If you’re contemplating cloth and biodegradable diapers, it is probably safe to assume you’re considering them for environmental reasons.
But which will make a lesser environmental impact?
And what about the cost and convenience?
As a general rule, cloth diapers have a greater potential to be cheaper and more environmentally friendly than any disposable diapers, including biodegradable diapers. Biodegradable diapers are, however, considered to be more convenient than cloth diapers by most parents.
If you want to learn more about the reasoning for these statements, keep reading.
Are cloth diapers better for environmentally responsible parents than biodegradable diapers?
Cloth diapers can be better for the environment than biodegradable diapers, depending on the fabrics we choose and how we launder the diapers, according to the Updated lifecycle assessment for disposable and reusable nappies (Environment Agency in UK, 2008).
As long as you are running full loads on your washing machine with the maximum temperature not exceeding 140 °F (60 °C), line-drying the diapers as much as possible, using high efficient machines, and reusing diapers on other children, you can reduce the carbon footprint by 40 % compared to the disposable diapers.
Biodegradable diapers are usually made of more sustainable materials, which means they pose a lesser burden to the environment than disposables. This aspect targets production, but biodegradable diapers offer a second benefit – they can be at least partly decomposed at a much higher rate than regular disposables.
How fast do biodegradable diapers decompose?
Many biodegradable diapers decompose in 2-6 months if composted in a dedicated industrial compost. If thrown into a regular trash bin, they will most likely end up in the landfills where it will take 50 years on average to decompose.
While 50 years is still a long time, it is considerably less than the 500 years it takes a regular disposable diaper to decompose.
Nevertheless, the composting the biodegradable diapers seems like an amazing alternative to diapers just sitting in the landfills and emitting methane all that time. So how do you do it?
How do you compost biodegradable diapers?
Biodegradable diapers should be composted in dedicated industrial composts, which reach high enough temperatures to kill the pathogens in soiled diapers. The vast majority of biodegradable diapers consist of at least some synthetic materials that will not decompose at home.
The only problem is that there are very few industrial composting services that accept diapers. Since manufacturers use different materials for diapers and no biodegradable diaper is 100% biodegradable (majority are 60-80% biodegradable), the diapers will not decompose entirely. Some diaper manufacturers offer to pick up their used diapers and compost them in their facilities, but sadly these are still very rare.
Cost comparison for cloth diapers and biodegradable diapers
I’ve already mentioned in this article how the majority of parents will not have to spend more than $600 for their entire cloth diaper set of 30 cloth diapers. The average seems to be about $400, depending on the type and brand of diapers you will choose.
An average biodegradable diaper costs about $0.37. If we assume the 6000 diapers used per child until potty training, the sum comes to a whopping $2200.
We don’t need special math powers to see how much more affordable cloth diapers are in the long term. You will save about $1600 by choosing cloth diapers.
For a more detailed price breakdown between cloth diapers and biodegradable disposable diapers check out this post.
To be fair, it is true you’ll have to pay for the entire set up front which can be challenging for some families.
What happens if we add another child?
The cloth diaper set stays the same and brings the total cost per child to no more than $300, while we’ll have to spend another $2200 on biodegradable diapers, bringing the total to $4400.
So by the time your second child potty trains, you’ve saved about $3800 compared to families that use biodegradable diapers. That is a lot of money!
Material comparison in cloth diapers and biodegradable diapers
Biodegradable diapers definitely sound very natural and eco-friendly, especially compared to regular disposables.
Does this mean they aren’t using perfumes, chlorine (bleaching), dyes and/or phthalates?
Not necessarily but most environmentally aware manufacturers will stay away from these ingredients. Still, it is your job to check the ingredients of their products and how they are manufacturing the diapers, to make sure they are acceptable to you.
Cloth diapers are much more transparent about the materials they’re made of. Since they are usually natural fabrics that don’t need to be heavily treated with chemicals, they are typically much safer for direct skin contact.
Are biodegradable diapers more convenient than cloth diapers?
As far as convenience goes, biodegradable diapers are winning this one.
Take the diaper off your baby, wrap it up and toss it. If you are lucky enough to have a composting facility nearby that will take used diapers, you are going to have to make sure to get them there. If not, the trip to the trash cans will end your relationship with the diapers.
Same goes for traveling, you will not have to worry about too much time passing between wash days and cleaning any soiled diapers on the go, especially if you don’t have access to water at the time.
While it is entirely possible to use cloth diapers on the go, it is true it will be a bit more work and organization to do so.
What about at home? You’ll need to develop a proper wash routine for your cloth diapers and use more of your time to deal with them.
What is the most eco-friendly way to diaper?
Choosing a cloth diaper made of organic cotton together with a wool cover is the most eco-friendly way to diaper. (Source)
By choosing organic cotton, you are making sure no harmful pesticides were used during cotton growth.
Wool cover pull-ups are all natural and there are no snaps or velcro, basically nothing that will account for more trash in the landfills.
Which diaper type wins in the end?
All things considered, I believe cloth diapers will always have a lesser impact on the environment.
While it’s true that we have made some impressive progress by choosing more sustainable materials for eco-friendly disposable diapers, it seems incredibly wasteful to me to discard something after just one single use, when there is an option to use a reusable alternative.
The possibility to lessen the environmental impact is much easier achieved with cloth diapers by choosing sustainable fabrics, caring for them responsibly and, of course, using them on multiple children.