October 5, 2011

Cloth vs. Disposable and the Use of Water. ~ Anna Baldwin

Photo: Lance McCord

When it comes to diapering, cloth or reusable products are surely the less impactful choice.

But is this true? Do cloth diapers have less of an impact on the parks we play in, the earth we need and depend on? Not only does one have to look at the landfill space associated to the diaper debate, but other factors such as raw materials and water use need to also be considered.

Let’s focus on the water use of both types of diapers. Recently there’s been the debate of whether or not disposable diapers are truly the bad guys water usage-wise. A cloth diaper uses an enormous amount of water to both grow the cotton to make them, as well as in the washing machine after every single tinkle.

But making the disposable diapers takes water too, says Kevin Vranes of E Source, an environmental firm in Boulder.

Vranes works in the environmental services industry, specifically studying the hydrological system, and has conducted research on this diaper debate as a project for the previous company he worked for.

Photo: D'Arcy Norman

“When you do all the numbers – you can see that to grow cotton it takes a lot of water, but it also takes a lot of water to process crude oil into plastic and to process pulp from trees for the paper components of the disposable ones.”

What he’s saying is that the water penalty – or amount of water used for both types of products – is comparable.

This aside, let’s look at one of the other factors in the debate. Vranes says it takes just as many resources, such as water, to make a cloth diaper as opposed to a disposable, and that the landfill use of disposables should be more of a concern than anything else.

“As an environmental scientist, if I was looking at all the different trade offs and commponents of the system, I would not be worried about the water use – water is very much a renewable resource.”

He goes on to say that washing cloth diapers is so efficient that there isn’t an alarmingly excessive amount of water used during the process.

Now that the water issue has been brought into focus, the original most attractive reason that many people use cloth diapers can be brought into the spotlight – less of an impact on landfills.

And thus the answer to the debate of disposable vs. cloth products? Due to how water penalty isn’t as big of an issue as previously thought and the landfill use is more of a concern, cloth diapers generally are the more sustainable option. A more detailed look can be seen in Vranes’ study here.


Anna Baldwin graduated from Colorado State University with a Journalism and Technical Communication degree, although she spent more time skiing than she did in class. She has written for more than five publications and the online entities on a variety of subjects, and some of her work has appeared on MSNBC.com and in Skiing Magazine. Some of her interests include biking, skiing, reading, cooking, slacklining, skiing, hiking and skiing. Anna lives in Boulder.


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