All diapers, cloth or disposable, impact the environment. However, life cycle assessments conducted in the U.S., Germany, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Canada, and the U.K. since the 1980s all reach the same conclusion: cloth diapers consume more water and produce more waterborne emissions due to laundering, while disposables produce more solid waste and consume more natural resources.
It is important to examine all aspects of a product’s life cycle, rather than just selecting one, such as solid waste, as the basis for choosing a product. Otherwise consumers could ignore categories such as energy usage or air and water pollution, which may have a greater impact. Favoring only one part of the life cycle does not offer an overall environmental benefit.
The specific numerical results in recent LCAs differ due to differences in geography, methodology and assumptions (most studies predate international standards), and local energy and waste infrastructure. Despite these differences, these LCAs support the conclusion that all diapering systems have an environmental impact. They all consume raw materials, energy, and water. They all generate some wastes to water, air, and land.
A 2005 analysis published by U.K. Environment Agency (Life Cycle Assessment of Disposable and Reusable Nappies in the U.K.) investigated the impact of three diapering systems: cloth diapers with home wash, cloth diapers with commercial laundry, and disposable diapers.
The study found that:
- There is no significant difference between any of the environmental impacts of the disposable, home-use reusable and commercial laundry systems.
- No system had superior environmental performance, although the life cycle stages that are the main source for these impacts are different for each system.
- All three systems do not contribute substantially to overall solid waste totals.
- the global warming and non-renewable resource depletion impact over one child’s diaper-wearing period (estimated at 2.5 years) is comparable to driving a car between 1,300 and 2,200 miles.