Are you looking into buying cloth diapers as an alternative to disposable diapers? Are cloth diapers better for the environment at all? This is a significant but slightly puzzling consideration for new parents.
So to help you out, we have put together all you need to know about cloth diapers and their impact on the environment in this article.
Before we dive in, you must know that there’s no straight answer to the question at hand. But below, you can look at different factors that may affect your decision.
Disposable Diapers’ Contribution to Landfills
Landfills are the most popular way of dealing with solid waste. Your disposable diapers hence would be no exception to this rule. Disposal of around 16 billion diapers into landfills occurs every year in the US alone.
Also, 90,000 tons of polypropylene in the landfills of North America comes from disposable diapers. If you didn’t know, polypropylene is a tougher and firmer version of plastic used in things like switchboards.
In a study from 1998, 2.1% of the garbage in US landfills came from diaper usage that year.
The message here is that diapers contribute a lot to our solid waste. Therefore, we need careful planning and maintenance of landfills. If not maintained well, they can pollute the surrounding soil and water bodies, making the nearby area unfit for life.
Landfills also release methane gas – a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Another concern of landfills is the non-biodegradable garbage. Such waste may not decay for centuries, keeping the area polluted for long.
Disposable diapers are a huge cause of concern here as they consist of plastic, toxic chemicals, and synthetic absorbents. If the diaper waste is not being managed properly, it can harm the environment even more.
Cloth Diapers’ Contribution to Water Pollution and Wastage
Using cloth diapers reduces your waste contribution, but they come at some cost. When using disposable diapers, you can easily throw away the diaper after use. But in the case of cloth diapers, you need to maintain them, and that maintenance isn’t for free.
You have to clean the cloth diaper over and over again to reuse it. On the brighter side, using cloth diapers will save you from adding more to landfills and plastic waste.
But on the contrary, they will also make you contribute more to water wastage and pollution. 35% of the plastic particles currently present in our oceans come from synthetic clothes. So every time you wash a cloth diaper, it will release some plastic particles, polluting the waste waterbody in which they end up. Thus, our usage of reusable cloth diapers adds to water pollution.
Not only that but from the detergent to the washing appliance you use, all of it affects the environment. These supplies contain different chemicals with various impacts on the environment. So unless you use the right method and supplies for cleaning the diapers, you may still harm the environment. In some cases, this damage can be more than what disposable diapers cause.
Understanding Plastic Content in Diapers
Before we get into this, let’s divide it into two parts – macroplastics and microplastics.
Macroplastics refer to the bigger pieces of plastics in our environment that are visible to our naked eye. They include plastic bags, bottles, and in our case, disposable diapers. The diapers’ packaging and the plastic bags or wrappers in which you dispose them off are all macroplastics.
Even though we can see macroplastics, a huge part of them is still not handled as they should be, adding to the pollution. So if not handled properly, your waste will end up in the wrong place and may become an even tougher-to-handle form of plastic- macroplastics.
As the name suggests, microplastics refer to tiny plastic pieces that are hard to detect. They are usually smaller than 5mm. Today, microplastics have entered our food, water, daily products like shampoos, and even our bodies. The cause of concern here is that microplastics often contain cancer-causing substances.
How Does It Matter in the Debate of Disposable Diapers vs. Cloth Diapers?
When disposable diapers are not handled correctly, they disintegrate and pollute the environment. They first become macro plastic and then slowly degrade to microplastics. These microplastics later enter our food chains and other life cycles, causing health and environmental issues.
The story of it doesn’t end here. Many laundry detergents have microplastics in the form of microbeads and microplastic fragments. Your usage of cloth diapers will only increase the use of such products in your daily life. This again puts you in a loophole where you’re back at contributing to the pollution. Regardless of whether you use a cloth diaper or a disposable one, microplastics will be a part of the problem.
Environmental Cost of Manufacturing Disposable and Cloth Diapers
The question to consider here is how environment-friendly is the manufacturing of these diapers? Both disposable and cloth diapers consume raw materials, electricity, and machines in production. Regardless of these similarities, there are still some differences that we must contemplate.
When manufacturing, cloth diapers consume much more water than disposable ones. Also, even after you buy this product, you would be using a lot of water to clean it again.
On the other hand, in the case of disposable diapers, the materials used to make them would tell a whole other story. Since most materials used to manufacture disposable diapers come from petroleum, disposable diapers may count as petroleum products.
The use of organic cotton and tree pulp in diapers is also harmful to the environment. This is due to their origin, which causes deforestation, excess water usage, and soil pollution. Hence using products containing them would only harm the environment instead of benefiting it in the name of reusability.
Moreover, disposable diapers can also be a little more environmentally friendly. For that, we need to use more biodegradable materials in its manufacturing. We can also use bioplastics and recycled plastics in disposable diapers to make a difference.
Maintenance and Reusability of Cloth Diapers
By now, it is clear that you don’t have to worry about the reusability and maintenance of disposable diapers. But with cloth diapers, you have to be careful with how you clean and store them for longer usability.
In such a case, you have to consider several factors. This includes
- Picking a detergent that contains least to no microplastics
- Avoiding washing the diapers in too much hot water
- Trying to line dry the diapers
- Using energy-efficient washing machines and dryers
The aim here is to ensure that you stay environment-friendly and not otherwise.
Moreover, if you keep the cloth diapers properly, they can stay in good condition for a long time. But, if you do not need them anymore, you can give them away for others to reuse. You can even sell them at low prices and earn some bucks. That makes it a cheaper option which also lowers the carbon footprint. Even when you are buying the cloth diapers yourself, you can get some second-hand ones instead.
Whether Cloth Diapers Are Better for the Environment Than Disposable Ones?
So far, we’ve looked at various aspects of diapers that impact the environment. During our research, we came across several studies to understand which one stands better than the other. Interestingly, all of them gave rather mixed results, suggesting that it comes down to your own consumer behavior.
Disposable diapers fill in the landfills, pollute soil and water. On the other hand, cloth diapers need maintenance, which often increases their harm. Another thing to consider should be the quality of waste management in your area and your budget.
If your solid waste is not managed carefully, your disposable diapers may cause more harm than anticipated. But again, even if you do make the swap, so long as you are unable to do it the right way, you may end up causing more harm than benefit.
To say that cloth diapers are totally environment-friendly would be wrong. They do have some pros, but they also negatively impact the environment. Hence, you should pick a product that best suits your needs and affordability and causes the least harm to nature. In the end, it is about what makes the best fit for your lifestyle.
Remember that diapers are one of the many choices you can make to reduce your carbon footprint. If you can make a good choice here, it will be rewarding. For that, you need to make sure you have all the required information. Without that, you cannot decide whether you took the right path. In case you fail to make the needed swap, don’t worry and look for other ways to contribute to a healthy environment.
The bottom line is simple: choose the more easily degradable one if you’re using disposable diapers. Also, ensure that your waste is handled with care. And if you are using cloth diapers, ensure to handle them correctly and clean them the right way. Cloth diapers will only be environment-friendly if you make them be.
I hope this will clear out all your confusion and help you make a decision.