Cloth Diapers and the Environment: Are They Really More Eco-Friendly?

Photo: Stocksy / Nuria Seguí

First-time parents are quick to learn just how much goes into caring for and raising a little one. In addition to requiring nearly-never-ending attention, babies also need frequent changes to remain sanitary, comfortable, and satisfied overall. The question is where do you stand on the cloth diapers vs. disposable debate? When thinking about the average cost of diapers per month, the benefits of cloth options, how long it takes for a diaper to decompose, and general sustainability practices, the answer may seem glaringly clear. But is it? Keep reading to learn more about cloth diapers and how they really stack up against disposables.

Experts In This Article

Cloth Diapers vs. Disposable Diapers: Which are more eco-friendly?

While the cloth versus disposable diaper debate has long seemed to have an obvious winner, Lea d'Auriol, sustainability expert and founder of non-profit Oceanic Global, admits that it’s quite complex.

The Disposable Diaper Debate

Although disposable diapers are notably more convenient to use, given their single-use nature and not needing to put in extra time to wash them anew, many consumers opt for them. But they’re not great for the environment.

“One of the largest environmental issues with disposable diapers is the amount of waste that it produces,” she says. “On average, in the first 12 months of a baby’s life, over 2,000 diapers are thrown away and end up in a landfill.”

Then there’s the fact that many disposable diapers have trace amounts of plastic in them, which we now know takes a very, very long time to break down. (For reference, plastic water bottles take 450 years to decompose in a landfill.) On top of that, plastic is just plain not good for human consumption — even if it’s not actively being swallowed or used in conjunction with eating or drinking.

“We’re only starting to understand the effects of plastic on human health, and the chemicals present in plastic disposable diapers should be taken into consideration,” d'Auriol says. “There are not enough studies on the long-term effects of these chemicals being absorbed through the skin but the latest studies do show that plastic is now present in human blood.”

The Cloth Diaper Debate

In today’s society, where interest in sustainable efforts is ever-growing (even if it doesn’t seem like it large-scale), parents hoping to lead more eco-friendly lives are opting for cloth counterparts under the assumption that reusable diapers will always trump disposables from a sustainability stance. But that’s not necessarily the case.

“The [main] environmental issue associated with cloth diapers is the water used in making the cloth and washing the cloth diapers,” d'Auriol says. That said, nowadays, cloth diapers aren’t what they once were. Now, there’s the option to buy pocketed cloth diapers, which are arguably the best cloth diapers to buy. These reusable diapers are designed to be paired with smaller washable cloth inserts so that the entire diaper doesn’t need to be washed, just the soiled insert. Because of this, some cloth diapers require less water than others to wash.

The Verdict on Cloth Diapers

According to d'Auriol, since they have washable inserts, which can reduce water consumption, and considering they aren’t thrown out at remotely as high rates — given they can last for two to three years when properly cared for — she says that overall, cloth diapers are less wasteful than disposables.

Other considerations to keep in mind are cost. Where a pack of disposable diapers costs roughly $10 for around 30 diapers, a 10-count of cloth diapers costs around $14. Now, think of it like this: If a newborn uses roughly 2,000 diapers in the first year of its life, that’s around $670 in diapers. Meanwhile, a single pack of cloth diapers can last for over a year, so it only costs $14 plus the minimal water bill fraction required to wash them.

From a production stance, cloth and disposable diapers are rather equal, given they both require the use of energy and raw materials for creation and shipment.

Suffice to say, even though cloth diapers require water to wash, overall, they do lessen a consumer’s environmental impact in the long term—especially because they can be recycled through a variety of different programs after use. So, if you have the time and energy to dedicate to switching over, it might just be in your (and the planet’s) best interest.

How To Recycle Cloth Diapers

Cotton Babies will recycle your old, worn cloth diapers for you. Simply purchase a recycling voucher for up to 24 diapers, and Cotton Babies will send you a mailing label via email. Drop off your package at the post office and they handle the rest.

For more info on how to recycle cloth diapers and their environmental impact, check out Diaper Swappers.

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...