The diaper dilemma

Livable Cities Pollution

Let’s talk about diapers. Like many new parents, I’m struggling: cloth or disposables? On the one hand, I want to go with the more sustainable choice. But on the other, I’m wondering why I should even have to think about it at all. Why can’t the environmental impacts of cloth and disposable diapers be reflected in their prices, so that self-interest tilts me toward the sustainable choice? In other words, could ecofiscal policies make my choice easy? As it turns out, it’s not so simple. As we’ll see (not literally), diapers can get messy.

Decision time

My son is 18 months old, so I’m not new to the diaper game. What is new is that my wife and I recently bought a house. At our old apartment, we shared laundry machines with our neighbours. At the time, we opted for disposables because the machines weren’t always available and using them to wash poopy diapers didn’t feel very neighbourly (I admit this was largely a cop-out).

However, I’m now the proud owner of some (fairly beat-up) washing machines, and fresh out of excuses. So, will it be cloth or disposables?


I am the proud owner of this magnificent beast

The environmental pros and cons

When it comes to environmental impacts, cloth and disposables both have pros and cons. Disposables use more raw materials (including non-biodegradable components) and send more waste to landfills. But cloth diapers need to be washed… a lot. That uses water and energy and generates wastewater that has to be treated. Then there are the indirect impacts. Cloth diapers use a lot of cotton, which tends to require a lot of agricultural chemicals and pesticides. On the other hand, manufacturing the plastics, gels, and dyes in disposables produces pollution, including GHG emissions.

Weighing these environmental impacts requires making some tricky apples-to-oranges comparisons (what matters more — water use or material use?). It can be a bit bewildering. Parents have enough to worry about. We shouldn’t expect that they’ll have time to sort out the sustainability implications of diaper choices.

Even for a motivated environmental policy nerd like me, it’s not easy to get a clear picture. Life cycle analyses are often ambiguous. While cloth tends to come out on top, it’s rarely a slam dunk. The largest study I found was a 2005 analysis from the UK’s Environment Agency. It found that there was no clear winner across diaper types – they were all really bad for the environment. (Of course, this study was based on UK-specific factors, including its energy mix. The results would probably be different for Canada.)


Mapping diapers’ life cycle impacts. Simple, right? (Image source: World Resources Institute)

Given that going diaper-free isn’t really an option (I don’t even want to think about what that would look like), how can parents make an informed, sustainable choice?

Put a price on it

Like any good economist, my first reflex is to take the guesswork out of all this by ensuring the price of diapers reflects their full environmental cost and letting markets do the heavy lifting. That way, peoples’ interest in saving money can guide them toward the more sustainable choice. But in practice, this is tough to do for diapers.

The problem is that the environmental impacts tend to be context-specific. For example, how emissions-intensive are the energy and materials used to produce the disposables? How and where are they landfilled? What is the risk of landfill liquids leaching into the surrounding environment? How efficient are the machines used to wash the cloth diapers? Is hot or cold water used? Are the diapers line-dried? What are the environmental impacts of water use and wastewater treatment in the area?

All this complexity means that a one-size-fits-all pricing solution (much like a one-size-fits-all diaper) risks creating more problems than it solves. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for pricing.

Put (several) prices on it

Diapers themselves are not the problem. The problem is the material, water and energy that they use and the waste they generate. If we want diaper prices to better reflect their environmental impact, we need to price these factors separately.

Three particular policies would go a long way:

  • Carbon pricing can ensure that the emissions associated with manufacturing diapers are reflected in the final price. It can also cover the energy used to wash and dry cloth diapers, or the fuel needed to transport disposables to the landfill.
  • Water and wastewater pricing can ensure that the full costs of these services (both financial and environmental) are reflected in the rates that households pay. This would help parents weigh the real cost of washing disposables.
  • Solid-waste pricing can ensure that parents experience the cost associated with landfilling their disposable diapers. (Fun fact: an average kid will send a full tonne of diapers to the landfill by the time they’re potty trained!)

Diapers as a microcosm

You might be thinking: “This seems like a lot of work to put a price on diapers.” And you’re right. But that’s because diapers are just a symptom of a much larger problem.

All across the economy, we don’t pay the full environmental costs of the things we produce and consume. It’s a big part of why we’re putting such a large and growing burden on the natural environment. Using the policies described above to make the price of goods and services reflect their environmental impacts would be a major step towards a sustainable economy – diapers included.

Of course, none of this is easy. Carbon pricing has a lot of devilish details and, as we’re seeing now in Canada, the politics can be difficult. Water pricing gets complex fast, since the environmental impacts tend to be place- and season-specific. And as we’ll show in a report this fall, pricing garbage isn’t just about paying for waste disposal at landfills and at the curb; in practice, it should also include policies that make producers accountable for disposing their products.

But even with these challenges, these policies are worth pursuing. Pricing is one of the most powerful tools in our toolkit. Not using it will make the job even harder.

And the winner is…

But back to my diaper dilemma. I can’t wait for improved pricing policies on GHG emissions, water and solid waste to help me make my decision, since that would be a worse cop-out than my ‘I don’t want to annoy the neighbours’ excuse.

So, drumroll please…

I bought the damn cloth diapers

In the end, I went with cloth. Why?

  • First, context suggests that cloth is probably the more sustainable choice here in Ottawa. Water is not especially scarce, so my incessant washing won’t have the impact it might elsewhere. And because electricity is mostly carbon-free in Ontario (especially off-peak, when I’ll be using it), my extra washing and drying will have limited impacts on GHG emissions.
  • Second — and not insignificantly — I would look kind of a jerk if this blog ended with me making the less sustainable choice.
  • Third — and most significantly — going with cloth will save me money. In the course of researching this blog, I came across article after article that quantified the cost difference. Although they require an up-front investment, cloth diapers are considerably cheaper in the long-run, especially if you use them on a second kid (which, although difficult to contemplate right now, is on the horizon).

For me, this is the big take-away. Financial considerations matter. I weighed other important factors like environmental impact, time, and convenience. But, in the end, it was financial self-interest that pushed me toward cloth.

I’m sure there are others who make the same decision for the same reason. But for many parents, the cost advantage of cloth simply isn’t enough to outweigh the convenience advantage of disposables.

I suspect that if we were all paying the full environmental cost of diapers, a lot more parents would make the same decision I did.

1 comment

  1. Sandra

    We used cloth diapers for our 2 kids (who are now teens!) as well. Some new and some handed down from a neighbour. This was before compost systems accepted diapers so the environmental argument was more clear cut then. The cost difference was substantial. There are some pretty high tech cloth options out there, along with flushable paper liners, which make things convenient and still less costly. If you have another child later, you spread the cost out even more. One piece of practical advice: keep disposables on hand for nighttime (one diaposable diaper per day – not so bad!) and for road trips.

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