Environmental Considerations

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The Diaper Debate
In the late 1980's, environmental groups and cloth diaper companies began the enthusiastic promotion of cloth diapers as the economical, environmentally-friendly choice that would help preserve a healthy earth for us to pass on to the generation now in diapers. Many parents responded by going against the choice of the majority, and using cloth, either their own washed at home, or rented from a diaper service.

Conflicting Messages
There was, however, some negative reaction to this promotion. Some people and industries felt it was unbalanced - that it implied cloth diapering had no impact on the environment. They felt that disposable diapers had been wrongly accused and singled out as a major environmental hazard, causing undue guilt to parents who chose to use them. In 1991, a disposable diaper company launched a massive advertising campaign, featuring their experiments with composting and recycling of disposable diapers. They pointed out the requirements of both cloth and disposable diapering and, citing a lifecycle inventory, claimed that "cloth and disposable diapers have equivalent but different effects on the environment."(1) The ad received a number of objections from readers.(2) However, the number of babies diapered only in disposables began to rise again (see "Statistics").

A More Balanced Picture
No product, practice or industry needs to be singled out as "the big culprit" environmentally. It is the cumulative effect of all our seemingly insignificant choices that has led to our "drawing on the capital" rather than "living off the interest" of our earth's resources.(3) Disposable diapers represent one of many common choices in our society that needs to be reevaluated in light of environmental concerns. For example, do we use tissues or hankies?...cloth or paper napkins? Do we drive to the park or take our bikes? Do we take juice boxes or a jug of water? Do we put the clothes in the dryer or hang them up to dry outside?

Virtually every product we buy and use has some impact on the environment. The challenge is to determine which alternatives are less harmful, and to choose to use these products and practices whenever possible.

The purpose of this publication is not to imply that any one diapering system is the only right choice for every family, but rather to allow parents to make an informed choice. Some families don't have easy access to laundry facilities, or access to diaper service. And some people find that a compromise, a combination of cloth and disposables, meets their need for cost effectiveness, environmental responsibility, and the occasional need for the easy disposal of paper diapers.

Canada's Goals & Guidelines
The "Ecosphere Approach"
Being informed and including environmental considerations in our decision making is essential to our country's plan, the "Green Plan," to preserve a healthy earth for future generations. In the book The State of Canada's Environment the section called the "Ecosphere Approach" makes it clear that in order to restore and maintain the health of our environment, we must accomplish all three of the following:(3)

As consumers, it is tempting to blame government and industry for our environmental problems, as they have failed on many occasions to manage resources and processes adequately. However, the third point, modifying our demands, is equally important, as consumer demand drives industry. Industry also attempts to drive consumer demand, through advertising; however, consumers make the final choices.

We can reduce our consumption and waste, and influence industry and resource use, by the products we choose or refuse to buy.

The "3 R's" Hierarchy
The "3 R's" Hierarchy offers guidance for modifying our demands and choosing products and practices which are less harmful to the environment.
When we apply the 3 R's to the diaper decision, we see that the two most important actions, reduce and reuse, apply primarily to reusable products.

1. Reduce consumption of resources and raw materials, and reduce waste.

Disposable diaper manufacturers have made considerable progress toward reducing their levels of resource consumption and waste (see page 23); however, they still make less efficient use of resources than cloth.

Using cloth diapers, either home-laundered or from a diaper service, reduces solid waste produced, and reduces consumption of raw materials and the amount of land that has to be under human management to produce them. If home-laundered, using cloth diapers also reduces transportation impacts.

2. Reuse - Reusable, durable products are preferable to single-use, throw-away products, and preferable to recycling.

Home-laundered diapers can be reused 150-200 times. Diaper service diapers are reused 75-130 times before being sold as rags (they are generally bleached and put through more rigourous washing than home-laundered diapers.)

3. Recycle - Recycling is preferable to discarding. Recycling is the least effective of the 3 R's; it is better to reduce the amount of waste produced in the first place. Procter & Gamble, Inc. has funded some projects experimenting with recycling disposable diapers and with municipal composting of diapers along with other residential waste, such as yard and food scraps. The diapers are mostly compostable; bits of plastic sometimes remain in the compost. Diapers that don't break up are screened off and discarded. Disposable diapers cannot be composted in a backyard compost heap as temperatures are not high enough to break them down. With the exception of a few institutions and communities, diapers discarded in Canada are neither composted nor recycled.

Diaper Data
The 3R's guidelines deal mainly with efficient use of raw materials and reduction of waste, and do not compare such categories as energy and water use, air and water pollution, etc. It is important to consider data and possible impact from these categories as well, as there are cases where the environmental benefits of an "R" may be cancelled out. For example, the burning of fossil fuels involved in transporting a product from a remote northern community to a recycling plant in the U.S. would likely outweigh the environmental advantages of recycling in this case.

Some of the data available on diapering are incomplete, inconclusive and potentially misleading, as statistics often are. They can be useful, however, for giving some perspective to the issue, for motivating action, and they do point to the fact that all forms of diapering have some effect on the environment and, therefore, offer opportunities for improvement.

There are approximately 1 million babies in diapers in Canada. A 1991 Statistics Canada survey showed that 62% of households with children under two years used disposable diapers only. A Procter & Gamble study indicated that figure had risen to 75-80% in 1993. It is estimated that 75% of hospitals(4) and day care centres use disposable diapers, and the rest either use cloth, or require parents to bring their own.

From birth to toilet training, one child diapered only in disposables will use about 5,300 diapers.(5) Over 4 million disposable diapers are discarded in Canada per day (1.6 billion per year). Disposable diapers are estimated to make up 1-2% of solid waste.(6,7) They are the third largest single product in the waste stream, behind newspapers and beverage containers.(8) In areas where paper, glass, tin cans, etc. are collected for recycling, diapers make up an even larger portion of the garbage.

An estimated 460 square kilometers of land (180 mi.(2)) are required to be under human management for the sole purpose of growing trees for diapering 70% of Canada's babies in disposables.(9) To diaper the same number of babies in home-laundered cloth would require only 17 square kilometers (7mi.(2)) of land to grow the cotton.(10)

Washing cloth diapers at home uses 225-310 litres (50-70 gal.) of water every three days. For perspective, a toilet-trained person, flushing the toilet 5-6 times a day, also uses about 300 litres of water every three days.(11)

Lifecycle Inventory Studies
In 1990, The American Paper Institute (Diaper Manufacturers Group) funded "lifecycle inventory study" to compare quantities of resources used and emissions produced from the manufacture, use and disposal of disposable and cloth diapers.(12) The National Association of Diaper Services (U.S.) funded a similar study in 1991.(1)3 Assumptions, estimations and findings differed greatly with the first study.

If the differing findings of the two studies are compared and balanced, they do not conclude any excessive negative effects of cloth diapering that would appear to outweigh the benefits of "reducing and reusing." The studies confirm that disposables use more raw materials and create more solid waste than cloth. They do not agree on which diapering system (home-laundered, diaper service, or disposables) uses the most or the least energy or water or produces the most or the least air emissions. The only inventory area in which the studies agree that cloth diapering uses or produces a greater quantity is in waterborne waste, and in many communities sewage treatment would remove most of this waste before the water is returned to the environment. In the case of water shortage, using disposables would reduce local water usage.

These lifecycle inventory studies have been deemed to be insufficient for making scientifically conclusive claims that one product or another is better, worse or equivalent in its effect on the environment,(14) and they should not be used in this way for advertising or promoting certain products. They do not measure or compare impact or effect on the environment; they only measure amounts of resources used and wastes or emissions produced (e.g., they do not attempt to assign greater importance to highly-toxic substances; emissions or effluents are measured and totalled by volume or weight, wheter they are toxic and persistent, or benign and biodegradable.) Also, they did not give enough information on transportation and packaging, and did not compare the amount of land required to produce raw materials, dispose of garbage, etc.

Diaper Issues
The Garbage Problem
Although opinions differ as to whether the "garbage crisis" is real or reactionary, it is well established that more solid waste is generated each year, we are running out of convenient places to dispose of it, and dumping fees continue to increase steadily,(15) All methods of dealing with garbage have their disadvantages. Incineration often produces toxic air emissions and toxic ash. Even recycling has serious limits if not preceded with practices of "reduce and reuse," as the market for recycled products fills up just as landfill sites do,(16) resulting in the indefinite storage, or sometimes disposal of carefully-separated recyclables. Stated in simple terms, it would be wise to "quit buying and tossing out so much" before a crisis becomes obvious.

The "Biodegradable" Myth
In the past, some disposable diaper manufacturers claimed their diapers were made with biodegradable plastic. However, a landfill site does not provide the conditions necessary for the plastic to biodegrade. Food and yard waste may degrade very slowly in a landfill site (25-50% over 10-15 years). The remainder of refuse (paper, plastic, etc.) is, in effect, "mummified" and retains its original weight, volume and form.(16)

Disposing of Feces
Human feces sometimes contains potentially harmful pathogens (for example, babies who have been vaccinated for polio will excrete polio virus.) Flushing feces is generally an immediate and safe means of disposal, and would be especially preferable in cities where the sludge is treated, analyzed, and used to environmental and economic advantage as fertilizer.

Claims have been made that disposable diapers cause spread of disease. However, it would appear from a review of studies that properly-constructed and maintained landfill sites can safely manage the feces-laden disposable diapers that are dumped there. Pathogens probably do not survive for long in a landfill site,(17) nor have they been found to thrive in landfill leachate (18) which sometimes contaminates ground water.

If feces is discarded, there is potential for public exposure (via rodents, pets, flies or birds) if the garbage is not properly handled. If feces is flushed, there is also potential for negative impact on waterways if sewage is not properly treated, or if sewage sludge is spread on the land without proper treatment and analysis. The best solution may depend on local conditions. Diaper liners can be used in either cloth or disposable diapers to facilitate easier rinsing. If you do discard feces, be sure it is securely tied up in a plastic bag and not set out where animals could rip it open.

Some dioxins, furans and other organochlorines exist in pulp mill effluent; however, new bleaching technologies (chlorine-dioxide bleaching) have resulted in no detectable levels of the most toxic varieties at parts per trillion.

In the past, detergents contained a non-biodegradeable surfactant,(19) resulting in the accumulation of foam on banks of rivers. By the late 1960's, a biodegradable surfactant was used. However, the phosphates contributed to the growth of algae. Rotting algae can lead to eutrophication ("death") of a lake. The Canadian government set a limit of 5% on phosphates used in detergents.(20) Today, some are phosphate free.
Recently, detergent manufacturers developed "Ultra" (compact) detergent, which uses slightly less raw materials for the detergent and less raw materials for the packaging.

Land Use
The more land that has to be under human management to meet human needs, the more biodiversity and wildlife habitat is lost. Our demands for products that require the use of land (such as food, paper, lumber and textiles) far exceed the supply from existing tree farms and other managed land, resulting in the clearcutting and altering of more natural areas. If we are to stop or even slow this practise, we must start meeting our needs in ways that make more efficient use of raw materials and the land that produces them. (see page 20, for a comparison of land requirements for diapers.)(22)

It is good to be aware of and responsive to local conditions (e.g., problems with shortage of water supply or landfill space, lack of sewage treatment, etc.). However, in general, it is important to "think globally and act locally." For example, wasteful use of energy and resources may have no apparent or immediate effect on our local environment, but we must still strive to reduce consumption and waste where we live.

Environmental Improvement
Reusable diapers make more efficient use of resources and reduce waste, but further environmental improvement is possible in the way cloth diapers are laundered. Also, as all diapering options will continue to be used to some extent in our free-market society, it is important that all industries make improvements wherever possible.

Home-Laundered Diapers
Because home-laundered diapering is primarily controlled by the consumer, it offers the most opportunities for improvement, from a consumer standpoint.

Raw Materials: The use of detergent makes up most of the raw materials needed for cloth diapering.

Energy: Heated drying accounts for about a third of the energy used and related air emissions produced for home-laundered cloth diapering (many forms of energy production, such as coal burning, result in the release of air emissions). Choosing diapers with a relatively short drying time will help keep energy consumption down. Also, if circumstances permit, diapers can be hung to dry in the sun.

Water: About half the water used in home-laundered cloth diapering is from rinsing messy diapers in the toilet. Disposable diaper liners can be used and discarded with feces. Installing a water-saving dam or valve in the toilet tank is anouther option, and would achieve greater water savings for a household.

Diaper Service
Although the inventory studies don't agree on whether home or service uses the least water or detergent, an efficiently-run diaper service washing and heated drying at home. To reduce a form of packaging, some diaper services are now using reusable nylon bags for pick-up and delivery (rather than disposable plastic).

Disposable Diapers
In 1986, disposable diaper manufacturers reduced the volume/thickness of their diapers by 50% and packaging by 90%, with the introduction of absorbent gelling material and use of polybag packaging and diaper compaction before packaging.(23) In 1994, they further reduced by about 30% the thickness and amount of material in the diapers.

Other Reusable Cloth Products
Washable waterproof nylon bags are available for taking soiled diapers home from an outing or from the babysitter.(24) Cloth training pants and bedwetter pants (25) have improved greatly over the years and are available with increased absorbency and a waterproof layer. Youth and adult incontinence products are also available in cloth.(26)

There are many other reusable cloth products available for family use which, because of their durability, have economic, practical, and environmental advantages. Many have asked, "Which is best for the environment - plastic or paper grocery bags?" The answer is: "Neither, they are both single-use disposable products." Recycling plastic bags is better than discarding, but reusable cloth grocery bags(aa) are much better for the environment, and don't rip like disposable ones. Some grocery stores sell cloth bags designed to fit on their grocery bagging racks. The challenge is to remember to bring the bags each time and to give them to the cashier before you unload all your groceries.

Cloth napkins can be made of 100% (preferably brushed) cotton for good absorbency. They can be kept in a wicker basket hung on the wall or placed on or near the table for easy access when needed. They can be used as a wet washcloth to wipe the hands and faces of small children at the end of the meal.

Hankies made from 100% cotton batiste (a very fine, tightly-woven fabric) are gentle on the nose and don't fall apart if you need to used one as a washcloth(bb). They're great for cleaning glasses too. You will need 5-10 hankies per family member. Clean hankies can be tossed in a basket and placed where the tissues are usually kept (no need for pressing or folding). It is best to buy or make hankies with a coloured edge so they can be easily spotted should one get inadvertently tossed in the garbage instead of the laundry basket.

Reusable feminine napkins have also improved considerably since our grandmothers' time.(cc) They are now available with VELCRO or snap attachments, "wings" to prevent staining of panties, and a waterproof layer.

For more information on environmentally-responsible choices, contact Pollution Probe for a copy of The Canadian Green Consumer Guide ($14.95+GST+$1.95shipping). Phone: 416-926-1907.

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1. PAMPERS ad, Great Expectations magazine, April 1991 and following issues. The ad also ran in Today's Parent magazine. The conclusion that "cloth and disposable diapers have equivalent but different effects on the environment" was attributed to a lifecycle inventory study which was funded by disposable diaper manufacturers. However, the study did not actually conclude or even measure relative effect or impact on the environment; rather, the statement was Procter & Gamble's interpretation of the data.
2. Today's Parent magazine, June July '92, "Mailbag", p 9-10.
3. Adapted from The State of Canada's Environment, Government of Canada, 1991.
4. Disposable diaper companies offer price incentives to hospitals as this can be a very effective form of promotion for their products.
5. "Cost of Using Pampers Phases," Procter & Gamble Inc. diary study, November 12, 1991.
6. Rathje, William L., "Rubbish!", The Atlantic Monthly, December 1989.
7. Environment Canada, "Reusable Cloth Diapers," 1990.
8. Jeanne Wirka, Environmental Action, March/April 1989.
9. 7.5 square miles harvested annually; based on a 24-year growth period, as per southern U.S. tree farms (source: see footnote 10).
10. S.E. Krushel, "Managed Land Requirements, Reusable Cotton vs. Paper Pulp for Absorbent Core of Diapers," Report to the Product Environmental Assessment Consultation of the Niagara Institute, January 1993. Addendum "Canadian Requirements."
11. 200 litres for laundering + 25 to 110 l. for rinsing messy diapers in the toilet; Flushing: 5.5 flushes x 18 l. = 99 l./day x 3 days = 297 litres
12. Franklin Associates (Prairie Village, Kansas), "Energy and Environmental Profile Analysis of Children's Disposable and Cloth Diapers", July 1990 (revised after peer review in 1992).
13. Carl Lehrburger (Great Barrington, MA), "Diapers: Environmental Impacts and Lifecycle Analysis," January 1991.
14. SETAC (Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry), "A Technical Framework for Lifecycle Assessment" (Jan 1991); and "Environmental Assessment of Products (using diapers as a model)," Report of a Consultation (Hosted by Niagara Inst., Jan/92-Oct93).
15. U.S. E.P.A., "The Solid Waste Dilemna: An Agenda for Action," Municipal Solid Waste Task Force, 1989 EPA/530-SW-89-019.
16. Rathje, William L., "Rubbish!", The Atlantic Monthly, December 1989.
17. Suflita, L.M., et. al., "The World's Largest Landfill, A Multidisciplinary Investigation", Envir. Sci. Technol., Vol.26, No.8, 1992.
18. Engelbrecht, Biological Properties of Sanitary Landfill Leachate (funded by Procter & Gamble, Inc.).
19. Surfactants are used to break the surface tension of water so it will penetrate and clean the fibres.
20. Canadian Consumer, April 1986, p.25
22. Procter & Gamble, Inc. maintains that the trees for PAMPERS come from tree farms in the U.S., not from clear-cutting natural boreal forests. However, if these existing tree farms were not needed for diapers, they could be used to meet other needs, and some natural lands, slated for clear cutting, could possibly be spared. (The trees used for diapers are also suitable for making paper and lumber products.)
23. These improvements took place before the lifecycle inventory studies were conducted.
24. Baby Love, Born to Love and Simply Diapers catalogues, and Bummies, Indisposables.
25. Babykins, Baby Love, Born to Love and Simply Diapers catalogues, Bundles of Love, Indisposables, Kooshies.
26. Baby Love and Simply Diapers catalogues, Indisposables, Kooshies, T's for Tots, and Sears catalogue.
aa. Born to Love, Bridgehead (613-567-1455); The Almost Perfect Packaging Co. (519-763-1490); Enviro Products (613-345-0944).
bb. Baby Love Products sells cotton batiste hankies for $.75 each. They are about tissue size and not as bulky in the pocket as large hankies.
cc. Baby Love and Simply Diapers catalogues, Indisposables, T's for Tots, and Kooshies.