Finding the greenest diapering option

Source: Fit Pregnancy. Published August/September 2010.

greendiaperFace it: There's nothing green about diapers. The average child goes through about 5,000 of them before potty training, and studies have shown that cloth and disposables can be equally tough on the environment. Disposable diapers take energy and water to manufacture, then sit in the dump for centuries. In 2008, 3.7 billion of them arrived in U.S. landfills, making up more than 2 percent of the nation’s total solid waste. Cloth diapers, on the other hand, take water, energy and detergent to launder and are often made from cotton that was grown using water- and pesticide-intensive methods.

“It’s difficult to choose, especially when you hear there’s no difference in the ecological impact,” laments Emily Santiago, a California mom who has had to balance her environmental ethics with the pragmatics of going to school full time and working four days a week. But the fact that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t mean parents should toss their green principles into the diaper pail. The trick is figuring out the most ecological option for your circumstances.

“There’s so much variation in each individual case,” explains Amy Kiser, program director for the Ecology Center, a Berkeley, Calif., nonprofit that promotes environmentally responsible practices. The greenest choice for a mom with an energy-efficient washing machine and a backyard clothesline, she says, may not be the greenest choice for the mom in a drought-prone region who drives to the Laundromat. “What’s most important is to consider your choice within the bigger picture of where and how you live,” Kiser says.

Balancing act: If you choose cloth diapers, you can reduce their impact as much as 40 percent by using an energy-efficient, front-loading washing machine, line- drying at least some of the time, using phosphate- and chlorine-free detergents and handing off outgrown diapers to subsequent children or other families. When buying new diapers, choose organic cotton or hemp. Better yet, get them secondhand from places like, which also has an active message board where parents trade answers to cloth diapering queries. A diaper service is another option, but make sure it doesn’t use chlorine bleach or harsh detergents.

If you opt for disposable diapers, look for brands made without fragrances, chlorine bleach or such toxic chemicals as Tributyl-tin (TBT), an endocrine disruptor. Seventh GenerationTushies and TenderCare are good bets. Or you can choose corn-based or wood pulp compostable diapers, such as Nature Babycare or Nature Boy & Girl, although “compostable” claims don’t mean much unless you have a way to compost them. In an airtight landfill, a compostable diaper won’t biodegrade any faster than a conventional one.

Going hybrid: Many parents end up using both cloth and disposables—one at home, another at day care, say, or one with an infant, another with a toddler. That was Emily Santiago’s solution: She uses home-laundered cloth diapers during the day, disposables at night. She lines cloth diapers with a disposable paper liner that makes it easy to flush the poop, and she’s adopted a potty-training method called Elimination Communication that has her daughter nearly done with diapers at 15 months. Another hybrid option: gDiapers, which come with either biodegradable gRefills or reusable cloth inserts.

Given all the options out there, there’s no reason you can’t reduce the size of your baby’s bum-print. The key, as in so many parenting decisions, is flexibility. “You don’t have to be dogmatic,” Santiago observes. “Do what works best for you and your family.”


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