It is a commonly held belief amongst green parents that cloth diapers, or nappies as they are called across the pond, are better for the environment than disposable ones. We’ve written about the benefits of cloth diapers multiple times, and I have even shared my eco-guilt over using Seventh Generation disposables. A new UK government report finds exactly the opposite: disposable diapers are better for the environment.
This finding is shocking! Government ministers couldn’t believe it either and actually buried the report, because they were embarrassed by the findings. According to the Times Online:
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has instructed civil servants not to publicise the conclusions of the £50,000 nappy research project and to adopt a “defensive” stance towards its conclusions.
The report found that using washable nappies, hailed by councils throughout Britain as a key way of saving the planet, have a higher carbon footprint than their disposable equivalents unless parents adopt an extreme approach to laundering them.
To reduce the impact of cloth nappies on climate change parents would have to hang wet nappies out to dry all year round, keep them for years for use on younger children, and make sure the water in their washing machines does not exceed 60C.
For my family, cloth diapers were the best choice. I did use the same diapers and covers on two children for a total of six years of diapering. I only wash in cold water, and I live off-the-grid using renewable hydro power. Our only downfall is that I did place them in the dryer, which runs on propane, to further sanitize them and to make them softer for my children’s little bums.
I think what can be learned from this report is that no matter what choice we make when it comes to diapering our children, we need to consider what we do after we make that choice. The kind of disposable diaper chosen or the method of laundering a cloth diaper has a significant impact on the environment.
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 A Defra spokesman said the government was shelving plans for future research on nappies.
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.