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This is not going to be a rant about disposable diapers. They have revolutionized life for us as parents! 

But at the same time, their introduction in the 1940s did come with a cost to our planet’s well-being.

It’s almost impossible to avoid creating waste or having any impact on the environment. 

However, if we strive to understand what’s at stake over the two-to-three years our children wear nappies, we can set a good example for the next generation and perhaps reduce our ecological footprint—even by just a little!

The Pollution Problem

Our babies typically go through 3,800 disposable diapers in their first 2.5 years. 

In Hong Kong alone that equates to an estimated 228 million nappies being used each year, which is enough waste to stretch more than 1.5 times around the world!

Although this waste goes directly to landfill, the problem is larger than that: The manufacturing process requires large volumes of pulp, paper, plastic and other raw materials—plus uses significant amounts of water and energy. 

Deforestation is another issue: most diapers are made with wood pulp and not every company sources sustainably. 

Many mainstream brands also import their materials, requiring transportation and petroleum.

baby in diaper on bed

Our babies typically go through 3,800 diapers in their first 2.5 years

The Decomposition Problem

It’s a known problem that our garbage is piling up in landfills faster than it can decompose, and diapers are a major contributor. 

As mentioned above, most diapers contain biodegradable components like wood pulp or cotton, which can actually decompose within five months.

The biggest positive impact you can have when it comes to diapers and the environment is—wait for it—potty-training your child! 

But disposable diapers also contain plastics, and even the most-eco-friendly options use chemicals called super absorbent polymers (SAPs) that keep the material dry. These take at least 500 years to decompose. 

The Contamination Problem

The developing world’s sanitation systems are pretty efficient: What goes into the toilet is treated and sanitized before being put back into our environment. 

But the waste in disposable nappies goes straight in the bin, ending up in landfill. 

As a result, this untreated urine and feces can is a breeding ground for viruses like Hepatitis B and polio from vaccines given to newborns.

Even if you live far away from a landfill site, you risk illness illness via rodents, insects and contaminated groundwater.

Did you know?

Between 2000 and 2050, the U.S. will add 114 million kids to its population and Africa will add 1.2 billion—but their CO2 emissions will be the same.

As they break down in landfill and slowly biodegrade, diapers also emit methane (a greenhouse gas that has heat-trapping effects even stronger than those of CO2)—believed to be the primary driver of human-induced climate change. 

High concentrations of the gas can be explosive and flammable to boot. 

The Toxicity Problem

There are a number of potentially hazardous toxins in disposable diapers that will affect the environment, as well as your baby’s health, when discarded.

Toxins such as sodium polyacrylate (a chemical polymer used for absorbency), chlorine (from bleaching), dioxin (a chemical produced by bleaching wood pulp), and TBT (a heavy metal) are released into the air and water.

Reusable diapers are believed to be eco-friendlier but this is often debated

 Disposables vs. Reusables

The most common solution for parents horrified by disposables is to turn to reusable diapers instead. 

Although they’re widely believed to be the eco-friendlier option, this idea is frequently debated.

It’s true that 30 cloth diapers can serve the function of about 4,000 disposables; that they’re made from mostly renewable resources like cotton, bamboo or hemp; and that far less waste ends up in landfill.

But cloth diapers also consume close to 10 times the water of disposables when you add up irrigation (cotton is a very thirsty crop), cloth processing and manufacturing, plus 2.5 years of laundering. 

Then you add the electricity for high-heat laundering on top of that. 

The Final Say

As there is no clear winner in terms of which is eco-friendlier, it’s up to you to decide on the right choice for your family.

But here are a few things you can do to try and reduce your environmental impact:

    • Source organic cotton or non-cotton reusable diapers as they’re the most environmentally friendly.
    • Invest in an energy-efficient washing machine to reduce your impact on global warming.
    • Look into hybrid diapers: These have a disposable insert that is much smaller than a diaper, and you can wash the outer shell at a lower temperature than soiled cloth versions.
    • Investigate eco-friendly disposable brands: Some use sustainable wood pulp or organic cotton, toxin-free inks, natural materials, and less SAP.
    • Dispose of your baby’s solid waste in the toilet before throwing the diaper out. Who said parenting was glamorous?

    Remember, the sole biggest impact you can have when it comes to saving the environment is—wait for it—potty-training your child! 

    If only it were that easy…