Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” cloth diapers, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
Cloth diapers are on the up and up – considered an emerging market, the cloth diaper market share is expected to reach a valuation of 69 Billion dollars by 2031. Pee-you, that’s some serious cash. While they can be a lower material waste alternative to disposable diapers, it’s worth knowing about the unexpected environmental impacts associated with them.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON
Part of being a parent to a new little human is cleaning up bodily fluids, and diapers are a lifesaver when it comes to this parental duty (doody?). So, when considering which cloth diapers to buy, consider the materials they’re made from, the certifications you can trust, and how to care for and use them properly to avoid waste, reduce water use, and protect your little one from harmful chemicals and materials.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Diapers have a long, long history because, hey, babies have been pooping since the beginning of human existence. Diapers have had many forms and materials – peat moss, animal skin, and even cotton in 1400’s Europe. Today, cotton is still being used to wrap up our babies' bums. This comes as no surprise, considering that cotton is the most widely used natural fiber on the planet. Unfortunately, it is a water-intensive crop that takes a significant toll on the soil and is associated with deforestation. Cotton is also particularly vulnerable to pests and other insects, which has led to a flourishing agrochemical industry around its cultivation. Almost 10% of all agricultural chemical use and 25% of all insecticide use is attributed to the cotton industry.
The production and maintenance of cotton products require a lot of water. Luckily, some cotton is grown in ways that can be kinder to our planet. In a life-cycle assessment (LCA) looking at the differences between organic cotton and conventional cotton, the Textile Exchange found that organic cotton is 46% less harmful to global warming, creates 70% less acidification of land and water, causes 26% less soil erosion, and uses 91% less groundwater and 62% less energy.
Organic cotton means that the crop is grown without relying on the use of harmful chemicals, leaving the soil, air, and water with fewer contaminants. It also produces around 46% less carbon dioxide compared to conventional cotton. Plus, conventional cotton can have nasty pesticide residues that can lead to endocrine disruption and cancer. No, thanks. When looking for reusable cloth diapers, check for GOTS-Certified organic cotton – more on that later.
Polyester with a polyurethane cover
Another common material used in cloth diapers is the dynamic-duo combo of polyester with a polyurethane cover. Polyester in nappies can be referred to as ‘fleece” because it can be soft and comfy for a baby’s delicate skin. Polyester can hold up to seven times its weight in liquids, which makes sense as to why it is commonly used in diaper inserts. The polyester material dries quickly and is often laminated with a polyurethane cover (PUL) that provides breathability while preventing leakage.
Both polyester and polyurethane require non-renewable resources in their production, including fossil fuels like petroleum… no thanks! When compared to cotton, polyester fiber production requires over 40% more energy than cotton fiber production, and its global warming potential (GWP) is more than two times that of cotton. However, polyester fiber production requires less than 0.1% of the water required in conventional cotton production. Some diapers will be made of polyester with a polyurethane cover but will contain reusable liners (i.e. the fluffy part inside that wicks away moisture and prevents leakages) that are made of either organic cotton or, even better, OEKO-TEX cotton. While it is ideal to opt for purely organic cotton (because we avoid all of the impacts of polyester and polyurethane above), this is an option out there. All in all, we recommend opting for organic cotton (which uses less water than its conventional brethren) and avoiding polyester and polyurethane reusable nappies, which support the fossil fuel industry.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on reusable diapers and cloth diapers.
The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a certification for textiles made of organic materials. To get this certification, a product must contain at least 70% organic materials and meet all of the ecological and social well-being criteria outlined by the certifying agency. This includes but is not limited to: workplace safety, wage gap assessments, wastewater treatment, and limitations on conventional fiber products. Opting for GOTS-certified organic cotton can have a whole host of positive benefits on people and the planet, which we love.
The OEKO-Tex certification is one of the leading textile certifications that prohibits azo dyes, formaldehyde, nickel, and other known carcinogens. The OEKO-Tex certification guarantees that every component of a product has been tested for potentially harmful substances such as pesticides, heavy metals, and formaldehyde, which would predominantly impact the people working at manufacturing facilities. This certification tells us that the product is relatively harmless to human health, which is great for the people who make the products AND the people who use them. When it comes to our little babes, choosing a product that is safer for human health is a must.
Care and Use
Disposable diapers are not easy on the environment when it comes to disposal. In fact, some studies show that disposable diapers are responsible for creating anywhere between 1 - 2% of the world’s non-biodegradable waste, which, when you think about all the waste in the world, is a massive percentage. Disposal of these kinds of diapers can also lead to water, air, and soil contamination, and in some cases, is the primary cause of airborne contagious disease.
Over the two-and-a-half-year period in which a baby is being potty trained, they will need between 15 and 25 cloth diapers, or a whopping 5,000 and 7,500 disposable diapers. So, when we’re comparing disposable diapers and cloth diapers, we have to consider the solid waste associated with disposable diapers and the water use associated with reusable cloth diapers (from all the washing to keep those bad boys clean). Both of these impacts depend significantly on local factors, like the resources used for power generation and waste management.
The 2008 UK Environmental Agency study notes that the global warming potential of cloth diapers can be reduced to 40% less than disposables by:
- Washing them in full loads
- Line-drying them outdoors and avoiding the dyer, or using an energy-efficient dryer
- Reusing the (cleaned!) diapers on a second child
Over the two and a half years of use, using cloth diapers and following these tips can result in savings equivalent to driving a car approximately 620 miles.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
When figuring out what kind of diapers to buy for your babe, there are a lot of factors to consider. While polyester with a polyurethane cover is a common material combination used in cloth diapers, it is associated with the fossil fuel industry and requires 40% more energy than conventional cotton nappies. Conventional cotton is also associated with significant water and pesticide use, so opt for organic cotton diapers verified with the GOTS and OEKO-Tex certifications to rest easy. Make sure to wash your nappies in full loads, line-dry them when possible, and reuse them on the (lucky!) second child who just loves hand-me-downs.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
“Are cloth diapers really more eco-friendly?”
Well, it depends! If you wash your nappies in full loads, line-dry them when possible, and reuse them on a second child, the global warming potential of cloth diapers can be reduced to 40% less than disposables.
“What is the most sustainable diaper?”
We’re currently on the hunt for the most sustainable diaper, too! In our opinion, the most sustainable diaper is not just about what the diaper is made of, but also about how it is taken care of. From our research, the most sustainable diaper is a cloth diaper made from organic cotton, and is washed in full loads, line-dried when possible, and reused on a second child. Check out our Top Products Page for our recommendations for the best cloth diapers based on key factors across six environmental footprints.
“How long do cloth diapers take to decompose?”
It depends on the material the cloth diapers are made of and if they’re decomposing in a landfill or an industrial composting facility. If the cloth diapers are made from 100% cotton and decompose in compost, it can take anywhere from a week to five months.