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The Cloth vs. Disposable Dilemma isn't much of a dilemma really.

Posted by Cloth Diaper Blog Guest on 3/25/2008 to Cloth vs. Disposables
In her article, Cloth vs. disposable: The Diaper Dilemma, Rebecca Vidra asserts that using cloth diapers, instead of disposable diapers, is not the greener choice. She writes, "The bottom line, environmentally, is that there is no significant difference between cloth and disposable diapers. When you consider the materials, water, energy, and transportation costs to produce and maintain the diapers, it's a wash."

Though hers is an article and not a research paper, it seems she would have included a link or citation of the "life-cycle analysis of diapers done by independent parties" on which she bases her claim that switching from disposable diapers for the remaining 12 months of her child's life "wouldn't have a significantly smaller environmental impact."

There are many studies and a few LCAs (Life Cycle Analysis) now being used regarding the disposable and cloth diaper argument. To get a full story of the disposable diaper industry's deep desire to undermine the cloth diapering industry, check out The Politics of Diapers: A Timeline of Recovered History, which covers the history from 1961-2000, and shows many of these studies.

The disposable diaper industry likes to encourage the statistics found in their own studies, funded out of their own pockets, but it is my opinion to get a truly independent study, one can't commission it and finance it. A non-biased party must initiate the study so the findings can be separate from the paycheck.Just seems reasonable, don't you think?However, Procter & Gamble, have paid for "independent analysis" - once with Arthur D. Little, Inc. who took on the job to analyze the LCA for both disposable diapers and cloth diapers (reusable diapers). What do you bet he came up short on any actual difference about disposables being more sustainable? Yep, you guessed it.In 1991, Carl Lehrburger undertook a life-cycle analysis of diapers, his second study for NADS (National Association of Diaper Services). Even though it was recognized as the most detailed study, up 'til that date, of the environmental impact of single-use diapers, I still recognize that it was done FOR NADS, and so again, though I believe the statistics should be considered, they should also be closely scrutinized. Lehrburger found that, compared to reusable diapers, throwaways generate seven times more solid waste when discarded and three times more waste in the manufacturing process.

Source: A Tale of Two Diapers. Mothering Magazine, Issue 138. Peggy O'Mara.

In 1992, Procter and Gamble hires Franklin Associates, Ltd. and wouldn't you know, "disposable diapers are preferred". The research does recognize disposables produce more solid waste, but says cloth diapers produce more waterborne waste. You can read more of the findings here.The fact is a truly INDEPENDENT study was needed, and in May 2005, we thought we'd get it from the British Goverment, or rather The Environment Agency of the UK.

Their 4 year study, "Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the UK", concluded…"For the three nappy systems studied (disposables, home laundered and commercially laundered), there was no significant difference between any of the environmental impacts – that is, overall no system clearly had a better or worse environmental performance, although the life cycle stages that are the main source for these impacts are different for each system."

The report was reviewed and described as a wasted opportunity by The Women's Environmental Network. The review turned up more than a few inconsistencies in how the findings were gathered. For instance, "Over 2,000 parents using disposable nappies were surveyed. By contrast, most of the survey results for reusable nappies were drawn from a sample of 117 parents, further reduced to 32 because users of terry towelling nappies were relied on for most assumptions. This resulted in as few as two respondents being used for certain key assumptions." Read the full response from WEN.

How can 2,000 disposable nappy using parents compare to 117 cloth diaper using parents? And then, to know that number was reduced to 32? Something was amiss.The Real Diaper Association also responded to the British Report in their members' newsletter."Study shows careful laundering can reduce environmental impact. Even using the study’s self-acknowledged weak assumptions, the conclusion does not reflect the significant reduction of environmental impact resulting from use of energy-efficient washing, as shown within the body of the report. The report shows that users of home-laundered cloth diapers can reduce environmental impact up to 38% through their laundering choices. Energy rating, washing temperature, and number of diapers laundered have a significant impact on the numbers."

And the debate goes on.And the answers are as muddied as they were a decade ago.The landfills are more full and the water is more polluted.Yet still, whether or not Vidra's baby is diapered in disposables made from chlorine-free bleach and whether or not the pulp was taken from "sustainably harvested forests", the fact remains:
  • A single use item, disposables are THROWN AWAY after each use.
  • Sustainably harvested forests are STILL HARVESTED after all. The forests simply don't grow back overnight.
  • The landfills ARE full.
And for Vidra, who has vowed not to purchase anything NEW? It seems cloth diapers would keep her aligned with that goal, whereas "environmentally less harsh" disposable, throwaway diapers do not.