Do cloth diapers or disposable diapers have more impact on the environment? Numerous studies have been done on the issue, and yet it seems as if there is still no conclusive evidence one way other other.
"After a three year, [$360,000] study, the London-based Environmental Agency concluded that disposable diapers have the same environmental impact as reusable diapers when the effect of laundering cloth diapers is taken into account." (*1) But reusable diaper advocates and other organizations such as the Women's Environmental Network objected to the study, saying that the results were skewed in favor of disposable diapers.
Proctor & Gamble, the owner of Pampers and the largest manufacturer of disposable diapers, conducted a study claiming "that laundering a cloth diaper over the course of its lifetime consumes up to six times the water used to manufacture a single disposable diaper." (*1) That may be true, but think how many more disposable diapers one child will need before it gets potty trained.
Using a diaper service uses even less water than parents washing their children's own diapers. But then, it also uses more fuel to transport the clean nappies. The problem with that scenario in America is that the booming disposable industry has lessened the need for diaper services, and many parts of the country don't have the services available to utilize anymore.
I'm pretty biased on this subject, as I was raised on reusable cloth diapers, and will probably do the same for my future hypothetical children. Cloth makes more environmental sense in my mind, especially when using energy efficient washing machines. I just don't see how disposable diapers could ever have less of an impact.
Consider the facts: In the US alone, 18 billion dirty diapers end up in landfills every year, requiring over 82,000 tons of plastic and over 250,000 trees in the production of those diapers, each of which takes approximately 300 years to biodegrade. (*2) That means that since the invention of disposables, none have fully decomposed yet.
Also, health effects are important to consider. The New Parent's Guide claims that "54% of one month old babies using disposable diapers had rashes, 16% having severe rashes....On the other hand, cloth diapers can cause rashes by not being changed enough or properly cleaned and sanitized after becoming soiled." (*3) In addition, "a 2000 German study concluded that boys who wear disposable diapers maintain a higher scrotal temperature than boys wearing cloth diapers, which may cause fertility issues later in life." (*1) And finally, toilet training experts have said that using disposable diapers may postpone a child's potty training. Since disposable diapers are engineered to absorb the wetness and keep the child comfortable, they deincentivize toilet use.
And then, there's always the moral issue. Bob Schildgen (aka "Mr. Green") of the Sierra Club expressed his rather strong opinion, "it just depresses the hell out of me to think that an infant's first ongoing contact with the outside world involves the twisted cult of disposability that bedevils our environment." (*4)
But of course, nothing is ever black and white. There is such a thing as "hybrid" diapers. Called gDiapers, the company claims they are the "best of cloth and disposable." Their biodegradable diapers are "plastic-free, elemental chlorine free, latex free, and perfume free." (*5) They're essentially cloth diapers with pull-out and replaceable disposable parts. But you can buy them in all sorts of colors, so your baby can crawl around in style! And the materials are breathable to reduce the likelihood of diaper rash. The cool part is that the disposable aspects of the diaper can either be thrown away, flushed down the toilet, or composted. And they promise that their used products will break down in 50-150 days. Which, by my calculations, is a lot better than 300 years.