A few years back my wife and I severely wrestled with the issue of whether to go with cloth or disposable diapers for our then newborn child. The issue was complicated, and rife with conflicting data and skewed statistics about energy usage and renewable resources. Ultimately, we went with cloth diapers, not out of any steadfast conviction, but it seemed to me (and my wife) that when choosing between a veritable mountain of dirty cloth diapers that were washable and a mountain of dirty disposable diapers that would remain virtually unchanged on this planet for decades to come, that disposable diapers were a clear and visible loser in this debate.
Now we are 2-plus years into our cloth diaper regimen, and instead of feeling like the self-satisfied, eco-parent that I am, I am residing on a mountain of doubt after reading yet another study that further muddles the cloth vs. disposable debate. From an excellent piece by Brendan I Koerner, written for Slate.com, Koerner sites a comprehensive 2005 study by Britain’s Environmental Agency that concludes that there is no significant difference between the environmental impact of cloth and disposable diapers. Keeping a child clad in home-laundered cloth diapers for 2.5 years emitted 1,232 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, vs. 1,380 pounds for disposable diapers.
However, critics of the British study site that the use of older washing machines (1997) to launder the cloth diapers unfairly skewed the results in the favor of disposables, and did not take into account the advances in washing machine technology and efficiency. In addition, critics also contended that the study underestimated the resilience of cloth diapers and didn’t properly stress the waste-management consequences of disposables. Nor does this study take into account the myriad of health issues and chemical residues attributed to the use of disposable diapers.
Still, if you are to crunch the numbers, the race between cloth and disposable is a photo finish, with cloth being the winner by a nose. As Koerner concludes himself:”The bottom line is that cloth diapers are greener than run-of-the-mill Pampers and Huggies, as long as you’re committed to an energy-efficient laundry regimen. But that commitment takes more than just an EnergyStar washing machine and a clothing line for air drying. It also takes time, a commodity which will be in startlingly short supply once your offspring drops. And thus we must delve into the ceaseless conflict between idealism and reality.”
So, what to do? As a parent that has personally changed at least 4,000 cloth diapers (and counting), I will tell you it is incrementally more labor intensive than changing a disposable diaper (don’t get me started on the fecal train wreck that are G Diapers). However, it all boils down to what you can live with and whether or not the image of a mountain of disposable diapers that will live on into perpetuity will cause you to lose sleep at night. At this point, I refuse to take the moral high ground and make anyone feel bad about any informed decision they make on this subject. In actuality, we (and our children) might be better off if we train our attention elsewhere and instead, curb some of our consumptive habits involving shopping, shipping, and throwing away.
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.