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Dirty diapers, done dirt cheap?

July 17, 2019

Every year, hundreds of thousands of used diapers are disposed of in the landfill. That raises the question: are cloth diapers really a better option?

A baby, over the span of the thirty-odd months of using a diaper, averages around eight thousand diapers. And most of those are going straight to the landfill. In Canada, there are approximately 385,000 babies born a year. Per year, that’s a little over 1.1 billion diapers being disposed in our country alone, and “disposables represent 96 per cent of the North American diaper market.”*

A study from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows that a one-use diaper in a landfill can take, “up to 500 years to degrade, creating methane and other toxic gasses in the process.”* And these toxins can leak back into our water supply.

So, why aren’t more parents using cloth diapers? Surely they’re cheaper and greener? Some parents understandably argue against the time it takes to launder cloth diapers, and there is more leakage. There is also the matter of cotton production. Cotton-based cloth diapers may not be as green as we think: cotton fertilizers are major greenhouse gas emitters. There are companies researching bamboo or hemp products, but nothing like this has yet become a widespread, greener solution. 

“I loved saving money by not buying disposables constantly,” says Joni Sawatsky, a mother of four. “We mostly still used disposables at night, but it still saved a lot of money.” Kristen Smith, a mother of a toddler with another baby on the way, says “diapers are made with harsh chemicals like bleach and formaldehyde. I didn’t want to be strapping chemicals like that to my daughters reproductive organs 24/7 for the first 3 years of life.” She admits there are some downsides to using cloth like doing more laundry, and carrying around bulky fabric when leaving the house, though she recommends hanging them to dry to save on energy. “I’m environmentally conscious and I think we need to put more thought into what we send to our landfills,” Kristen says. 

Some diaper companies will disagree about the “over-exaggerated effects” diapers have on landfills. A study from Huggies® suggests “disposable diapers account for less than 1.5% of the waste placed annually in landfills in the United States.” In an independent study done by the UK Government Environment Agency - Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in May 2005, there was no clearly greener option between cloth and disposable diapers.

It seems there is no one answer to this debate. Some parents will use cloth diapers at home and switch to disposable while out to avoid carrying smelly diapers home. Others will only do one or the other. Either way, it seems that diapers, unsurprisingly, create quite a mess, and the world is still looking for a better long-term solution.