For all of the joys that a new baby brings in to your life, changing diapers is not likely to be one of them. Newborn babies need to be changed every two to three hours. As babies become toddlers, that schedule will ease up a bit, but you can still expect to change from 5,000 to 8,000 diapers from the time your baby is born until she is potty trained. So it is important to take a good long look at the diapering options that are available so that you can choose the one that will work best for you and your family.
Independent studies over the years have consistently come to the conclusion that there is no significant difference in the environmental impact between disposables and cloth. So what's an eco-minded parent to do?
Prior to the 1960s, new parents had only one option for diapering their children — cloth. But times changed once disposable diapers hit the market. New parents were suddenly relieved of the extra laundry and accidents that came along with cloth diapering, and the disposable market boomed as a result. Today, 95 percent of all babies in America wear disposables rather than cloth. But these diapers come with a number of environmental and human health costs that bear consideration.
When the first diaper statistics were gathered, in 1970, American babies were going through 350,000 tons of disposable diapers each year. Today, 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used each year in the United States (that translates into more than 3.4 million tons of waste dumped into landfills). According to the London-based Women's Environmental Network, disposable diapers alone will make up about one-half the garbage by volume for an average family with one baby.
A typical baby goes through 6,000 disposable diapers before they're potty trained. Ninety-five percent of Americans use disposable diapers. In the United States alone, that adds up to almost 18 billion new diapers each year, just sitting in our landfills for the next 500 years!
Another problem with disposable diapers is the number of trees that are cut down to make them. Two hundred fifty thousand trees are consumed every year to make disposable diapers for American babies. Disposable diapers are generally filled with fibers called cellulose. Cellulose, made from pine trees, draws the liquid into the center of the diaper and away from the baby's bottom. This virgin paper pulp then goes straight from your baby into the landfills.
Many disposable diaper packages remind parents to flush solids in the toilet before disposing of a diaper in the trash can. But this is a rare occurrence. About five million tons of untreated body excrement, which may carry over 100 intestinal viruses, is brought to landfills via disposable diapers every year, contributing to groundwater contamination and attracting insects and pests that breed disease.
In addition, some research has examined whether disposable diapers, with their petroleum-based covers, raise the temperature of a baby's genitals during use. Researchers speculate that this increased temperature could be particularly harmful to baby boys, leading to adult infertility. One recent study, published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, probed this theory by monitoring the temperatures inside the diapers of forty-eight boys over the course of two days. The study found that the scrotal temperature was higher in the boys wearing disposable diapers compared to the boys who wore cloth diapers.
The production of disposable diapers also uses a slew of toxic chemicals, and is responsible for even more toxic chemical byproducts. Keep reading to learn more about disposable diapers and their chemical side effects.
If you are set on using disposable diapers, you may want to consider a disposable eco-diaper that is used just like a disposable but is made without the use of dyes, fragrances, chlorine-bleached papers, and other toxic chemicals. Some are even made from wood pulp harvested from sustainably managed forests. Seventh Generation diapers are chlorine, fragrance, and latex free. However, they do use a chemically based absorbent gel that contains sodium polyacrylate. Even better, try Tushies cotton-blend diapers made with chlorine-free, sustainably harvested wood pulp that contain no extra chemicals or gels.
From the moment the first disposable diapers were introduced, new parents tossed aside their cumbersome, leaky, and labor-intensive cloth diapers in favor of these newer, easy-to-use diapers. Today, cloth diapers make up just a little over 4 percent of the American diaper market.
Fortunately, cloth diapers have changed dramatically since the days of plastic pants and safety pins. Over the last few years they have become more convenient to use and precious to look at then ever before. Cloth diapers now come in a huge array of colors, shapes, and styles with designs from brands like Fuzzi Bunz, bumGenius, Kissaluvs, and Happy Heinys.
Traditional plastic pants that were used to give cloth diapers their waterproof covering, have been replaced with water-resistant covers made of merino wool, nylon, or polyurethane laminate. Instead of safety pins, new cloth diapers use velcro, buttons, or snaps. Here's a look at some of the different styles of cloth diapers available today.
Flat. Flat diapers are the original, old-fashioned choice when it comes to cloth diapering. They are found in many big-box and department stores as one-layer diapers, generally made out of 100 percent cotton gauze that are fastened with safety pins and covered with some type of waterproof pants.
Prefolds. Prefolds are similar to flats, but have multiple layers in the middle of the diaper to aide in absorption. They come in a wide variety of sizes and thicknesses to fit children from preemies to toddlers. Like flats, prefolds must be fastened with safety pins and covered with a waterproof pant.
All-in-Ones (AIOs). As their name implies, all-in-one diapers (or AIOs), combine the absorbent cloth diaper with the waterproof cover to form an easier-to-use product. The advantage of AIOs is that they are less time-consuming and cumbersome to use. However, these types of diapers do tend to be rather bulky and therefore take a longer time to dry than other types of cloth diapers.
Pocket diapers. Pocket diapers are cloth diapers that have an opening (or pocket) in the back that can be stuffed with any absorbent layer. Pocket diapers are easy to use and change. They are also flexible in that you can control the thickness of the absorbent layer inserted in the pocket — using thicker layers at night and lightweight layers during the day. But you have to remember to remove the inner layer before washing and reinsert it when the diapers are dry.
It does take a little practice to get the hang of using and flushing gDiapers. If you decide to try these hybrid diapers, check out their website for detailed instructions and a video demonstration. Or call their toll-free number (866) 55-FLUSH to talk to a live mom/diaper therapist who will walk you through the procedure.
The latest option in diapering is referred to as the hybrid diaper, which combines a washable cloth pant with biodegradable and flushable insert liner.
The primary hybrid brand, gDiapers consist of three parts: outer pants with a Velcro closure in the back, snap-in nylon liners, and flushable pads. The used pads are removed from the liner, stripped apart by hand, dropped into the toilet, stirred with a swishstick to break up the contents, and flushed. The outer pants and nylon liners are washed and reused.
Unlike disposable diapers, hybrid diapers don't use any elemental plastics or landfill space. They also use less of the water and energy used to wash standard cloth diapers. And hybrid diapers biodegrade in 150 days (compared to 500 years for disposable). If you have a compost pile that you don't use for food plants, you can toss wet liners directly on the pile.