water hogs, disposables will become long-term residents at your local landfill, and even avoiding diapers altogether has some impact.

So what’s an eco-mom and dad to do?

Consider the environmental issues most important to you and your immediate environment (are you in a drought, or is landfill space extra tight?), plus what fits your life and your budget. Here’s a breakdown of the five options we’ve researched to help you figure out what’s right for your lifestyle, your conscience and your budget.

1) Cloth – Home-laundered

Lose the image of big safety pins and endless folding. The modern cloth diaper has Velcro tabs, snaps and fasteners that make them poke-free and a breeze to change.

Cloth diapers have a reputation for being the eco-smartest diaper out there. But recent studies have thrown that title into question. First, there’s the huge amount of pesticides used in cotton farming. Then there’s the water, energy and detergent required for washing. Reuse is good, but the process is resource-dependent. Having an energy smart washer and dryer and using organic cotton or hemp diapers will, of course, make your footprint a little smaller.

Cost: $300 for all prefold cloth diapers and covers needed until potty training (16 wraps and 60 prefolds); pricier all-in-one diapers will double that total – roughly $600 for 36 diapers.

Pros: By laundering the diapers yourself, you can teach your child the value of reusing items. Plus, since cloth-diapered babies feel the wetness of their diaper, potty training tends to happen faster compared to their Huggies-toting playmates.

Cons: Laundering the diapers yourself requires more time, which is a valuable commodity when you’re a new parent. Also, cloth diapers are bulkier, so be prepared to size-up with onesies and pants.

Green tips: Use eco-friendly detergent, wash full loads only, line dry, wash at a lower temperature, and buy used.

2) Cloth Alternative – Using a diaper service

Get all the benefits of cloth diapering without the mess or higher utility bills. With a diaper service, clean diapers are delivered to your door – and the dirty ones picked up – once a week.

Cost: Roughly $15-20 per week for delivery and pickup of 80 diapers. A hamper liner is included, but diaper covers must be rented or purchased for an additional fee.

Pros: Makes cloth diapering possible for apartment-dwellers with limited access to laundry facilities. Plus, because commercial launderers have advanced cleaning systems, they use less energy, water and detergent than home machines.

Cons: Those living in rural areas may have a difficult time finding a diaper service.

Green tip: Avoid services that use bleach. Instead, look for green diaper services that use Earth-friendly detergent, have organic cotton options and fuel their fleet with biofuel.


3) Conventional Disposables

Disposables are the diaper of choice for about 90 percent of Americans, according to the Personal Absorbent Products Council. It’s easy to see why – for busy families juggling home and work life, diaper changes don’t get any easier than this.

This convenience comes at a cost to the Earth, beginning with the plastic, wood pulp, chlorine, energy and water used in manufacturing. It’s the manufacturing that’s the most resource-heavy and eco-unfriendly part of a disposable diaper’s life cycle – according to the American Petroleum Institute, 3.5 billion gallons of oil are used to produce the 18 million throwaway diapers that end up in landfills each year (where they’ll stay until they decompose 500 years later).

Cost: $55-60/month for 240 diapers

Pros: Super-convenient disposables make the mess more manageable. Even Baby won’t know she’s gone potty.

Cons: There are downsides to the extra absorbency. Fewer diaper changes means more moisture is trapped, and that can create a really nasty rash. Also, because babies don’t feel discomfort from soiled disposables, potty training can be delayed. Before disposable diapers were invented, babies were often toilet-trained by age 2. Now the average age is 35 months for girls and 39 months for boys, according to a 2001 Medical College of Wisconsin study. 

Green tips: Avoid using a diaper disposal system that just encases the diaper in more plastic that ends up at the landfill.

4) “Eco-Friendly” Disposables

A growing number of environmentally friendlier disposables have entered the market, offering the same convenience with fewer chemicals and less destruction. Most are unbleached, so no dioxin is released into the environment, and they contain renewable materials, such as plant-starch-based fiber. Some have also eliminated the use of super-absorbent polymers (SAP) – widely used to increase absorbency – though extensive testing has shown them to be safe.

Cost: From $55/month for 240 size 2 (small) Natural Choice brand diapers to $110/month for 240 small Tushies brand gel-free diapers.

Pros: You’ll get more peace of mind about what you put against your baby’s skin.

Cons: Your local supermarket may not carry the brand of eco-disposables you want – or any at all – so you may need to plan ahead and stock up.

Green tips: Purchase from companies who manufacture their eco-disposables in the U.S., such as Seventh Generation, for a lower carbon footprint.


5) Eco-hybrids: gDiapers

Just when you thought the cloth vs. disposable debate couldn’t get more complicated… the part-cloth, part-disposable gDiaper enters the scene. gDiapers combine a washable cotton pant with a flushable pad consisting of wood fluff pulp and super-absorbent polymers (SAP). Simply remove the insert and flush it down the toilet for an easy – and sanitary – way to dispose of Baby’s waste. Flushing the inserts uses water, but it’s 20 percent less water than laundering. They are cradle-to-cradle certified, which means that everything “gets re-absorbed into the eco-system in a neutral or beneficial way,” the company touts. Unfortunately, the flushable inserts may still find their way to a landfill eventually. Some wastewater treatment facilities can’t process them, so they filter them out.

Cost: $125 for 10 ‘little g’ pants (that covers 3-4 pants per stage until potty training) plus $104/month for 256 flushables.

Pros: The lightweight, compact inserts are easy to pack in your diaper bag when on the go.
Cons: Because there’s a risk of clogging, people with older plumbing or a history of problems with tree roots may want to refrain from flushing.

Green tips: Flush the poopy diaper inserts, but turn the wet ones into nutrient-rich garden soil. According to the gDiaper website, wet gDiapers flushable inserts make “ideal material compost piles, providing a rich source of nitrogen and organic matter.”

6) No Diapers

A growing number of parents are foregoing diapers completely and exercising what’s known as “elimination communication,” “infant potty training,” “natural infant hygiene” or “potty whispering.” Using timing, signals and patterns, parents enable their babies to use the potty instead of a diaper. Water for extra toilet flushes is the only resource this diaper alternative uses.

The practice is embraced in dozens of countries around the world. But it’s not nearly as revered in the Western world. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend potty training infants, stating, “Children younger than 12 months have no control over bladder or bowel movements and little control for 6 months or so after that.”

DiaperFreeBaby.org, the only nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting families who practice elimination communication, emphasizes that this is not training. “This is a gentle process that follows the infant's cues and needs,” the group explains, “and is never coercive or punitive. As such, this practice is consistent with the baby's development and maturity.”

Cost: Zilch

Pros: No diapers means no diaper rashes. No diaper costs.

Cons: Outings with Baby are a little more challenging. Many parents who practice elimination communication keep a plastic potty in the car, especially for little ones who don’t like noisy public restrooms.

Green tips: With more family members flushing, now’s the time to change out your old toilet with a newer low-flow model. Or, better yet, save every drop and switch to a composting toilet.

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Mama Mitrou
Mama Mitrou's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 38 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 08/27/2008

I really think that regular cloth diapers are the best way to go if you want to have a low-impact on the earth. If you have a high efficient washer and line-dry the diapers, it uses hardly any water and electricity compared to flushing inserts 8 to 10 times a day 7 days a week. I have a large diaper pail for my babies diapers and do one full load of wash each week. The old-fashioned prefolds and diapers are far more convienent than people want to believe. It is easy to get the hang of. Plus, covers come in a range of natural fibers or waterproof material. Eco-friendly disposables are great as a supplement to cloth for overnight (you can also use cloth doublers) or when you will be away from home for more than an hour or so. Traditional disposables have to be the worst option. Not only are they made from toxic materials that don't biodegrade, but considering that you are also flushing the solid waste, I can't imagine a more energy and water wasteful baby item. I have three kids, and have used almost every type of diaper out there before finding satifaction with simple cloth diapers, pins and covers.

annie4212's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 8 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 09/03/2008

g Diapers are environmentally friendly diapers. Check them out!

Vanessa422's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 5 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 09/03/2008

I use a mixture of GDiapers and cloth(many different styles/brands). I feel that GDipes can be just as earth friendly. Buy cloth inserts instead of using the flushable part and save money.

I bought almost all of our diapers second hand (yes, some think its gross but I do wash them first!) and I plan on saving them for our next child, once I'm done those that can be passed on I will and those that can't are going to become cleaning cloths!

You can also now buy cloth that is made of renewable bamboo and/or organic cotton. The choices are endless.

Of course so is this debate. . .Good luck to all those Mommies with making this decision and kudos for giving it this much thought!

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