When I tell people that I use cloth diapers, the most common response seems to be "Why?!" (said with a look of disbelief on their face). Here are just a few of the reasons why we decided to use cloth diapers:
Environmental Impact - When I was in the 6th grade, my computer class did a big Earth Day project, and we all chose various topics to report on. I chose to do a slideshow on how long it takes different items to decompose. The slideshow would begin by showing the item on the first slide, then the next slide would tell everyone how long it takes for that item to decompose. I remember researching all of the items, from banana peels, to aluminum cans, to styrofoam, and I remember being shocked by how long it takes for a disposable diaper to decompose - 500 years! I'm not an environmentalist freak, but I just can't imagine contributing to all of those diapers sitting around in landfills. From then on, I knew that I wanted to use cloth diapers.
I've also recently learned that 92% of single-use diapers end up in landfills (1), making them the third largest consumer item in landfills (2); and when you consider that over 18 billion diapers are used annually1, that's alot of diapers that will be sitting around in landfills long after we are gone. Adding to that fact, most disposable diapers are not even disposed of properly. Instructions on disposable diapers indicate that you are to empty fecal matter into the toilet before disposing the diaper, yet less than one half of one percent of all disposable diaper waste goes into the sewage system before being thrown out (1). This poses a very serious danger to our ecosystem, as viruses have the ability to leach out and contaminate ground water. Further compacting the environmental issue is that even more resources are used (wood, water, oil for the the plastic, etc) in the production, transportation, and packaging of disposable diapers. A study conducted by the National Association of Diaper Services (NADS) found that disposable diapers produce seven times more solid waste when discarded and three times more waste in the manufacturing process (8).
Health Issues - Disposable diapers are full of harsh chemicals and toxins, one of which are dioxins (or polyhalogenated compounds, which are a by-product of the bleaching process used in the manufacturing of the paper used on disposable diapers). The EPA lists dioxins as one of the most toxic of all known cancer causing substances (3). In fact, dioxins are banned in several countries. Further, disposable diapers contain Tributyltin (TBT) which has been linked to obesity (4) and hormonal problems (5).
And how do you think disposable diapers absorb all that moisture? Have you ever noticed a gel-like substance on your baby during a diaper change? Disposable diapers contain sodium polycrylate, a superabsorbent polymer (SAP), which turns to gel when wet. The use of SAPs was discontinued from use in tampons in the 80's, when they were linked to toxic shock syndrome (6).
When I was pregnant and researching cloth diapers, one of the most shocking studies I came across showed that there was an increased scrotal temperature in boys who wore plastic lined disposable diapers over boys who wore cloth diapers (7). Increased scrotal temperatures have been linked to a decline in sperm counts and an increase in testicular cancer, both of which have been on the rise in recent years. As a mom of a boy, I hope that my efforts now will prevent him from serious health issues later in life.
Money - Both cloth and disposable diapers cost money, but cloth diapers are reusable and can be used over and over and on more than one child, whereas disposable diapers are a single use item. One site's cost analysis found that you can save a minimum of $2,300 to upwards of $5,000 by choosing cloth. And you can save even more when you use cloth wipes instead of disposables.
The Cuteness Factor - Let's face it, most cloth diapers are way cuter than the average disposable diaper. The few times that I've had to purchase disposable diapers, I have ended up with a drawer full of white diapers that were decorated by Pooh and Friends and Sesame Street characters. By contrast, I have several cloth diapers in bright, bold solids (blues, lime green, etc) as well as fun stripes and prints.
1 Lehrburger, Carl. 1988. Diapers in the Waste Stream: A review of waste management and public policy issues. 1988. Sheffield, MA: self-published.
2 Link, Ann. Disposable nappies: a case study in waste prevention. April 2003. Women's Environmental Network.
3 Allsopp, Michelle. Achieving Zero Dioxin: An emergency strategy for dioxin elimination. September 1994. Greenpeace. http://archive.greenpeace.org/toxics/reports/azd/azd.html
4 Staff (2008-12-03). "Persistent Pollutant May Promote Obesity". Science Daily.
5 Greenpeace. New Tests Confirm TBT Poison in Procter & Gamble's Pampers: Greenpeace Demands World-Wide Ban of Organotins in All Products. 15 May 2000.
6 Armstrong, Liz and Adrienne Scott Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women's Sanitary Products and Disposable Diapers, What You Can Do About It. 1993. HarperCollins.
7 Archives of Disease in Childhood. 2000. BMJ Publishing Group Ltd & Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. V.83: 364 - 368.
8 Leherburger/Mullen/Jones, "Diapers: Environmental Impacts and Lifecycle Analysis," January 1991