Every time you read that claim, you are seeing the lingering effects of one flawed study published in the UK a decade ago.
Since RDA keeps our claims evidence-based, we have to call shenanigans on the use of this study to prove anything other than one conclusion:
When it comes to environmental impact of cloth vs disposable diapers, it’s no toss up.
On the contrary, even the flawed study says impact of cloth diapers is in the hands of the consumer.
What the Study Actually Says
The study used to make this claim was published by the UK government in 2005 with an update in 2008 (after much uproar). There is plenty wrong with this study.
- Advisory board of disposable diaper industry representatives with few reusable diaper representatives.
- Reusable diaper representatives complained bitterly about conflicts of interest and flawed methods.
- Compared “optimistic future projections” of disposable diapers with two types of reusable diapers.
- Home-laundered diapers included were not representative but a thick, slow-drying type, and the numbers included were low.
- Commercially laundered diaper (diaper service) data was provided by disposable diaper industry representatives.
- Cloth diaper data included ironing. Ironing. Taking a hot iron and flattening out every cloth diaper. You know we all do that.
This study did not compare all disposable diapers with all cloth diapers. It compared a lower-impact subset of future, wished-for disposable diapers with a higher-impact subset of uncommon cloth diapers.
Given all of these flaws in framing the questions and gathering the data, the worst this study could find was a small overlap in environmental impact between thick terry diapers washed and dried by machine then ironed and the best-case disposable diapers of the future. That’s all. That’s the small area of overlap that is misused to justify a conclusion of similar impact.
Since few use terry nappies (a lot like thick hand towels) and none of us irons our diapers, we’re left wondering how that could ever be considered representative of cloth diapers as used in 2005, let alone in 2015. Since no one was using the wishful thinking disposable diapers of the future in 2005, it was a nonsensical conclusion even then.
Even with all of the trouble in data, sources, and conflicts of interest, a tiny overlap was all they could come up with. That’s all that was needed to cast fear, uncertainty, and doubt over the common sense conclusion that reusable diapers are better for the environment than single-use diapers.
You don’t have to buy into that nonsense, though.
We could (and should) continue to argue about the flaws in this study, nevertheless, we can still use the findings as they are to show that cloth diapers have 40% lower impact than disposable diapers.
Cloth diapers have 40% lower impact than disposable diapers.
Are Cloth Diapers Better for the Environment?
Cloth diapers are absolutely better for the environment than any disposable diaper on the market today. If parents make an effort, they can easily lower the impact even further.
Most of the impact of cloth diapers (about 90%) comes from the energy used to heat water. Wash diapers at 140 degrees, which is hot enough to clean diapers without wasting energy.
Have you ever tried handwashing cloth diapers? Because so little water is used and it is not hot, handwashing uses very little energy for lowest overall impact.
The rest of the energy used with cloth diapers (12%) goes to the electric dryer. Air dry diapers to lower impact.
Other considerations that lower overall environmental impact are detergent choice (avoid phosphate-based detergents, which case nutrient water pollution), renewable resources (like cotton and wool over synthetic fibers), organics (which cause less stress on environment), and reuse for another child.
When you talk with cloth diapering parents or new parents concerned about environmental impacts, help them understand that their choices make a big difference.
If you see a claim that there is no difference in environmental impact of cloth diapers vs. disposable diapers, call shenanigans.
I call shenanigans on your claim!
Speak up. Comment. Provide reliable information to show that even the study cited doesn’t conclude what it is simplistically claimed to conclude. Remind authors and speakers that the study shows cloth diapers have 40% lower impact than disposable diapers. Repeat that over and over until people get it.
How to Lower the Environmental Impact of Cloth Diapers
How do you lower impacts of reusable cloth diapers?
- Use Energy Star rated washing machines.
- Wash diapers at 140 degrees.
- Air dry.
- Use washable wipes and liners.
- Use low-impact detergent.
- Use organic products.
- Reuse diapers for the next child, then give them away or sell them to another.
For more details on the flawed UK study on the environmental impact of diapers, see a full review on WhatAWaste.info:
The takeaway is obvious: wash with care; care how you wash.