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Consider the cloth diaper, then forget it

The well-intentioned cloth diaper, made of cotton, is a drag on the environment.
The well-intentioned cloth diaper, made of cotton, is a drag on the environment.
Published May 26, 2015

The invaluable yet lowly diaper was first mass-produced in 1887, a rectangle of oft-soiled, washable cotton fabric unimproved for more than 60 years, until a disposable version appeared. Ever since, the cloth diaper has fought a losing battle against its more convenient (and more aggressively marketed) counterpart. By 1990, more than 70 percent of American babies were wearing disposables; today, it's more than 95 percent.

Cloth has had a resurgence, fueled by parents aiming to make environmentally and socially responsible choices in child rearing. "Greener" and "more natural" is how parents on one D.C. online forum described cloth diapers, citing environmental factors, lower long-term costs and the health benefits of putting natural materials against their babies' skin. One or two admitted that guilt and peer pressure factored into their choices, too.

Katie Anthony, a mother of two and a Seattle-based blogger at KatyKatiKate.com, cloth-diapered for her first baby but crossed over for her second, lamenting, "When you pull the Diaper Genie bag out of the pail, and you just see this blue plastic tube full of NASA-invented synthetic fibers that are soaked in human waste, and it's just this foul little sausage, there's a part of me that is really sad."

But those bad old disposable diapers may be better than the allegedly green alternatives.

Although there is a growing market for all-in-one reusable diapers made from synthetics, most cloth diapers are still cotton prefolds — rectangles of fabric that fit into waterproof liners. And as a crop and a fabric, cotton undermines its own reputation as safe and green. Safety, a concern raised for some by chemicals and dyes in disposables, is in the eye of the beholder; cotton production is so chemical-intensive that it has been directly linked to poor health outcomes among producers.

Cotton is also an extremely thirsty crop even before diapers are washed. Although roughly 30 cloth diapers serve the function of 4,000 disposables, cloth's water demands are almost nine times the alternative. Thirty cloth diapers draw an estimated 1,221 cubic meters of water in crop irrigation, processing, weaving, manufacturing and 2 1/2 years of washings. Meanwhile, the water used to manufacture those 4,000 disposables comes in at a comparatively modest 141 cubic meters.

This is not to say disposables get a perfect score on environmental or social impacts. Today's disposables are made largely of plastics and super-absorbent polymers, both petroleum products. The world's plastic demand is so great that though polymers and plastics once were byproducts of fuel, now novel production processes are dedicated to making them. Disposable diapers in the United States end up almost exclusively in landfills, where they emit methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Some disposable brands, such as Honest Co. and Seventh Generation, claim to address this concern by selling unbleached, compostable diapers. Unless parents are composting them at home, though, these "eco-friendly" disposables are as culpable as Pampers for greenhouse gas emissions from municipal waste facilities. Seventh Generation users may be particularly disappointed to learn that the earthy color of their diapers is achieved with dyes.

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But recent improvements to standard disposables shift the ecological balance in their favor. Companies have dramatically reduced the quantity of petroleum products and pine-pulp "fluff" in disposable diapers, cutting the use of forest products and landfill volume. Environmental Protection Agency partnerships are converting methane to energy and fuel at about a third of the nation's landfills, with plans to upgrade more. Plus, Pampers and Huggies manufacturers are sourcing all of their trees from certified, responsibly managed forests. Huggies has piloted a diaper composting initiative in New Zealand that is now expanding across Europe and Australia. Not to be outdone, Pampers has reduced manufacturing waste by 78 percent, CO2 emissions by 9 percent, energy consumption by 8 percent and water consumption by 4 percent in the past five years, according to Heather Valento, a spokeswoman for parent company Procter & Gamble.

Whether new parents opt for cloth or disposable diapers, though, the good news is that both are increasingly responsible choices for consumers, the planet and the people in the supply chain.

— Kendyl Salcito is the executive director of NomoGaia, a think tank dedicated to helping multinational corporations respect human rights in their global operations.