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October 12, 2004

A public radio commentary

Should one use disposable diapers or cloth diapers? It seems a simple question with an obvious answer: disposable diapers create waste, while cloth diapers are recyclable. But the questions isn't simple at all.

To determine whether a disposable or a cloth diaper is more environmentally friendly calls for an accounting of all of the diapers impact on the environment, from its creation to its disposal.

I can't answer definitely whether you should use disposables or cloth diapers. I can only give you a feeling for what might make a disposable one more environmentally friendly than a cloth diaper and vice versa.

It may seem like I'm defending disposable diapers, but they are the underdog here, and I like an underdog.

First, let's consider the energy used. For disposable diapers, the bulk of energy comes from their manufacture, that's obvious. Cloth diapers, though, also use energy. Growing the cotton, for example, requires farm equipment powered by gasoline and pumps for irrigating with water. And, of course, lots of energy is used in heating the water for washing the diapers.

What about toxic waste? Clearly, disposables contain plastic, and when buried or incinerated can turn into toxic chemicals. A cloth diaper, at first, appears to produce no waste like this, but remember that they're made from cotton and that pesticides are used to grow the cotton. Also, they're washed with a detergent, made, of course, from chemicals.

This may all be true, but surely disposable diapers are clogging our landfills. They aren't really: Disposable diapers make-up one and half percent of the volume of a landfill. There are far worse things filling up our landfills.

So, how do you balance all of these things: Does a disposable diaper use more energy in its lifetime than a cloth one? Does it produce more waste?

I have on my desk studies that claim one or the other is better, but we may never know which diaper is more energy efficient, and less toxic. And I'm not sure that that's the ultimate point.

When I look at where these studies agree, my conclusion is this: We shouldn't be battling about diapers to save the environment. In the scheme of things, they just aren't that important. For example, regardless of which diaper is more energy efficient, the total energy used is small. The amount of energy needed to create a year's worth of diapers for a child is about fifty-three gallons of gas. That's the amount needed for the average weekly commute in an SUV.

So, in debating about what kind of diaper to use we may well be fighting the most convenient battle, rather than the most pressing one.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises