The Environmental Hypocrisy of Paper Diapers

By Cam Mather

I believe I do a good job of pointing out my own hypocrisy whenever I’m railing on about something. I make it very clear that while I really think I’ve got my “energy” house in order when it comes to heating and powering my home, I live in the country and drive way more than I should. I admit my shortcomings but also share how Michelle and I try to minimize our car trips, use our bikes, invested in a solar-powered electric bike, etc.

As I read The New York Times on November 28th I noticed an article called “Living a Green Lifestyle, But Wrestling With Guilt.” I could certainly relate. My reality of living in the country and being able to grow my own food and produce all my own heat and electricity means that I drive more than someone living downtown with access to transit. But if you live in the city, your food is grown by someone living in the country and is trucked to your local store. So I think it kind of cancels each other out.

The article included an interview with the author of “The Lazy Environmentalist: Your Guide to Easy, Stylish, Green Living.” Alarm bells obviously went off for me. Let’s be honest – if you really want to be a good environmentalist, it’s going to be pretty tough to be stylish in your second-hand store clothing. And I don’t think anyone would suggest that riding your bike 40 miles to visit your Grandma could be considered as “easy”.  By the time you get to your destination, after riding your environmentally friendly bicycle, you’re going to be all hot and sweaty with bad hair. The last time I checked a fashion magazine this look wasn’t considered “stylish.” But really, this is the stuff you’ve got to do. To describe it otherwise is false advertising.

In the article the writer got the author to admit that he and his wife tried using cloth diapers for their 5-month-old baby and he said, “We tried cloth and think it’s totally unrealistic.” Huh? Have you read the title of your book recently? I’ve got news for you, up until about the last 30 years there was no alternative to cloth diapers. Pretty amazing that civilization was able to survive all that time without them. In fact disposable diapers are the poster child for what’s wrong with the planet. And what is that? What’s wrong with disposable diapers? EVERYTHING! Amazingly enough, the writer of the article was able to find a number of other “environmentalists” who use disposable diapers.

So let’s try and get our heads around this. We head out into the forest and we put gas in our chainsaw and we cut down live, beautiful, carbon-absorbing trees. Then we use massive diesel-sucking, pollution-belching tractors to haul those trees out of the forest, and put them on huge diesel trucks and ship them to huge energy-inhaling factories that turn those trees into pulp. Then we package and ship that pulp to another factory hours or days away in another diesel-belching truck, then use massive amounts of energy to turn that pulp into diapers. And since no one wants a leaky diaper we then wrap those diapers in plastic liners. And where does that plastic come from? … Anyone, anyone?… Yes – oil. Did you watch TV last year? Did you see the Macondo oil well blow out in the Gulf of Mexico? And you say cloth diapers are unrealistic?

Don’t forget all those wonderful “moisture absorbing” chemicals like sodium polyacrylate that we put into those diapers so they that can retain more liquid. And since they don’t leak we tend to leave them on our babies for way longer than their tender behinds should be exposed to that stuff.

Finally, we use massive garbage trucks to ship those single use diapers to a landfill. And in most jurisdictions it is illegal to put human waste in a landfill, so when you toss that disposable diaper in a landfill, you’re breaking the law. I’m sure the packaging today says the diapers are “biodegradable,” but they won’t biodegrade if they end up compacted in a landfill where no oxygen can get to them. I guess that’s why I see so many tossed on the sides of roads when I ride my bike – I guess the parent is doing the responsible thing and hoping they’ll biodegrade. In all my years I’ve never seen a cloth diaper tossed in a ditch. And in my home province of Ontario we’ve filled up 650 out of 730 landfills, so we only have 80 left. Disposable diapers are a major problem in landfills.

The disposable diaper advocates will no doubt point to the water that is used to wash cloth diapers. Yes, what about it? You think using a laundry tub full of water has a bigger impact than the carbon footprint of paper diapers? Come on. And when you rinse out a cloth diaper the human waste goes into a sanitary sewer system to be treated with other human waste, where it’s supposed to go!

It’s like the debate over washing dishes by hand versus using a dishwasher. Using a dishwasher uses more energy than doing them by hand. I put a couple of inches of hot water in the bottom of our dish pan, start with glasses and as I rinse the glasses the pan fills up, and by the time I’m done I’ve used one pan of water. And the hot water I use? I heated it on the wood stove or with my solar domestic hot water heater. Zero-carbon dishwashing. When I hear dishwashers working away at other people’s houses and think about the electricity they’re sucking up to blast all the water around and how hot the water has to be to melt off 3-day-old macaroni and cheese, it’s crazy. And yet some appliance manufacturer in Europe commissioned a study decades ago and was able to skew the data toward automatic dishwashers and this has been the public’s mindset ever since. It’s a myth as is any argument that says paper diapers can possibly be anything but an environmental nightmare.

When our first daughter was born almost 25 years ago we bought 2 dozen flat cloth diapers. We then used the same 24 cloth diapers for our second daughter a few years later. After we were finished using them as diapers they became the best rags I’ve ever used. I still have a couple left 25 years later. Seems like a pretty low impact piece of cloth to me. And as you can see by the photo our diapers were square and you had to pin them on and use a rubber pant over top of them. Today you can get wonderfully colourful organic cotton diapers that are all nicely cut and shaped to fit your baby and you don’t have to use diaper pins anymore!

A 25-year-old cloth diaper that we use as a rag.

I have no doubt that I’ll have offended some of my readers with my rant about dishwashers and disposable diapers. But really, we can’t find a solution to our environmental problems if we keep kidding ourselves that some of the most destructive things we do like flying and using single use products like paper diapers is anything but bad for the planet. We’ve got to suck it up and start rinsing those poopy diapers in the toilet and dealing with them the proper way. To do it any other way is to deny that child their right to an inhabitable planet when they grow up.

* * * * * * *

Here’s one example of the new fitted cloth diapers available. This company was started by one of our daughters’ friends. There are plenty of choices out there and I’ve even seen fitted cloth diapers for sale in secondhand stores!

Here’s an interesting website comparing the environmental and financial costs of cloth and paper diapers….

5 Responses to “The Environmental Hypocrisy of Paper Diapers”

  • Andrea:

    I agree. It wasn’t until I spent six years in New Zealand that I knew cloth diapers still existed. Being originally from Texas and eventually having to move back, my family was shocked that I not only used clothed diapers, but I would hang my clothes outside to dry. What is happening to the world today?

  • Absolutely correct Cam. Disposable diapers should be banned, but we’re a long way off from that. We used the square cloth diapers on our first child and thought we’d died and gone to heaven when we discovered the shaped ones. We raised three toddlers on cloth diapers and are mighty proud of that – cause it’s an accomplishment nowadays (well fifteen years ago) to stay away from disposable diapers. Antoinette would change the kids during the day and when I got back from work, it was my chore to wash those darn things out. But it wasn’t hard and we knew we were doing the kids good and the environment.

    Sustainable Living Blog

  • Connie Murray:

    Your article was very interesting. I am only sorry I didn’t read it 10 years ago when my youngest child was born. I used to worry about all those stinky, slushy diapers going into the landfill but there didn’t seem many alternatives. Someday my children will make me a grandma and I will suggest cloth diapers to them. But my children are certainly more environmentally aware than I ever was at their age. They recycle automatically, don’t litter, don’t use paper towels, paper plates or a host of other disposables. Hopefully, their good habits will inspire their friends and classmates too. Every little bit we do helps.

  • Bruce:

    I have to agree with both you and Anne. As a person who, with my wonderful wife, has raised 12 children, I might be considered an expert of sorts on the whole diaper issue.

    We used both cloth and “disposable” diapers and can tell you from personal experience that cloth diapers are the only realistic, holistic, pollution-reducing system out there. Not only are they much more comfortable on a baby’s tender areas, they are efficient, easy to clean, reusable and sanitary. And a diaper service is an absolute Godsend, particularly when you have more than one in diapers at a time. My mother-in-law, bless her heart, actually was the one who introduced us to the diaper service and I will forever be appreciative.

    Cloth diapers are used as impromptu bibs, burp cloths, wash cloths and wipe-up cloths as well as general cleaning rags when their diaper usefulness has worn off. Try doing any of those things with a “disposable.”

    The only time when “disposables” made much sense to me was when we were in church or other meeting where we were going to be there a while and did not have the means to transport soiled diapers home within a reasonable time frame. Even travelling is better with cloth diapers than with paper.

    I cannot imagine thinking that using a petrochemically-derived product is better than a natural fiber against the skin of an innocent baby. And I’ll still challenge anyone to see who would be faster in a diaper-changing contest.

  • anne:

    Actually, 20 years ago I used cloth diapers, and a cloth diaper service. It was great. I would get clean laundered diapers delivered right to my door each week by a local company, at the same time they would pick up an odor proof bag of my soiled diapers. Worked out to be about the same price as disposable diapers and was way better on my baby’s bottom. I guess there would be a trade off in transportation energy in deliver/pick up of all those diapers, but I was hoping that we would save something in the bulk washing of all those diapers, it was local, and had to be better than disposable. Not sure if those services are still going. Maybe I should start one. hmmm.


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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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