More than 300,000 children are born worldwide every day. As each baby needs 6-8 diapers on average a day, and parents are increasingly choosing disposables, it is estimated that worldwide 450 billion throwaway nappies are used each year.
The vast majority of these, as well as their packaging, are not recyclable, and must be thrown away with general waste. This means that all of those diapers, will either be burnt or contribute nearly 77 million tons of solid waste to landfills. Energy can be harnessed from burning waste and used for fuel but let’s not forget that this process also produces greenhouse gases. On the other hand, in the United States and Europe, disposable nappies, with a 33% share, are one of the largest categories of non-biodegradable items in landfill sites. A plastic diaper not only takes more than 500 years to decompose, the process also releases methane into the air, high concentrations of which can be explosive and flammable, as well as dangerous to breathe, because it replaces oxygen.
Where do all these big numbers come from? Well, by the time a child is potty trained, it needs between 4,000 and 6,000 throwaway nappies, producing at least 1 ton of toxic waste in just a couple of years. Multiply this by the number of children being born each day, the number of days for each of these till potty training and you get there at the speed of light.
Compare this to the waste generated by 20-30 organic cloth nappies.
There’s more to the story than just plastic waste
What’s important to be aware of is that it is not just the nappy itself that harms the environment, but also its content. If disposed of with general waste, the baby’s faeces, including the viruses it contains, will automatically turn into untreated sanitary waste, which can contaminate ground water and end up leaking into local water supplies.
You may argue that most landfills are designed and engineered to keep waste from leaching out into the environment or into the water system. However, none of them are fail-proof and there is just no accounting for the potential of spreading disease by small animals, insects, and other critters with easy access to what’s on top. Moreover, as the diaper industry expands into places with less sophisticated or non-existent waste collection services and facilities, the reality is that huge amounts of throwaway nappies are getting into the sea, blocking drains, harming wildlife and spreading diseases.
When reusable nappies are washed, on the other hand, baby faeces end up exactly where they should, in the waste water supply, which means that they are then treated in a water treatment plant, in the same way adult sanitary waste is.
The carbon footprint of a diaper
A study carried out by the UK’s Environment Agency, published in 2008, compares the lifecycles of disposable and cloth diapers. It looks at the environmental impact, measured in terms of carbon emissions, of raw material farming and extraction, transport to the production area, handling, transport to distribution centres, usage, possible reutilization with another child, and waste generated by each of them. According to this research, using disposable diapers for two and a half years for only one child equals to an average of 550 kg of CO2, while using cloth diapers washed in regular domestic conditions: conventional washers and dryers at high temperature, equals to 570 kg of CO2.
Even though at first sight, it might look like a tight game, it is far from being one, because the later is reduced to 228 kg of CO2 emissions, if diapers are used under optimal conditions: washed with a full load at high temperature, using an energy efficient setting, eco-friendly laundry products (learn more about its advantages and find a recipe here), being line rather than tumble-dried, and reused for a second child.
Based on these results, one can clearly see that using cloth diapers with a conscious washing system equals a long-term ecological investment with tons of precious renewable materials, non-renewable resources, land and energy savings on top of it.
Any health risks?
As if their huge negative environmental impact would not be alarming enough, throwaway nappies, even though broadly considered safe, come with numerous short and long-term health risks for you little one. Did you know that if you choose convenience over nature when diapering, your child’s thin, sensitive skin regularly absorbs about 50 different chemicals?
A composition of a disposable diaper is of no secret: wood pulp makes up about 35% of their weight, followed by 33% for superabsorbent polymer, 17% polypropylene, 6% polystyrene, 4% adhesives, 1% elastics and 4% of other components, which can be anything from toluene, ethylbenzene, phthalates, xylene, dioxins, dipentene, tributyl tin to dyes and fragrances. But what do these ingredients stand for?
Harmless in itself, but its manufacturing involves a bleaching process, which uses chlorine to make it white and releases a by-product called dioxin. This family of chemicals is known to cause cancer in humans.
Superabsorbent polymers or SAPs are used by virtually all disposable diaper manufacturers, be it conventional or green, because they are the key to their absorbency. The most commonly used one is a petroleum-based sodium polyacrylate. Some of the greener diaper manufacturers have started using bio-based sustainable alternatives, and some use a blend of both. All of them are considered safe, non-toxic, non-irritating, and non-sensitizing when contained within the diaper. However, because superabsorbent polymers are essentially a drying agent, they not only absorb liquids from the surface of the diaper but also natural skin moisture and protective oils as well. This can cause abrasion irritation and drying of the skin. Additionally, SAP powder, on the other hand, can be irritating to the nasal membranes and eyes, so if you or your child happens to accidentally rip a dry disposable diaper open, it should be disposed of immediately.
The plastic in all disposable diapers contains phthalates, which act as a softener. Recently banned from children’s toys and kitchenware because of their toxicity, phthalates are endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic human hormones and send false signals to the body.
Colours and prints are what makes the diaper stand out, so dyes can be found all over it, inside and out. The dyes used in diapers are generally safe, but some are capable of causing allergic reactions and can contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals.
Unfortunately, there is no transparency about the adhesives that diaper manufacturers use. However, given some companies highlight that they use safe adhesives, it is likely that adhesives containing toxic chemicals are widely used in disposable diapers.
Some disposable diapers contain tributyltin or TBT, an antifungal agent considered a highly toxic environmental pollutant. It spreads through the skin and may cause neurotoxicity, reproductive and developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity and endocrine disruption in the tiniest concentrations. It is also speculated to lead to sterility in boys.
Now, let’s talk money…
If we take an average scenario of using 5000 disposable nappies until your child is potty trained, you will need at least 100 packages containing 50 diapers each. If each of these packages costs €20, which would already be a good deal, you will spend at least €2000, possibly up to €2400 on disposables.
When it comes to cloth nappies, you will need about 30 per child. If each of them costs €20, you will end up spending €600 and even that only once, because you will be able to comfortably reuse them for as many babies as you wish, and even reselling or donating them afterwards.
Undoubtedly, cloth nappies are a clear winner!
Based on the above, it becomes clear that by diapering with reusables, you will not only save precious resources, generate 240x less waste and avoid contributing to groundwater pollution, but your choice will also reduce CO2 emissions and keep the little one away from harmful chemicals, while you will eventually be spending at 3-4x less money, even if you only use them for one child. And how cute will the baby look wearing all colourful and those fun patterns?
There is of course the additional work that comes with washing, drying and ironing the diapers, however, looking at it from a different perspective, these routine tasks can also help you stay active and fit and give you full control over what you put under your little one’s butt. Cloth diapers made of natural materials, such as organic cotton, linen or bamboo are not just eco-friendly. They are breathable, which reduces skin irritation, they support earlier potty training, by allowing the child to feel wetness and by purchasing reusable nappies, you will also support small local and eco-friendly businesses, rather than large profit oriented multinationals. And the best part is that one day, your baby will not only thank you for all your conscious efforts, but also follow your example.