Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cloth diapers vs disposables

On my last post, I wrote that I was going to make cloth diapers and mentioned that they would be lower impact than disposables. Addie commented, wondering if cloth were really more economical if you take into account all of the energy and water that goes into cleaning them. I must admit, I always assumed cloth diapers were better but I really did not know and had heard Addie's argument against cloth before. I take all of this pretty seriously and want to do what is best. So, I did a little research and found this study (pdf) from the UK's equivalent of the EPA. The pdf is a 37 page document that I sifted through so you won't have to. The research is from 2006 and looks at the carbon footprint of cloth diapers vs disposable diapers. The assumptions in the study were that the average child is diapered for 2 1/2 years and uses an average of just over 4 diapers per day (the actual per day use of a diapered child is just over 6 diapers, but when non-diapered children that are still under 2 1/2 years are factored in, the overall average is 4.16 changes per day).

In the study, both diapering systems were traced all the way back to resource extraction. They took into account the obtaining of resources, manufacturing energy, manufacturing waste, packaging waste and manufacturing, distribution to retailers, energy use from retailer to home, energy use from home to landfill, etc. For cloth diapers, they also included washing water use, washing machine use based on average energy efficiency, and dryer use, also based on average energy efficiency.

What they concluded was this: Choosing cloth diapers can greatly reduce one's carbon footprint, but that energy savings is highly dependent on how the consumer treats the cloth diapers after purchase. Here are the steps necessary to save energy:
  • only run full loads of laundry
  • wash diapers on cold
  • always line dry
  • use diapers on more than one child
If these steps are followed, the average carbon footprint of a cloth diaperer versus a disposable diaperer is a whopping 40% lower, from 550Kg to 330Kg. To put that in perspective, the 220Kg carbon savings is equivalent to driving a car about 650 miles each year for the 2 1/2 years. However, if the diapers are washed on hot and are always tumble dried, the energy use is actually greater than disposables (about 10% greater). The vast majority of energy use came from the dryer.

We are still going to go with cloth and now that I know how much difference the dryer makes, we will definitely line dry. We also are using cloth wipes. I use soft, small baby washcloths. I keep them in a wipe warmer (yes, it is plugged in or they are freezing cold) with water and a little bit of olive oil for her skin. I throw them in with the rest of my laundry every time I do a load.

Thanks for the question, Ad!


Anonymous said...

Morgs said...

Thanks for looking into that! I was already super keen on using them and now I am more so. It's amazing the difference!

aubyn said...

I love learning things from your blog!
Joy, I love that you look at research and report on the good, the bad and the ugly!

Addie said...

Thanks for the answer! Super-informative. When actual cost is factored in, I know that the cloth is much cheaper, but when I calculated my time at $100 an hour, I knew paper was the way to go for B.

However, I am open to trying cloth on the next one (or two!), especially since all the cool new ways to do it without as much ick factor have come along. I also assume that my hourly rate will have gone down.

I might also be considering home schooling. I KNOW! I'm switching it up all crazy style from my norm!

Thanks Joy - you are a dear!

I think my main objection to cloth was the whiff of morality that the argument had taken on. Really, that's my main objection to most things that I'm not morally opposed to. :)

Addie said...

And when I say morality, I do not mean you, Sweet Joy. I meant everyone else. Bozeman is a hotbed of morality these days. Seriously. :)