I came across this British news article that says a new government study has shown that cloth diapers are more damaging to the environment than disposable diapers unless parents practice certain measures, like always line-drying the diapers, using them “for years” on multiple children, and not using excessively hot water in the washer.
I was suspicious of the article, though. They seemed to be saying the water temperature in the washer shouldn’t exceed 60 degrees Celsius, which is 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Consumers in the U.S., at least, have been told for years to set their hot water heater to 120 degrees for both safety and environmental reasons, so I’m not sure how many people would actually be using excessively hot water in the washer.
But what really confused me was the end of the article, which offers a comparison in which the cloth diapers were “washed at 90C.” If “90C” is 90 degrees Celsius, then it converts to 194 degrees Fahrenheit, which seems absurdly high. And that made me think I just wasn’t understanding something fundamental.
So I managed to find a direct link to the British government study (pdf). Skipping ahead to the “Conclusion” section on page 21, I found that the true conclusion of the study is that the global warming impact of the “average” use of both types of diapers results in a difference of only 20kg of carbon dioxide equivalents over the course of two and a half years. The disposable diapers come in at 550 kg, while cloth diapers come in at 570 kg.
The report makes the obvious observation that how the cloth diapers are washed dramatically affects their global warming impact. Washing them in fuller loads, line-drying them, and reusing the diapers on a second child reduced their global warming impact to 370 kg in two and a half years. Conversely, tumble-drying cloth diapers increases the global warming impact to over 800 kg.
So what’s the bottom line? Cloth diapers aren’t always the environmentally friendly choice. And while I haven’t done the math, my guess is that, depending on your shopping and laundry habits, it may not always be the most budget friendly choice either. (Neither disposable diapers nor laundry detergent – especially the dye and fragrance free kind, which are recommended for babies – are inexpensive.) On the other hand, if you use the cloth diapers on multiple children, wash as few loads as possible, and line-dry the diapers, you’ll probably save both money and energy.
But if you’re on the fence about what kind of diaper to use, I’m not sure this is a decision you can make ahead of time. In addition to the factors mentioned above, there are some things you just can’t know until after the baby is born. Your child may end up having extremely sensitive skin such that cloth diapers are infinitely more comfortable for him. Or your child may turn out to be so colicky that you don’t have the time or energy to line-dry and fold cloth diapers.
One final note about an interesting aspect to this study: according to the article (which, as we’ve established isn’t entirely reliable), British government officials have tried to bury the report. I’m not quite sure why, except to guess that someone high up expected the report to show that cloth diapers are far better for the environment, and is crushed that that wasn’t the conclusion.
Image credit: Amazon.com.