In the US, our babies use approximately 6,000 diapers from birth to potty training.
Americans throw away 18 billion disposable diapers a year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The majority of these diapers are disposable, many of which are made with plastic, bleached fibers, and fragrance chemicals that may pose a health risk and take hundreds of years to decompose after we throw them away.
Finding the right diapers is important to your baby’s health and wellbeing—and also to the planet, your budget, and your sanity. There are several factors to take into account—the materials used in the diaper, the cost, the accessibility, biodegradability, and of course, preventing leaks and blowouts.
Since they are washed and reused (sometimes for more than one kid in the family), cloth diapers eliminate a tremendous amount of waste. And since they are free of bleached fibers (which may contain dioxin, which is a carcinogen and endocrine disruptor) and undisclosed fragrance chemicals, they are a safer option to many of the disposables.
Now, in case you’re questioning the sanity of using cloth diapers in 2014, please know this: They have come a long way! The days of super bulky cotton closed with safety pins or rubber pants are over. There are numerous great blog posts written about the myriad options of cloth diapers—all-in-one, pocket, fitted, etc. (See here and here.) Like so many things, no single brand emerges as the clear winner: One person swears by one kind, whereas another parent explains that they didn’t work for them at all.
If you’re considering cloth diapers and you’re not sure which type of diaper or diaper wash to use, try buying one or two of the top contenders and seeing how you like them before purchasing in bulk. Most people suggest washing diapers with a special diaper wash (check out our laundry detergent guide) every couple of days, so you will need to factor in the cost and time of doing extra laundry.
While the upfront cost of cloth can seem high (new diapers average $16), even with the cost of water, energy, and soap, you’re likely to save 60%, or thousands of dollars, if you choose cloth over disposable. The most highly-regarded brands include BumGenius, Thirsties, and FuzziBunz.
Disposable diapers are made of wood pulp (Fluff pulp), super absorbent polymers (or SAPs, which soak up the liquids), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE), along with tapes, elastics, adhesives, and sometimes fragrance.
Landfills are problematic because the lack of air, sun, and helpful microbes do not allow for trash to decompose. Even organic food scraps take forever to break down in landfills, let alone a plastic-filled diaper, which can persist for decades (some say hundreds of years).
Most disposable diapers are bleached white by way of chlorine bleach, which might results in dioxin contamination. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dioxins are among the most toxic chemicals and are listed by the EPA as cancer-causing and hormone-disrupting chemicals. Disposable diapers may also contain chemicals that can irritate the respiratory system and or the skin.
There are a few brands of disposable diapers that do not use chlorine bleach or fragrances, and which use recycled fibers. These are far better options—both environmentally and health-wise—than “traditional” disposable diapers, but they do cost more. Buying online in bulk can help cut down the price per diaper, and many websites ship for free when you order enough at a time.
Keep in mind that you do not have to commit 100% to cloth or to disposable. Our Head of Health & Safety, Mia Davis, uses cloth (BumGenius, Thirsties and FuzziBunz) during the day, and Earth’s Best disposables overnight and when traveling for more than a day.