My husband and I recently had our first child, a gorgeous and giant-cheeked little girl named Annie. Sleep routines still occupy most of our child-rearing mental space, but we spend the majority of her awake time managing fluids. The inputs—nursing, pumping, practicing with a bottle—occupy hours of every day, and every 15 minutes finds us sopping up some emission with one of several absorbent materials.
Being kind of a hippie, I have been troubled by the thought of sending Annie’s 10 daily diapers to sit in a landfill for hundreds of years. We Americans threw away 3.5 million tons of disposable diapers in 2012,* and I don’t particularly want 5-10,000 of those to be Annie’s. Nine months pregnant, when no one can refuse you anything, I dragged my husband Bryan to a cloth diapering class at our frou-frou neighborhood baby store, where he endured a store-cat-provoked allergy attack so we could learn about all the new-fangled cloth diapering technology. It’s come a long way from prefolds and pins, let’s just say. We’d talked about how having children might renew our passion for long-held but imperfectly-practiced principles, and environmentalism is high on that list for me, so I’d been determined to at least give cloth diapers the old college try. Learning about our options was the first step.
The bar is high for entry, though: you want at least 15 diapers to get through a day with margin for error, and good, easy-to-use ones run $25 or more apiece. Sticking with it saves a lot of money in the long run—at 25 cents a diaper, a couple years of Pampers would cost us nearly 2 grand—but it’s hard to give cloth diapering a casual try without dropping hundreds of dollars. Enter Sophie, Auntie Extraordinaire, who offered us a complete set of thrice-used but still in great shape Fuzzibunz pocket diapers. She even delivered them to our door. No excuses left.
Cloth diapers: probably worth it.
Four days in, here’s my assessment. The diapers themselves are bulkier than disposables and more obtrusive under snug onesies. On the other hand, they’re cute bottoms in themselves and lend themselves better to wearing with shirts or dresses. We’ve had no problems with leaking or blowing out—or at least nothing worse than with our favorite disposables. Changing her takes a tiny bit more effort: because the diapers are not quite as absorbent, poops require a little more mopping up, and fastening four snaps takes perhaps 3 seconds longer than two bits of tape. But the difference is negligible. When we have gone out, we’ve just brought along disposables so we don’t have to mess with carrying dirty diapers home—I feel no compulsion whatsoever to be a purest about this and use cloth 100% of the time. The biggest hassle, unsurprisingly, is that cloth diapering requires doing an extra load of laundry every day or so, and 5 minutes of reassembling the shells and soaker pads afterward.
Overall, it’s a much smaller sacrifice than I feared it would be. Granted, she is not eating solid food yet, so there is no poop-removal step, but between the sprayers and liners now available I don’t anticipate that being much worse than mopping off her butt.
So cloth diapers are not much trouble, and they’re cheaper than disposables if you use them for even 6 months (and vastly cheaper if you use the same set for a second kid). But as I looked into it, counterintuitively, it’s not actually so clear that they’re a slam dunk for the environment. The best comparison I could find was a 2008 update to a UK study quantifying impacts of the entire lifecycles of disposable vs. cloth diapers (British-ly called nappies). Title: An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies.** They figured in absolutely everything they could: “For example, polymer materials used in disposable nappies were linked to the impacts associated with crude oil extraction and the flows associated with the fluff pulp used in disposables were traced back to paper and forest growth. For cloth nappies, the flows were traced back to cotton growth and production. All transport steps have been included.”
I mean, how fun is that? A slight career-path turn after public policy school and I would be writing this stuff.
The study concluded that when you factor everything in, there’s just not a big difference in environmental impact between disposable diapers and cloth, at least the way they’re most commonly used. Who would have guessed? However, built into that are a lot of assumptions that don’t necessarily apply to our situation, and a lot of detail about how specific choices and practices can lower the impact of cloth diapers quite a bit, making them an unequivocal better choice. For example, if you reuse a set for a second kid, you amortize the big impact of manufacturing and transporting the cloth diapers to begin with. Using a high-efficiency washer reduced total impact by 9% in the study. (And washers have gotten better since then—our model uses about two-thirds of the energy and three-quarters of the water per load than do the best-performing washers in the study.) Tumble-drying every load, on the other hand, increases emissions by 43% (dryers are awful, wow!). The combination of reusing diapers for a second child, washing in fuller loads, and line-drying reduces total carbon impact by 40%, making cloth a clearly better choice.
It’s worth mentioning that a lot of the specific assumptions in the study aren’t quite right for us. The energy and water use of washer/dryers, for one, but also things like the mix of energy sources used to generate electricity in the first place. I wasn’t quite crazy enough to look up how our Austin Energy mix differs from the 2006 UK average used in the study, but it certainly isn’t the same. Regardless, there is plenty of information to conclude with some confidence that, given Annie is the fourth user of this diaper set, and that our appliances are top-notch, cloth diapers are hands down the better environmental choice, probably by quite a bit.
Annie, contemplating the carbon footprint of her diaper.
But maybe the more important question is whether choosing reusable diapers is how we, Leslie and Bryan, American consumers, can make a meaningful difference. 3.5 million tons/year sounds like a, pardon me, poop-load of disposable diapers, but it’s less than 2% of everything we send to the landfills. We Americans throw away almost 9 million tons of clothing and shoes—clothing and shoes!* Let’s do a little more creative reuse and work on that number. Or step up the composting to cut down on the 50 million tons of food and yard waste we send, which get packed so tightly in landfills that they don’t degrade much better than a plastic bag.*** Or how about this fun fact: the total carbon impact calculated for diapering your kid in disposables in that UK study is about 550kg. That is almost precisely the same footprint as my seat on the 3000-air-mile roundtrip flight I took this summer from Austin to SFO.****
I suspect that the real reason diapers trouble me is simply because they’re a new thing to throw away. The vast majority of my waste and profligate energy use I have long since gotten used to, and any outrage I may have felt about it is too stale to motivate much action. In the long run, perhaps the best thing the cloth diapering debate will accomplish is provoking us to buy carbon offsets for our plane travel.
Resolution: A few days after I originally wrote this, we did indeed buy some carbon offsets. Here’s a quick overview if you’re curious. An important thing to look for if you’re purchasing them is for a credible certification that the projects they support are delivering what they promise and would not have happened otherwise. Green-e seems to be the most common and well-regarded. I used one of several good calculators to figure our transportation emissions and bought offsets for 2 tons/month from Terrapass, for about $12/month. Like most offsets, the majority of the projects they support capture methane—a really bad emission—from landfills and burn it off as CO₂—a not-quite-as-bad emission. Still worse than not polluting in the first place, but at least does some quantifiable good. I also went into our Austin Energy account and switched us to their Green Choice program, which charges an extra .75 cents/kWh (about $5-10/month for us) to supply our electricity from 100% wind sources. This program has been around forever, and I’m a little embarrassed we weren’t already signed up.
*http://www.epa.gov/solidwaste/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/2012_msw_dat_tbls.pdf — See tables 1 and 2 for food/yard waste; tables 15 and 16 for diapers and clothing/shoes. Figures I mention for clothing/shoes and food/yard waste are the total tons sent to landfills minus what’s recovered.
**The original 2005 study is an even bigger hoot, including no fewer than 12 tables on children’s urine and feces production. Yes, this is what I read on maternity leave; somebody get me back to the office already.
***Here’s a nice little fact sheet on landfills from presumably-trustworthy academics. The slow degradation of waste is why paying 3-4x as much for diapers that advertise biodegradable or even fully compostable materials is pretty useless, unless you also pay for a service that will pick them up and compost them.
****3000 air miles times .185 kg/mile, the lowest estimate of carbon output per passenger mile, is 555kg of carbon.