Dear EarthTalk: My husband and I are expecting a child and we’re concerned about the environmental impacts of disposable diapers. I remember the old cloth diapers with pins that my mom used. Are there any new developments in the cloth diapering field? — Stephanie, via e-mail
A growing number of green-minded parents are starting to recognize the health and ecological benefits of reusable cloth diapers over disposables. Most brands of disposables are made from petroleum-derived plastic and wood fiber—some 250,000 trees fall each year to feed America’s disposable diaper addiction.
According to The Green Guide, 95 percent of U.S. families now use disposable diapers—to the tune of as many as 8,000 per child. As a result, 3.5 million tons of them clog landfills each year. Accompanying these diapers, of course, is untreated fecal matter and urine that can easily contaminate the groundwater surrounding landfills. Pathogens in this waste can be spread far and wide by insects and animals.
Furthermore, the process of bleaching disposable diapers to make sure they are as white as possible before they get to consumers leads to the generation of the chemical dioxin, which besides being potentially harmful to factory workers and the environment surrounding manufacturing facilities, can show up in trace amounts in the diapers themselves, potentially exposing babies’ skin to a dangerous carcinogen.
Despite such drawbacks, the convenience factor still wins out for most of us. Old memories of hard-to-fasten stinky cloth diapers collecting in a pail are enough to drive anyone to abandon their best intentions when it comes to diaper-change time. But heightened eco-awareness in recent years has led to a profusion of reusable diaper choices, and enlightened consumers owe it to themselves to take another look.
Today reusable cloth diapers come in many different styles, but the common elements are an absorbent liner, ideally made out of organic cotton or hemp fleece, and a waterproof cover. In some cases these two elements can be separated and washed separately; in others they are combined into one washable unit. Most varieties come with Velcro-style closures that obviate the need for the safety pins of days gone by.
And diaper laundering services do still exist—see if there’s one near you at www.diapernet.org/locate.htm —but parents interested in minimizing their environmental impact in a less expensive manner will wash their reusables at home (without bleach) and dry them on the line. According to Mothering Magazine, some of the best brands are Under the Nile, FuzBaby, Oskri, LizsCloth, Cloud9Softies and PeacefulMoon.
For those who just can’t give up the convenience of disposables, several brands offer a kinder, gentler alternative to Pampers and Huggies. Disposables from Nature Boy and Girl, Seventh Generation, Tushies and TenderCare get high marks for their use of absorbent, chlorine-free materials and, in some cases, biodegradability. And gDiapers offers reusable, washable cotton diaper covers over flushable liners.
Some local health food stores will carry these brands, or look online for e-commerce vendors such as Evo, Leslie’s Boutique, Cotton Babies, Green Mountain Diapers and Nikki’s Diapers, among many others.
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine