Over the weekend I was enjoying my early afternoon french toast at Just Breakfast when a couple of young mothers occupied the table next to mine. They were soon embroiled in a heated (but good natured) debate on the environmental impact of disposable diapers versus cloth diapers.
Now, I’ve always avoided this debate for three reasons: 1) I choose not to be around infants in diapers anyway so it’s not really my decision to make, 2) I believe there are more pressing concerns in today’s world than environmental impact, and 3) aren’t cloth diapers clearly better for the environment? However, I’m also a person who values knowing the truth more than being right all along, so I decided to investigate “disposable mother’s” claims that an independent study proved they were less damaging to the environment than cloth diapers.
Google led me to an article in London’s Sunday Times “Blow to image of ‘green’ reusable nappy” which was published back in October 2008 and shares the results of a £50,000 study by England’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Amongst that report’s conclusions-
The report found that while disposable nappies used over 2½ years would have a global warming , impact of 550kg of CO2 reusable nappies produced 570kg of CO2 on average. But if parents used tumble dryers and washed the reusable nappies at 90C, the impact could spiral to 993kg of CO2.
In other words the government determined that disposable diapers have a smaller carbon footprint than cloth diapers. Those responsible for commissioning this report were biased, which is always the problem with studies of this sort. Of course, as the article makes clear, in this case the bias was towards cloth diapers. Since the results came out in the opposite direction, DEFRA “has told its media managers not to give its conclusions any publicity”.
Knowing there’s always more than one side to any news story I headed out into the ‘green’ blogosphere to see what environmentalists had to say about this article. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find a single environmentalist who said “Wow, I was wrong, disposable diapers are better than cloth diapers”. Nope, instead I found all sorts of rebuttals to the findings and claims that the study was biased or “bad science”. For example, Jennifer Lance wrote at Eco Child’s Play–
I don’t think the report considered the impact on landfills of disposable diapers, and I think that further research needs to be done. I can’t embrace these findings, as there are many factors that were not considered. What about diaper services that reuse the same cloth diapers many times for many families? I don’t know any families that just dispose of their cloth diapers when their children have completed their toilet learning. If they are still in good shape, they are passed on to other families. If they are stained and falling apart, they are used as rags. I still think using cloth diapers was the best choice for my children’s health and the environment despite this report.
Further evidence that environmentalists are the most stubborn of idealists who are more concerned with perception than reality lies in the comments on that post-
I’ve read that report – it was buried for a reason. Not only was it bad science but it made a lot of assumptions that are simply not true. Like you mentioned, cloth diapers get reused for up to five children. The water used to wash cloth diapers is about the same as the amount used by the same number of kids to flush a toilet – so a child in toilet training uses the same amount of water as a child in diapers. It also ignores much of the steps required to produce and transport disposables. I actually wrote a blog about it, but yes, you are right to question and ultimately dismiss this study. It wasn’t out of embarrassment for the results – but for the way they were obtained and, therefore, their inaccuracy.
I don’t think I believe this report at all. I’m sure the footprint required to make the disposable diapers wasn’t included, as well as certain other factors.
I agree that they must have overlooked the landfill issues. The carbon is only a part of the issue overall, but so many people pay attention to just that fragment.
We heartily (and I mean heartily!) disagree with the findings of this study! After pouring through each bit of research, we found that it contains several flaws which make it rather inconclusive. If we really thought disposable products were the same as washable, wouldn’t we all be eating on disposable plates, using disposable clothing, and skipping cloth rags for paper towels? There’s something undeniably obvious about the fact that cloth is fundamentally more eco-friendly.
That’s a very interesting report but I’m afraid when it comes to the environment I can only be supporting the use of cloth diapers.
As you can see, most greenies simply dismissed the scientific evidence out of hand, not giving a single fact to back up their beliefs. But let’s take a look at their objections, shall we…
1) “It’s bad science“-
From reading the article and the comments all of the claims of “bad science” are based on intuition and feelings instead of facts. Notice the language used: “I don’t think the report considered“; “I’m sure the footprint required to make the disposable diapers wasn’t included, as well as certain other factors“; “they must have overlooked“; and, of course, my favorite – “There’s something undeniably obvious about the fact that cloth is fundamentally more eco-friendly“. Not a snippet of evidence that there was “bad science” involved here at all, just a lot of feelings and certainties without any scientific backing. (I was unable to find Amber’s blog post which supposedly contained some actual arguments against the study, BTW, if someone can send me a link I’d love to read it.)
2) “The water used to wash cloth diapers is about the same as the amount used by the same number of kids to flush a toilet“-
I’m not really sure what the point of this statement is. The comparison is cloth diapers versus disposable diapers. Magically potty trained at birth children aren’t really relevant here. Besides, aren’t cloth diaper users still flushing the solid waste down the toilet? I’d hate to think they’re transferring soiled diapers directly to the washing machine where the fecal matter would mix with their other clothing.
3) “Only looks at carbon footprint“-
While it’s true that this study only looked at carbon footprint, that’s because they’ve already studied the other impacts. The last study commissioned by the UK government was concluded in 2005 and was a lifecycle analysis for the Environment Agency which took four years and cost more than £200,000. According to the BBC (emphasis mine)-
Whether parents use disposable or cloth nappies makes little difference to the environment, a report has concluded.
The Environment Agency studied the impact of three types of nappy from their manufacture to their disposal.
Disposable nappies, bought by 95% of parents, led to 400,000 tonnes of waste dumped mainly at landfill sites.
But re-usable nappies affected the environment in other ways, such as by the water and energy used for washing and drying them, it found.
The agency says it is the most independent and thorough study yet carried out in the UK.
It compared the environmental impact of disposable, home-laundered flat cloth nappies and commercially-laundered cloth nappies delivered to the home.
So, even when manufacture, transport, etc are taken into account there is still no environmental benefit to cloth diapers. Which brings me to the world’s most annoying objection-
4) “The impact on landfills“-
According to the same BBC article cited above, disposable nappies only made up 0.1% of rubbish at landfill sites in the United Kingdom. So diapers aren’t having a massive impact on landfills. And then there are companies like Knowaste that recycle diapers, removing 98% of a disposable diaper from the trash stream and turning the different materials into plastic wood, roof shingles, vinyl wood sidings, shoe insoles, wallpaper, and biogas or green energy. So there doesn’t have to be an impact on landfills at all!
Besides, the whole concept that we’re “running out of room” to put our garbage and/or have landfills is absolutely ridiculous. If you took every man woman and child currently living on the Earth (6,706,993,152 as of July 2008) and moved them all to Australia we’d each still have roughly a third of an acre of our own private land (Australia is roughly 2,967,909 sq mi. There are 640 acres in a square mile which means there are 1,899,461,760 acres in Australia. Divided by the Earth’s population, we each get 0.28 acres). That would leave the entire rest of the planet empty. Do you not think we could fit both recreational area as well as vast amounts of landfill space on all of North America, South America, Africa, Europe and Asia? Of course I’m not suggesting that we undertake such a ridiculous plan, but it should clarify that the Earth has plenty of empty land that could be used for waste disposal.
Just as I didn’t expect to learn that cloth diapers were not better for the environment than disposables I also didn’t expect this post to be nearly this long. Seems I was wrong on both counts. Thanks for sticking with me all the way to the end. It seems science has spoken pretty loudly: there is essentially zero difference in environmental impact between disposable and cloth diapers. So the remaining question is, why won’t the environmentalists accept these simple facts? If you have the answer to that question I’d love to hear it.
Comments are always welcomed and even encouraged. If you have an opinion (either way) please take a moment to comment below so we can all become better educated.