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.
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
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?
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.
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)
- Manage resources
- the environmental supply. For example, maintain biodiversity
and wildlife habitat, make more efficient use of resources, and
- Manage processes
- the effects of transforming resources into usable goods. For
example, improve agricultural and forestry practices, improve
technology, and reduce pollution; and
- Modify demands
- the meeting of human needs, which are finite, and wants, which
are not. For example, reduce consumption and waste.(3)
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"
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.
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
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
2. Reuse - Reusable,
durable products are preferable to single-use, throw-away products,
and preferable to recycling.
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
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.
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
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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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
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.
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
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.
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
Because home-laundered diapering is primarily controlled by the
consumer, it offers the most opportunities for improvement, from
a consumer standpoint.
The use of detergent makes up most of the raw materials needed
for cloth diapering.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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
For more information
on environmentally-responsible choices, contact Pollution Probe
for a copy of The Canadian Green Consumer Guide ($14.95+GST+$1.95shipping).
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.
diaper companies offer price incentives to hospitals as this can
be a very effective form of promotion for their products.
of Using Pampers Phases," Procter & Gamble Inc. diary
study, November 12, 1991.
6. Rathje, William
L., "Rubbish!", The Atlantic Monthly, December 1989.
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
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.
L.M., et. al., "The World's Largest Landfill, A Multidisciplinary
Investigation", Envir. Sci. Technol., Vol.26, No.8, 1992.
Biological Properties of Sanitary Landfill Leachate (funded by
Procter & Gamble, Inc.).
are used to break the surface tension of water so it will penetrate
and clean the fibres.
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
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.
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