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How Green Are Your Baby's Diapers?

 

Disposables, cloth, hybrid, organic, eco - what's a parent to choose? With a look at the environment, cost, convenience and comfort, we've done your compare-and-contrast homework for you.

1. Classic Disposable Diapers

Active ingredients

One cup of crude oil (the plastic), four trees (the liner), chemically bleached non-woven fabric (the filler), sodium polyacrylate (a super absorbent polymer gel added to the filler), adhesives and a soup of toxic chemicals, all fused together.

Green Factor  

From the billion trees a year destroyed to make the paper liners and the cancer-causing dioxins in the chlorine used to bleach them, to the oil that goes into the plastic and the plastic that clogs our landfills, disposables are the never-ending story. One third of our landfill waste is diapers - we toss 18 billion a year in the U.S. alone, and each one can take 500 years to degrade. But even this is nothing to the amount of raw sewage from soiled diapers that leaks into our waterways and soil, and threatens our wildlife. Landfill sites are not designed to handle human waste, and poopy diapers are full of it.

Learning curve  

It doesn’t get any easier. Still, watching Daddy try to figure it out for the first time can be fun.

Leakage factor  

This is an almost perfect urine sponge - the diapers are super absorbent and seldom leak.

Your baby's butt  

You may be more comfortable changing fewer diapers - but because the diaper can absorb so much urine before your baby cries about it, she's likely to get a rash. And some people believe that the harm caused by these diapers' chemicals, including dioxins from the chlorine bleach, might be worse than a diaper rash.

Your out-of-pocket  

You'll spend approximately $2,000 by the time your child is potty trained. (But the amount of time you'll save… Priceless!)

What you can do

If disposables are right for you, help by emptying stinky diapers into the toilet when you can, so that the waste does not end up in our fields and streams.

2. Eco-Disposable Diapers

Active ingredients

All eco diapers are chlorine-free and contain nontoxic chemicals and adhesives, but some brands are greener than others. Some contain paper made from a mix of wood pulp and cotton as opposed to just wood pulp, some contain plastic (a cup of crude oil per diaper), others are made from 100 percent green non-plastic substances.

Green factor  

The "eco" in these diapers refers to the fact that they are chlorine-free- (and therefore free of highly toxic dioxins) and contain fewer chemicals overall. Depending on the brand, they might offer additional environmental benefits: The wood pulp might come from farmed, renewable forests, which saves natural forest from being cleared (Tushies); some don't have plastic (Nature Babycare). Otherwise, the environmental issues are about the same as with classic disposables. While eco disposables degrade more readily, it’s almost impossible for anything to fully biodegrade in an airtight landfill. And unless you empty the contents of the diapers into the toilet prior to dumping, you're still adding raw sewage to water and soil systems.

Learning curve  

Besides the fact that they're less absorbent - so they'll probably need to be changed more frequently - these diapers are as easy to use as classic disposables. Unless, that is, you can't find them locally, in which case you'll have to order them online, which will entail having them shipped, which isn't very green.

Leakage factor  

Eco-disposables that contain no chemical super absorbent gel need changing more frequently - which means less chance of irritation for the baby, at least if you act on those "I'm wet" messages.

Your baby's butt  

That little bottom will thank you, not just for the more frequent changes (see Leakage factor), but also for diapers that are free of gels, latex, perfumes, dyes and chlorine.

Your out-of-pocket  

During your baby's diaper-wearing years, you'll spend around $2,500 - about 25 percent more than if you buy the non-eco version.

What you can do

Make sure to empty the stinky ones in the toilet instead of the landfill whenever possible

3. Hybrid Diapers

Active ingredients

The hybrid diaper combines an outer shell of cotton-elastene fabric; liners made from polyurethane-coated nylon; and inserts or “flushables” made from chlorine-free tree pulp treated with polyacrylate gels.

Green factor  

The inserts in hybrid diapers are made to be flushable, tossable and compostable. Flushing puts your baby's poop where it's supposed to go, but it's not a perfect alternative: one year of putting your baby's diapers in the toilet uses 3,796 gallons of water. These diapers become far more eco-friendly if you compost the non-poopy ones (you'll have to flush or toss the soiled ones). But think twice about using the compost in your vegetable garden, since the liners contain polyacrylate gels (the same gels that are used in disposables). Hybrid liners can be hand washed and air-dried in 10 minutes, and the outer shell can be used many times before needing a wash.

* Learning curve  

If hybrids didn’t come with a training manual and instructional video, your toilet would be clogged and your garden would smell like poop.

Leakage factor  

Excellent results! It's those super absorbent polyacrylic gels.

Your baby’s butt  

The hybrid definitely makes for a cushie tushy. These diapers are breathable, and while the super absorbent gels have been known to cause a rash or two because they encourage infrequent changes, our unscientific research shows that the hybrid is super comfortable around the legs.

Your out-of-pocket  

Add the 12 outer shells you'll need by the time your child is potty trained (around $200 total) to what you'll spend on the liners and flushables ($1,800). Result: $2,000, about the same as traditional disposables.

What you can do

Compost the non-poopy inserts and put the others in the toilet. Some mothers use organic cloth diapers during the day and hybrids to absorb extra wetness at night. It's a great way to save dollars, trees, flushes and washes - and less ends up in the landfill.

4. Classic Cloth Diapers

Active ingredients

Bleached cotton, plus wool or plastic, depending on the diaper cover you use.

Green factor  

In your home laundry, it takes the equivalent of five toilet flushes, or 15 gallons of water, to wash a day's worth of cloth diapers - that's 5,475 gallons per year (those numbers continue to fall as washing machines become more efficient). Diaper services use less water for more diapers, but then you have to factor in the delivery-truck emissions. In addition, there's the water and energy used in growing and harvesting cotton - when you add all of that to the resources used in the laundry, disposables and cloth come out about even. Plus, cotton is one of our most heavily sprayed crops - that's lots of chemicals entering our environment. (The cancer-causing dioxin in the chlorine bleach used to whiten some cloth diapers is the same dioxin that's used in disposables, so that part's a wash.) On the big plus side, using cloth diapers spares our fields and streams from being polluted by poop, and our landfills from being piled high with plastic.

Learning curve  

Getting the diaper on the baby takes some practice. And the origami-like folding, the daily washing - it's enough to make the modern mama reach for disposables.

Leakage factor  

It all depends on how well you put on the diaper and which brand you use. Generally, Number One doesn’t seem to be the problem; it’s smelly Number Two that somehow finds it’s way to the free world.

Your baby's butt  

No one likes a soggy behind, but if you change diapers frequently – more frequently than you would a classic disposable - Baby should stay comfortable; if you don't, that little bottom could end up with a very uncomfortable rash.

Your out-of-pocket  

Your total out-of-pocket for diapers, plastic diaper covers and pins adds up to a grand total of $150 by the time your child is out of diapers. The average diaper service charges $15 per week, so unless you do the wash at home (factor in higher electric and water bills), that's at least an additional $1,500 during your baby's pre-potty years.

What you can do

Air-drying a cloth diaper in the sun naturally bleaches it and saves a ton of energy. Once your child is done with diapers, the cloths are great for cleaning. 

5. Unbleached Organic Pocket Diapers

Active ingredients

Pocket diapers are a two-part deal: An organic cotton fitted diaper with a "pocket" for an organic cotton or hemp insert. You might also need a wool or plastic diaper cover.

Green factor  

Organic means better for Mother Earth - no pesticides in our groundwater, no chemicals in our soil. What's more, 28 percent more carbon is produced in the soil of organic farms, balancing out the carbon in the air and thereby helping to slow down global climate change. And organic diapers are unbleached, saving us from the highly toxic dioxins in chlorine bleach. If you use wool diaper covers, you have a natural moisture-absorbing barrier. On the laundry-related water and electricity front, organic cloth diapers have the same impact on our environment as the classic version - but to a lesser degree.

Learning curve  

The "pocket" system makes these diapers just as easy to learn and use as disposables - except that instead of dumping your spoiled plastic-and-paper in the trash, the organic insert must go in the hamper for your end-of-day-wash or to a laundry service, some of which also supply the inserts.

Leakage factor  

You’ll have all the same issues as with classic cloth.

Your baby's butt  

Softer than the non-organic kind, chemical- and chlorine-free cotton will never irritate your baby's sensitive skin (but if you don't change this diaper frequently you'll be seeing some nasty diaper rashes), and you won't have to worry whether toxins are being absorbed into your baby's system.

Your out-of-pocket  

About $600 total for your baby's diaper-wearing years. Add a diaper service to the mix and you are looking at an additional $1,500, for a total of $2,100, or 5 percent more than traditional disposables.

What you can do

Research and test as many forms of organic cloth diapers until you find one that works for you. Then air-dry your inserts and covers to save on electricity. Hang them in the sun, and they'll get a natural bleaching.

 

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