Cloth Diapers vs. Disposables: The Water Issue

Over at Sierra Magazine, an article called “The Great Diaper Debate” has a question from a reader about the effect that using cloth diapers has on water usage:

“Cloth diapers require both water and energy to wash—two things California has in short supply. But disposables come from plastic, cotton, and trees, and clog our landfill. What’s the most environmentally friendly thing a new parent can do?”

The short answer: Most households waste so much water that they should focus on conserving it instead of worrying about how much it takes to wash diapers.

That’s been our reasoning as well. We chose cloth diapers for all of our kids, mostly because of the excessive resources used in the manufacture and disposal of disposable diapers.

We’ve been questioned about the water issue, and I have to say that for us, we’re pretty conscious of how much water we use in general. We don’t wash clothing that isn’t really dirty (which for most people is most clothing, unless you work at a job that entails getting dirty every day), and we don’t shower or wash our hair every day (gasp). I don’t wash my vehicle very often (a couple of times a year), and I don’t water the lawn with anything other than the graywater from our washing machine.

So we’re OK with the water usage involved in cloth diapering, and I completely agree with ‘Mr. Green’. Taking issue with one piece of the puzzle just confuses the issue, when we ought to look at our footprint more holistically – the overall impact of our actions on our resources and the environment.

What do you think? Is the issue really our overall water usage, or just the water used to wash cloth diapers?

Image: D Sharon Pruitt at Flickr

Derek Markham

Things I dig include: simple living, natural fatherhood, attachment parenting, natural building, unassisted childbirth (homebirth), bicycles, permaculture, organic and biodynamic gardening, vegan peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, bouldering, and the blues. Find me elsewhere at @NaturalPapa, @DerekMarkham, Google+, or RebelMouse.

14 thoughts on “Cloth Diapers vs. Disposables: The Water Issue

  • Thank you! For me, I’ve always considered that the amount of water used washing cloth was minimal compared to the amount used and polluted making disposable ones. Added into the landfills and chemicals, cloth just seemed to be more obviously green.
    .-= Summer´s last blog ..Vegetarian Kids =-.

  • Sarah

    I think the thing that gets missed with the “water question” is the fact that it takes water to produce disposables. I don’t actually know how much, but I do know that water is used in the process.

  • darjen

    the cloth vs paper diaper issue came up on bill nye’s green show the other day. his conclusion was that the overall environmental impact (not just water use alone) was inconclusive. and I would tend to agree with that.

  • Great point. I think it’s often hard to keep track of our overall environmental impacts, because of the complexity involved, but it’s important to try. Diapers are just one small part of the whole picture. A book called the Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices has some really good info on the broader picture, even though it’s a little older.

  • The very manufacturing of disposables takes water as well, so you are not saving any water by using disposables. I agree with you and Mr. Green and think most environmentalists would.
    You are also correct in saying that we are better off watching our water waste than worrying about washing cloth diapers.
    We would also do well to start thinking about ways to make water, like they do in Dubai, or how to make energy from recycling disposables like they do in Britain. Those conversations would be fun to have!

  • I think its such a ridiculous argument, made mostly by people to alliviate guilt (not saying they should have it, but i notice that most of my friends apologize to me for not being able to CD themselves, and i never say anything about it to them). So much water & junk goes into making disposables, and they don’t seem to care how much water they use when they flush their toilets- why are babies any different? Shall we all go around wearing diapers too, so we can bypass the toilet & it’s water usage all together?

    I agree. Water use needs to be looked at holistically, not like this.

  • Frank P

    It is my experisence that people who say “I use water very carefully” and are not also able to say how much water they use, are not using water carefully, when you look at the numbers.

    So how much water do you use per day or month?

    • Derek Markham

      Frank –

      I know what our water usage is, because I track it. For 6 years, we lived in a tiny house (a camper, actually), and I hauled every single drop of water that we used. For those years, we used an average of 10 to 15 gallons of water per day (for 3 people, then 4) plus another 30 to 40 for clothes washing (not every day). That works out to a very small water footprint for our family.

      We now live in a house (family of five), and I just looked at my water bill for the last couple of months. It averages out to less than 100 gallons per day total, including washing diapers (and some of that is waste, as our kids aren’t as mindful of water usage as we are). According to the USGS, the average person uses about 80 to 100 gallons per day. Our water usage is still small compared to the average.

      How much water do you use, Frank?

      • Frank P

        We, the wife and I, living in a house (so have to support the lawn every now and then if we can not store enough rain), are relatively constant at 88m3 per year. According to google, thats (88 000 l) / 365 = 63.7 US gallons per day.
        I expect that to go up once the first child is there of course.

  • I really appreciate the wholistic approach you you take regarding your water usage. Aside from the water usage in disposable diapers, there are other resources utilzed in their manufacturing as well as their disposal. Cloth, espcially organic diapers, would seem to be the preferred choice on all counts.

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  • The water issue is certainly a really important point, but I have to be honest: Washing cloth diapers is a real pain, we did it with our first daughter and while I always try to do some good for our environment, there are much less annyoing and still effective ways not to pollute the planet.

  • Caroline

    I realize I’m about 10 months late on this post but…

    I have always thought it would take me a child’s entire diapering career to use the amount of water washing his or her diapers that it takes to maufacture even half of what he or she would use in disposables. Plus, we aren’t leaving anything to clog landfills. So it’s not just about water, but the whole picture. If someone decides not to cloth diaper because of the amount of water in washing, they are not looking at the larger picture of manufacture and waste, much less the health and safety issues involved with disposables in the first place.


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