This is a topic where, while various sources will highlight numbers regarding environmental impact and other variables, there’s not much actual research to point to. Perhaps that’s why both the AAP and the EPA have remained neutral in the debate regarding cloth and disposable diapers.
There’s no denying that disposable diapers impact the environment negatively. The production of the plastic and the gels that make up the diapers produces waste that must be disposed of. Then think of the packaging and marketing process—the dyes, the boxes, the delivery—and all the environmental costs that come with that. Also, the diapers are made from polypropylene, a type of plastic that is made from the nonrenewable resource petroleum and will not biodegrade under landfill conditions. Finally, the fecal contents of the diapers can end up in our groundwater.
All that said, though, cloth diapers aren’t the slam dunk you’d assume, environmentally speaking. They are preferable when it comes to environmental impact, but the difference between the two options isn’t as significant as you’d expect. Consider that cloth diapers are typically made from cotton, the growing of which relies on water and an inordinately heavy use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides. Then there are production costs as well as the necessity of washing them in hot water and drying them (both processes requiring energy) by the consumer. Yes, there are commercial delivery services, but the trucks create air pollution and consume resources.
What’s more, additional green options are appearing each day. There are now hybrid diapers, with a cloth shell you reuse and a biodegradable liner that’s safe for the sewage system and can therefore be flushed. Also, disposable diaper companies are offering chlorine-free diapers with lower levels of certain chemicals and allergens, and cloth diapers are available that have been produced with organically grown, pesticide-free cotton. All of these choices, of course, raise the expense of the diapers, meaning that for many families these alternatives aren’t a viable option.
Diaper rash is another factor some parents consider. Disposable diapers are thought to keep the baby drier and therefore more effectively avoid rash, but if either type of diaper is changed frequently, diaper rash can be largely prevented. One study did find that colorful dyes from disposable diapers caused an allergic reaction in a small number of children, but one of the study’s authors acknowledged that the “vast majority” of children should be fine to wear the colorful diapers without incident.