It’s pretty clear that disposable diapers require more resources to manufacture than cloth diapers, even when you take into account the vast amounts of water and energy involved in cotton farming. A 1992 study from Franklin Associates estimated that producing a year’s supply of disposables, which are composed largely of plastic, consumes roughly 6,900 megajoules of energy, vs. around 1,400 megajoules for a year’s supply of cloth diapers. Yet the study concluded that cloth ended up being 39 percent more energy-intensive overall, given the electricity needed to wash load after load of dirty diapers.
A 2005 study (PDF) by Britain’s Environment Agency took into account technological advances. In making their calculations regarding cloth diapers, the study’s authors used average energy-consumption figures for machines made in 1997. They concluded that there was “no significant difference” between the environmental impact of cloth and disposable diapers. Keeping a child clad in home-laundered cloth diapers for 2.5 years emitted 1,232 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, vs. 1,380 pounds for disposable diapers.
Critics of the study—and there were many—pointed out that cloth diapers would have enjoyed a more notable triumph had the authors taken into account the latest washing machines’ technical specs. The critics also contended that the study underestimated the resilience of cloth diapers and didn’t properly stress the waste-management consequences of disposables. Indeed, there’s no question that single-use disposables require more landfill space than multiple-use cloth diapers. (In the United States, disposable diapers make up about 2 percent of all garbage.)
The bottom line is that cloth diapers are greener than run-of-the-mill Pampers and Huggies, as long as you’re committed to an energy-efficient laundry regimen. But that commitment takes more than just an EnergyStar washing machine and a clothing line for air drying. It also takes time, a commodity which will be in startlingly short supply once your offspring drops.
Check out the whole article here.