Your baby needs lots of love and reassurance and, as every parent knows. Wrapping a diaper around your baby’s bottom is a routine chore — but is it a “green” one as well?
“Diapers solve a public health problem,” says Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the National Waste Management Association. “They take feces and urine and create a safe environment for their deposition by incontinent persons. This option is far better than soiled pants or [pooping] in the woods.”
That having been said, which is better for the environment: disposable diapers or the reusable cloth, wash-and-wear kind?
Britain’s Environment Agency recently discovered that, believe it or not, disposable diapers have a slightly smaller carbon footprint than washable ones — 550 kg versus 570 kg (1,212 versus 1,256 pounds) of carbon-dioxide equivalents over two and a half years of use.
According to agency spokesman Farooq Mulla, it all depends on how you wash and dry the reusable diapers.
“Using reusables and washing them at 90 degrees Celsius [194 degrees Fahrenheit] with detergents in a half load with tumble drying can be overall more damaging in terms of the carbon footprint than using disposables,” he explained.
Doing so constantly would boost the carbon footprint of washable cloth diapers to a whopping 990 kg of carbon-dioxide equivalents, nearly twice that of the bag-and-toss kind.
In order to come in under the line set by disposable diapers, cloth-friendly parents might have to sacrifice some convenience — and possibly some hygiene.
“It’s better for the environment to wash at 60 degrees [140 degrees F], full load using an energy-efficient washing machine and drying outside on the line,” Mulla says.
But the lower wash temperature may not kill the millions of fecal bacteria lurking in the soiled fabric, though Mulla insists it’s safe. And drying outdoors simply isn’t possible year-round in most of North America.
Little brothers or sisters also might not like the report’s third recommendation — that well-used cloth diapers be passed down from older to younger infants.
So it’s at best a draw between disposables and reusables when it comes to global warming. What about more immediate concerns?
“Both the disposable and reusable diaper options create solid waste and wastewater that must be treated and/or disposed,” explains Jeremy O’Brien, director of applied research at the Solid Waste Association of North America. “More solid waste is created with the disposal option, while more wastewater is generated with the reusable option.”
That rules out a solution with a third option: shaking the solid stuff out into a toilet before you wrap and bag the disposable kind.
And some environmentalists come out firmly against disposables.
“There definitely is a big volume of waste created with the disposable diaper,” says Tracy Fernandez Rysavy, head of publications for nonprofit environmentalist group Green America, adding that trees must be cut down and the disposables must be processed.
“We have a landfill problem,” she says. “There are viruses in feces. If the landfills leak, we have all sorts of icky stuff going into land, water, and soil.”
The EPA refuses to take sides on the issue.
“While the EPA does not do a comparison between the two types of diapers, disposable diapers do fall under the category of municipal solid waste,” explained spokeswoman Tisha Petteway. “This means the material is safe to be disposed of in a U.S. municipal solid waste landfill (MSWLF),” which is designed to protect the environment — and the public — from fecal contamination.
Miller downplays the idea that anything designed to get poop out of your baby’s bottom and take it somewhere out of sight can be completely environmentally friendly.
“I’m not sure a diaper can be green once it is used,” says Miller, who tried both disposable and reusable diapers with his two children.
He doesn’t see a problem with disposing of diapers in the landfills.
“Public wastewater plants are designed to handle urine and feces,” he explains. “Landfills can easily manage decomposing human waste — not to mention the dog and cat waste that gets thrown away.”
Rotha S. Penn, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble, which makes Pampers, also doesn’t see an advantage either way.
“Really, it’s a matter of choice for comfort, fit and performance,” she said.
Penn noted that more than 95 percent of parents in the United States and Western Europe go for disposable diapers, and added that P&G had spent the past 5 years drastically reducing energy and water use, as well as manufacturing waste and carbon-dioxide emissions.
“We are committed to not only make products that are comfortable and fit and work well for babies, but also continuing to reduce our environmental impact,” she added.
For those parents who still can’t decide, Isabelle Bodmer Silverman, legal fellow and specialist in “green living” at the Environmental Defense Fund, recommends a safe compromise — comfortable, reusable cloth diapers with a biodegradable, chlorine-free liner inside.
Manufacturers that make the liners include Bummis, Imse Vimse and Kushies.
“Use products made of recyclable material or that have less of an environmental impact,” recommends Silverman, who also touts two environmentally friendly disposable brands: Seventh Generation’s line of chlorine-free baby diapers and Nature Babycare’s Eco-diapers, which are free of chlorine and plastic and made of genetically modified absorbent pulp.
Of course, the most important consideration is your baby’s comfort. And, as Silverman suggests, potty-training your children earlier might have the biggest positive impact of all.