Diaper debate: Cloth makes a comeback

Eco-friendly and cost-conscious parents are turning to cloth diapers when it comes to deciding what will cover baby's bottom.

Eco-friendly and cost-conscious parents are turning to cloth diapers when it comes to deciding what will cover baby's bottom

When it comes to caring for our babies, most people want only the best. For more and more parents, however, what's best extends far beyond the crib, nursery or playschool — the decisions involve what is best for the environment, while watching the pocketbook. For many eco-friendly and cost-conscious parents, those decisions are prompting a return to cloth when covering baby's bottom.

Most reasonable people want to do only one thing with a dirty diaper: get rid of it. This common sentiment helped establish disposable diapers as a multibillion-dollar business in North America, with 1.49-million disposable diapers sold in 2005 in Canada alone, according to Carlos Richer, a diaper industry consultant based in Mexico.

According to Environment Canada, more than four million disposable diapers are discarded in Canada each day. ((Matt Ott/AP) )
Disposables represent 96 per cent of the North American diaper market and account for roughly $5.7 billion US in annual sales, according to Adrian Atterby, analyst of disposable paper products for Euromonitor.

Yet a revival in community values, environmental philosophies and a desire for more natural choices is prompting some parents to reconsider what they toss and how much they spend doing it.

April MacKinnon, a cloth-diaper using mother in Dartmouth, N.S., runs baby products company Nurtured Products for Parents. "I was trained as a civil engineer, and was not prepared for how profoundly motherhood changed me," explains MacKinnon. "Having a civil engineering background gave me a perspective of what happens to what we throw away."

MacKinnon launched her business in April 2006, complete with cloth diapers and a pickup service. Since the launch of her virtual/mail-order store, MacKinnon says she has experienced exponential growth. "What I used to do in business in a six-month period I now do in three days," she says.


  • The rate of diaper rash from both kinds of diapers are about the same.
  • Disposable diapers don't require diaper pins. You don't need diaper pins for cloth diapers either if you buy diaper covers with Velcro straps.
  • Most diaper buyers don’t consider the total cost of ownership when purchasing diapers. While the cloth diapers require an initial investment of roughly $300, the overall cost is significantly cheaper than disposables when factored over the number of years a child will need diapers.

"The huge variety of cloth diapers that are available make it possible for people to choose diapers that meet their personal criteria," adds Angela Johnston, mother and owner of Valley Cloth Diapers, a Nova Scotia-based cloth-diaper company.

Johnston started her business three years ago, and "spent a great deal of time convincing people about cloth diapers." She recalls how everyone — from friends to family — told her she was, "crazy for thinking about cloth," and says parents who opt for cloth often receive this same response today.

"There is a cultural misunderstanding about the simplicity of cloth diapers," Johnston says. "Cloth diapers are not more work than disposables, and the environmental footprint from using disposables is far more harmful than that of cloth or reusable diapers."

Environmental impact debate

A four-year study by the British Environmental Agency (BEA) on the impact of cloth and disposal diapers, released in 2004, generated much debate when it concluded that the environmental impact of both types of diapers was nearly the same when you factored in the washing and drying of cloth. The results were an embarrassment to the British government, which was in the midst of a multimillion-dollar campaign to promote cloth nappies.

The BEA's results were in line with a 1992 study, sponsored by Procter & Gamble, the makers of Pampers. Procter & Gamble, along with Kimberly-Clark (another leading disposable-diaper manufacturer), touted the BEA's study as proof that disposable diapers are not as harmful to the environment as once thought.

However, cloth-diaper advocates said the British study was methodologically flawed because the sample size was too small. One U.K.-based charity, the Women's Environmental Network (WEN), criticized the BEA for comparing 2,000 parents using disposable diapers against just 117 parents using reusable nappies; the sample size of cloth-using parents was further reduced to 32 parents.


  • Roughly 12 cloth diapers (a newborn is changed an average of six times a day).
  • 24 cloth wipes (rather than disposable wipes). These cloth wipes can be folded into the soiled diaper and laundered the same way.
  • Four to six inserts (to double up the absorbency in pocket diapers for overnights or naptime use). 
  • A few microfleece diaper liners (they protect baby's bottom and the diaper when using diaper creams).
  • At least two covers (if you plan to take your baby out for extended periods of time). 
  • Small tote bag (for carrying dirty diapers - also known as a wet bag).
  • Dry and wet diaper pail.

"This resulted in as few as two respondents being used for certain key assumptions," explained WEN in its public response to the study.

Another criticism was that long-term evidence collected by other governments, including Canada's Ministry of Environment, contradicted the estimated environmental impact of disposable diapers that was proffered by the BEA study.

According to Environment Canada, more than four million disposable diapers are discarded in Canada each day. Considering it takes an estimated 500 years for a disposable diaper to decompose in a landfill, cloth-diaper advocates say the BEA study is flawed in concluding that washable cloth nappies have an environmental footprint comparable to disposable diapers.

The Real Diaper Association, a California-based diaper advocacy group, took aim at this aspect of the BEA report when it stated, "the study shows careful laundering can reduce environmental impact. Even using the study's self-acknowledged weak assumptions, the conclusion does not reflect the significant reduction of environmental impact resulting from use of energy-efficient washing, as shown within the body of the report. The report shows that users of home-laundered cloth diapers can reduce environmental impact up to 38 per cent through their laundering choices. Energy rating, washing temperature, and number of diapers laundered have a significant impact on the numbers."

Reducing the load on landfills

It's not just the diaper that can cause environmental problems, it's what in a used one.

"The waste from the cloth diaper is properly treated as sewage, while disposable diapers in landfills can be a breeding ground for a wide variety of viruses, including hepatitis B and polio from vaccines given to newborns," states Environment Canada. "Also, the effluents from the disposable diaper manufacturing process (plastic, pulp and bleached paper) are more damaging to the environment than the cotton and hemp growing and manufacturing process."

"The very lengthy decomposition of [diaper] waste and the subsequent health risks of untreated human waste, with its potential disease-causing organisms and remnants of prescribed medications, will cause problems, particularly if this leaches into the groundwater supply and contaminates our water resources," says Michelle Bigg, a mother and executive director of WasteNot, a Nanaimo, B.C.-based not-for-profit group whose mandate is to convert waste materials into usable resources.

Bigg, who is also a graduate of Royal Roads University's Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science program, says that despite the potential hazards of disposable diapers and other personal hygiene products, municipalities still do not require these products to be treated before being sent to a landfill. She predicts that, "laws regarding the disposal and handling of [diapers and] personal hygiene product waste will soon become part of waste management and recycling protocols."

There's also a global movement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In Canada, waste management accounts for 3.5 per cent of the nation's total greenhouse-gas emissions. The lion's share of this percentage comes from landfill sites, where organic material buried deep under layers of inorganic waste and earth decomposes without oxygen, creating methane.


For Susan Alexander-Wilson, a Texan mother, the choice between cloth and disposables was simple. "I didn't want to throw away piles and piles of diapers."

It was the birth of her son in March 2007 that prompted her decision. "I imagined leaving my son a giant pile of trash. That's when I decided, right from the start, that as part of his environmental legacy, cloth was the way to go."

At first she was concerned about cost, given that the average baby uses between 6,000 and 10,000 disposable diapers during a three-year period. But she had several friends using cloth diapers so she "just asked lots and lots of questions."

First she found out that because "disposables [diapers] are a recurring cost, they are more expensive." Armed with this knowledge, and with her desire to cut her costs and her environmental impact, she asked what other cloth-using parents recommended in terms of leak prevention, ease of cleaning and ease of use. From this information Alexander-Wilson learned that fitted diapers were easiest to clean and use and helped prevent leaks. She also learned that gDiapers - biodegradable, compostable and disposable - were best used when travelling (and when a parent doesn't want to deal with a wet bag to hold dirty diapers).

"As for the cost, I only had to pay for my cloth diapers once. They cost less than $300 for two dozen and I expect to use the same two dozen diapers until my son is potty trained."

Economics certainly come into play for some parents. According to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the average cost of disposable diapers is about 20 cents a diaper, while cloth diapers through a diaper service cost about 12 cents each.

 Krista Williamson, mother and founder of London, Ont.-based baby and toddler specialty store Cheeky Monkey, the cost to diaper an average baby with disposables is roughly $1,200 to $2,000 a year. The cost for cloth, during the same time period, is $720 to $1,200 if you wash your own diapers.

Parents can reap further savings by reusing a set of cloth diapers with subsequent children.

"We have only been carrying cloth diapers for about a year," says Williamson, "but we sell a very large volume of them. In fact, adding diapers to our store sales has meant exponential growth for our store."

While the addition of cloth diapers meant significant training for her and her staff - so they could provide consumers the latest information on fabric and the benefits of each different style of reusable diaper - Williamson says she is pleased with the customer response.

"It is nice to know that our small store can help the world and make a profit at the same time," she says. "As a business owner, it is gratifying to know that success can be achieved in this way."

Environmental impact of reusables

Cost was not the only concern for Alexander-Wilson. "Nothing could be simpler than just throwing away dirty diapers, but that just wasn't an option I could be comfortable with," she recalls

Yet Alexander-Wilson was also uncomfortable with the potential impact that constant washing of cloth diapers, and the removal of human waste, could have on the environment.

MacKinnon concedes that if a person is considering cloth and they are concerned about the environment, then eventually the issue of washing comes up.

In a University of Minnesota paper, Diaper Choices, by Wanda Olson, Sherri Gahring and Thomas Halbach, the authors report that, "The major environmental cost of cloth diapers is in laundering."


  • If you are unable to use cloth at certain facilities, such as daycares, switch to an all-in-one (AIO) cloth diaper or a pocket cloth diaper – they are easier for the staff to use and may help them understand that it does not require more work to use cloth.
  • To conserve water and energy, rinse the cloth diapers (either with a spray, in a pail or in the toilet) and allow for at least six diapers before washing soiled nappies.
  • Use mild bleach to wash the diapers if mildew is suspected (it can happen if wet diapers are left to sit for a period of time, but is not a common problem).
  • Wash all cloth diapers once before using them to maximize fabric softness.
  • For leaking issues try using double liners, or buying cloth diapers with a higher rise.
  • Do not use vinegar when cleaning cloth diapers and their covers, as this breaks down the fabric and elasticity.

In their assessment, they conclude that a load of home-laundered diapers uses up to 227 litres of water - about half of this is heated - which is the equivalent of flushing the toilet five times a day for a week. The authors also concede that due to detergents and chemicals involved, "production, distribution, and eventual disposal of cloth diapers also have environmental impacts. The cotton from which most reusable diapers is made takes much more plant nutrients, pesticide, water, mechanical energy, and labour than does the production of trees from which disposables are made, and may tend to increase soil erosion and reduce species diversity, too."

Despite their concerns, the authors of Diaper Choices point out that, "it's important to remember that a single cloth diaper can be reused at least 75 times."

To add to the notion that diaper choice is about mitigating the impacts - rather than removing all environmental damage - the 2004 BEA study quantified the life cycle assessment impact of cloth and disposable diapers in terms of how much carbon dioxide was produced. For the cloth-diapered baby, the study reported a production of 559 kg of carbon dioxide; an equivalent baby in disposable diapers produced 626 kg of carbon dioxide.

"Using the thermodynamic energy balance [there is] no significant difference in the energy requirements between the three diapering systems [disposable, commercially laundered cloth diapers, home-laundered cloth diapers]," concluded Susan L. LeVan, assistant director of USDA Forest Services in a paper she presented at the 49th annual meeting of Forest Products Society. She went on to say that, "the primary differences between the three comparative diapering systems is the environmental waste burden."

MacKinnon states that disposable diapers generate 60 times more solid waste than cloth diapers and takes 100,000 times longer to biodegrade in a landfill (500 years for disposable, versus six months for cloth).

According to the Real Diaper Association, a nonprofit organization that lobbies to get parents to use cloth diapers, the raw materials required to keep one baby in disposable diapers for one year include more than 136 kilograms of wood, 23 kg of petroleum and nine kg of chlorine. Manufacturing consumes 2.3 times more water than the manufacturing, using and washing of cloth diapers.

New nappy technology

Another reason cloth diapers are making a comeback is their ease of use. Gone are the painful pins, sagging bottoms and leaky legs. Cloth diapers now come in a plethora of shapes, sizes, materials and colours.

While Robyn Chittister, a mother in Antioch, Calif., used a diaper service for her son for six months, she eventually discarded the service and, after much debate with her husband, opted to wash her own.

"One of the reasons we stopped using cloth [and the service] was that the diapers were leaking," she recalls. Through talking to other users she found out that her service had a limited range of nappy covers and an even more limited selection of cloth diapers, so it wasn't reflecting the latest reusable diaper designs. She also learned that there was an entire market of environmentally friendly cleaning products to help parents deal with the waste before putting the diapers into the washer and dryer.

"Once we got the hang of it, they were great," Chittister says.

Johnston explains that parents need to investigate what their baby may need and then talk to companies offering the product and/or service. "There is a huge variety of cloth diapers available: flat, prefold, contour, fitted, all-in-one (AIO) and pocket."  While she concedes that the most challenging part is figuring out what product works best for each family, she suggests that parents get onto forums and talk to friends. As a starting point, Johnston suggests that: 

  • People who don't want to give any thought to diapering and prefer the convenience of disposable diapers should use pocket cloth diapers.
  • Those who like natural-fibre products should look into fitted cloth diapers made of hemp, cotton and bamboo.
  • People who are truly motivated to save money should look at flat or prefolded reusable diapers.

"Parents use diapers more than any other baby product," says Johnston. "And when you are going to change a diaper eight to 10 times a day, you want to be sure that it's a diaper that you are going to enjoy using. This is one of the biggest differences between using disposables and using cloth - people who use cloth actually enjoy using the cloth diaper product. People who use disposables tend not to have any emotional investment in the product."

Parents who opt for cloth may have to deal with resistance. "Our initial daycare provider wouldn't let us use them," recalls Chittister. "[So] we found a day-care provider that would use them."

Ultimately, the difference between cloth diapering today and cloth diapering 20 or 30 years ago is choice, says Johnston. "And with range of choices out there, people are able to select a diaper that fits their budget, their morals and their diapering philosophy."

The author is a Canadian freelance writer.