The following information comes from Environment Canada’s knowledgeable specialists who answer questions about wildlife, air pollution, water, weather, climate change and other aspects of the environment:
Many Canadian parents favour disposable diapers as a quick and convenient choice. Others opt for reusable cloth diapers as an environmentally sound alternative. One thing is certain – the diapering industry has transformed over the years and the debate over cloth versus disposables continues.
A Brief History of Diapers
Diapers have existed, in one form or another, since ancient times. Cultures from around the world have used a variety of materials at their disposal; moss and sealskin (Inuit), grass and rabbit skin (Native American), and swaddling bands (European), among others. Cloth diapers started being mass-produced in the late 19th century. It was only during World War II, that the diaper service was introduced to deliver fresh, clean diapers to working mothers.
The Birth of the Disposable Diaper
Single-use diapers first appeared on the market in the early 1960s. The modern disposable diaper in North America is most often credited to Marion Donovan, a mother in the 1950’s. Donovan invented the “Boater,” a plastic cover, made from cutting up a plastic shower curtain and sewing in some absorbent material. Her invention came at the start of the baby boom. Initially, companies weren’t interested in her product, so she started her own business and was later able to sell her company for a tidy profit.
Disposable vs. Cloth – the Diaper Debate
Before disposable diapers were introduced, all babies in North America were diapered in cloth. Within 10 years of the arrival of disposable diapers on the market, the number of cloth diaper users quickly dwindled to a mere 10 per cent.
While disposable diapers have made some progress in recent years to become less damaging to the environment – including a decrease in the amount of materials used, the introduction of more degradable materials and recent advances in diaper recycling – they still represent a burden to municipal landfills and continue to deplete natural resources.
The reusable nature of cloth diapers reduces the solid waste problem, but creates other environmental concerns. The concerns raised with cloth diapers are water and air pollution, mainly the water and energy used to wash and dry them. This concern is particularly relevant in areas with water shortages and in third-world countries where water is less available. Another concern is the higher level of wastewater particulates associated with using cloth diapers.
Home laundering of cloth diapers produces greenhouse gas and other emissions from energy consumption in the dryer. Line-drying diapers when possible can help to offset these emissions.
The waste from the cloth diaper is properly treated as sewage, while disposable diapers in landfills can be a breeding ground for a wide variety of viruses, including Hepatitis B and Polio from vaccines given to newborns. Also, the effluents from the disposable diaper manufacturing process (plastic, pulp and bleached paper) are more damaging to the environment than the cotton and hemp growing and manufacturing process.
Making the Right Choice
Parents must choose a diapering system that is best suited for their baby, their lifestyle, their financial situation and their environmental concerns.
Evaluating the best diaper also depends on local conditions. Geographic and environmental concerns specific to an area including water supply, water and air pollution, and solid waste disposal could impact on the decision. Combining diapering methods, with cloth for home and disposable away from home is an alternative for families who want to be environmentally responsible while balancing their other life demands.
- Even when using disposable diapers, the contents should be emptied into the toilet so that the waste can be properly treated.
- In the first two years, the average baby will require between 5000 to 7000 diaper changes.
- Disposable diapers in landfills can prevent water from soaking to the ground.
- Washing a load of diapers once or twice a week is roughly equivalent to flushing a toilet five times a day for a week.
- Cloth diapers encourage babies to potty train faster than disposables, because with disposable diapers, the babies seldom feel any wetness or discomfort.
- Using too much detergent when washing cloth diapers can cause build-up, reducing the absorbency.
- Over four million disposable diapers are discarded in Canada per day.
Cloth Diapers – the Basics
Prefold diaper with cover.
Velcro or snap closings have done away with pins, making modern cloth diapers as easy to change as single-use disposable diapers. There are three main designs to choose from. The simplest type of cloth diaper is called a Chinese Pre-fold. It is a rectangular cloth stitched to have multiple layers of fabric in the middle for absorbency. While it can be tricky to fold, it is the most affordable and is the easiest to wash and dry.
The fitted diaper is another choice that is similar but is fastened with snaps or Velcro and doesn’t require any folding. These come in a variety of sizes and fabrics like cotton or hemp, and are more expensive than Chinese Pre-fold diapers. Both Pre-folds and fitted diapers require a waterproof cover that goes over the diaper to keep the baby’s clothes from getting wet.
The All-in-One – Custom-fit diaper incorporates a waterproof outer cover with an absorbent inner layer of fabric – in one convenient, easy-to-use unit. It is generally fastened with Velcro or snaps. It is the easiest diaper to use, and often the most expensive. Because of its waterproof backing, it tends not to allow as good air circulation, clean as easily or dry as quickly as two-piece systems.
There are many benefits to using cloth diapers. As cotton allows air to circulate freely, cloth diapers are more comfortable for babies. They are also re-usable, which offers a considerable cost-savings and helps protect the depletion of natural resources. Since cloth diapers that are home washable and reusable are eligible for the EcologoM, Environmental Canada has recognized them as a superior choice to disposable diapers.