While he may poo in blue, my grandbaby tinkles in periwinkle. And a whole rainbow of other colors and designs. After all, cloth diapers shifted away from plain white a long time ago...there just aren't commercials with catchy jingles promoting that. Too bad. I wish there were. After all, if cloth were cool, perhaps more young parents would be jumping on the bandwagon.
Of course, as a cloth-diapering family, we're often asked the question, "Why do you use cloth?" and the answers vary. My main issue is the health risks associated with the toxins in disposable diapers. But there's also the environmental impact which is HUGE!
One time diapers are soiled, then tossed. Technically, it is required by law to rid the diaper of any poop before throwing it away, but I highly doubt that's done very often. After all, it would be inconvenient to do so. Not to mention gross. And, God forbid, we deal with anything gross when it comes to child rearing, right? Gross belongs on reality television shows, not in the nursery. But did you know that fecal matter thrown into the trash can carry live viruses and bacteria that can become an environmental and public health hazard? Who knows who will pay the price for that...
According to EPA estimates, approximately 18 billion diapers make their way to U.S. landfills every year. We're talking 3.3 million tons! Since most disposables are composed of paper, plastic and sodium polyacrylate (that yucky gel that makes them super-absorbent); all of which stick around in the landfill for a very long time (hundreds of years, as a matter of fact).
But what about companies with claims of "biodegradable" disposables? While the cornstarch they add to the plastic helps it to decompose somewhat, that doesn't take away the environmental nightmare plastic in general creates in the landfills. Besides, when cornstarch is added to plastic, it makes it virtually impossible to recycle, even if there were diaper recycling systems in place.
Nature Boy and Girl, a company in Europe, does produce a compostable diaper. However, for those of us in the U.S., we have no way of properly disposing of them because at this point there are no commercial composting facilities that deal with household waste. Besides, compostable diapers still have to be rid of fecal matter before heading to the dump, and, as stated earlier, parents, grandparents, babysitters, and daycare centers aren't eager to deal with poopy diapers that way.
Now let's look at the environmental benefits and pitfalls of the alternative. Cloth diapers are reusable. If you have more than one child, the benefit increases. Once you put out that initial chunk of money for cloth, you save a bundle over the course of diapering your children.
People have argued with me about the waste of water used when laundering diapers. However, the fact is the manufacturing process for disposable diapers uses far more natural resources than are used in the production of and laundering of cloth diapers. Think about it. What goes into making a disposable diaper? Well, according to some estimations, nearly 1.3 million tons of wood pulp is used annually just to keep our American babies and toddlers diapered (in disposables, of course). That's the equivalent of a quarter-million trees. And then there's the plastics used and the toxic chemicals. Hmm.
However, there are environmental issues with cloth as well. First of all, if you're using non-organic cotton diapers, there's the pesticide issue. I blogged about the problem with cotton several months ago, pointing out that more pesticides are used when farming cotton than with any other crop. Plus, there's not enough research into the effects of genetically engineered cotton, which is becoming more popular.
The chlorine bleaching of the cotton releases dioxin (a carcinogen and hormone disruptor) into the wastewater, which has been proven to have an adverse affect on the reproduction systems of various forms of wildlife. But guess what? The wood pulp used in most disposables is bleached as well and, along with the dioxin, solvents and heavy metals are also released into the wastewater during the manufacturing process of the throwaway diapers. So again, cloth diapers have less of an affect on the environment and the subsequent health of the inhabitants of the planet.
As far as the dirty diaper wash water goes...the only potential harm to the environment comes from the detergent used. Stick with a detergent like Rockin' Green Cloth Diaper and Laundry Detergent and you'll be fine. No harmful anythings going into the wastewater.
Your best choice for your baby and the environment lies in organic cotton, hemp or bamboo diapers. If you don't mind using prefolds (which is what my grandbaby has worn the majority of her 21 months), you can also make them yourself by simply stitching up some old receiving blankets or fashioning them out of old t-shirts.
If you're intrigued but don't know where to start when it comes to cloth diapering, let me recommend some online resources:
- Happy Baby Company (if you're in the Pittsburgh area, they even hold cloth diapering orientation classes)
- The Cloth Diaper Foundation (helping families get started with cloth)
- Cloth Diapers 'n More
- Cloth Diaper Superstore
- Green Baby Clothing Company
Keeping it green,
Photo courtesy of Heather Desuta