If you’ve ever had to take care of a baby, then you know that they need a lot of diapers. So, what exactly is the environmental impact of diapers, and are they environmentally friendly?

The short answer is that disposable diapers are not eco-friendly. They are single-use products that are not biodegradable. Billions of them collect in landfills every year, and they can contaminate nearby soil or water sources with dangerous fecal waste. 

Luckily, more and more people are looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprint and their impact on the environment. While there are no completely environmentally-friendly diapers, there are some alternatives that are better for the environment.

I’ll talk more about that later in the article. But first, let’s take a look at some facts about diapers and their effects on the environment.

Are Diapers Environmentally Friendly? (Environmental Impact Facts)

How Many Diapers Do We Use Every Year?

According to Time Magazine, the US alone uses an estimated 27.4 billion diapers each year!

To make matters worse, the statistic that I mentioned above came in the year 2008. It’s likely the number of disposable diapers that we use today has risen considerably since then. 

If you think about it yourself, the average baby will use about 2,500 to 3,000 diapers a year. And there are nearly four million babies born every year in the U.S. alone. That equates to billions of diapers being used on a yearly basis, with most of them ending up in landfills.

Are Diapers Biodegradable?

Most modern diapers are made partly out of plastic (or other synthetic material), which is used as a waterproof lining. However, this means that disposable diapers are not fully biodegradable. 

Disposable Diaper - Are Diapers Environmentally Friendly? (Environmental Impact Facts)
Disposable Diaper

Now, are there some parts in a diaper that will biodegrade? Yes, of course! If the diaper has any parts made out of a natural cloth or some other organic material, those parts will eventually biodegrade. But, any plastics in the diaper will not biodegrade. 

Overall, a diaper can take hundreds of years to decompose (break down into smaller, invisible pieces). However, as I already mentioned, any plastic pieces will remain as plastic pieces, and those will not break down. 

Here are some more facts about the decomposition of diapers:

  • Many of the greenhouse gas emissions that are plaguing our atmosphere are produced from landfills. The ever-increasing amount of disposable diapers is only making the problem worse.
  • The longer diapers are exposed to sunlight and oxygen, the quicker they will decompose. However, a landfill setting means that sunlight and oxygen exposure is extremely limited, so decomposition could take a very long time.
  • The fecal matter and urine in the diapers can eventually seep into the ground, where it might pollute drinking water sources. This untreated bodily waste can contain viruses and other harmful bacteria.
  • Methane is also produced from decomposing diapers. It is both poisonous to breathe and highly flammable.
  • It’s estimated that disposable diapers could take centuries to completely decompose, although no one knows for sure.

What Other Types of Diapers are There?

There aren’t many options for diapers. In addition to disposable, there is always the option of using cloth diapers. And there are now some biodegradable diapers that will decompose faster than traditional disposable diapers.

Cloth Diapers

Cloth diapers have been around since the late 1500’s. These probably have the least environmental impact, and are the most eco-friendly. But there are some things to consider with cloth diapers.

Cloth Diaper - Are Diapers Environmentally Friendly? (Environmental Impact Facts)
Cloth Diapers
  • You won’t be throwing them out, but you will have to clean them. Thus, you’d want to also source the most eco-friendly detergents and other cleaning materials.
  • You’ll also be using a lot of water to clean them, both soaking them and in the washing machine.
  • If you use a cleaning service, the emissions produced during pick-up and delivery are polluting the air.
  • You might also have to use some type of plastic or waterproof liner over the diaper to keep the baby dry, and plastic is not eco-friendly. 

The good thing about cloth diapers is that by the time they finally reach the end of their usefulness, they tend to be threadbare and should biodegrade quickly. They also aren’t contaminated with feces when they are thrown away.

Biodegradable Diapers

Biodegradable diapers are gaining in popularity. But are they any better than the old disposable diapers? Well, manufacturers will claim that they contain natural ingredients, making them decompose faster than traditional disposables. Here’s what we know about biodegradable diapers.

  • When thrown out, they still contain the feces, urine, bacteria, and viruses that disposable diapers contain, which can contaminate soil and groundwater.
  • Even if the natural materials do decompose quicker, they still need light and oxygen to biodegrade. Once they’re buried in a landfill, the process could take as long as it does with disposable diapers.
  • Methane is still being produced when they break down.
  • The term “biodegradable” can be quite misleading, and we’ve yet to see a biodegradable diaper fully decompose. It’s estimated that they will biodegrade in less than 100 years, but that’s still a very long time.

The Manufacturing Process of Diapers

How diapers are made is a huge consideration if you are looking for ways to help the environment.

  • First of all, you’d want to consider what it takes to manufacture the plastic, cloth, textiles, and other materials used to make the diapers.
  • How much harmful greenhouse gases are being emitted during their production, and how much energy is being used?
  • Then, you’d need to think about the factories where the diapers are produced.
  • Lastly, you’d want to factor in the amount of transportation it takes to get the diapers to you. This adds on even more emissions and energy consumption.
  • Exhaust emissions are an enormous contributor to our pollution problem and the depletion of the ozone layer.

Both disposable and biodegradable diapers have the same manufacturing process for the most part. While they may use different types of materials, they are both pretty much put together the same way. And all of these manufacturing processes emit harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Cloth diapers are produced differently, but will also be contributing harmful emissions into the atmosphere. Not only must the cloth be manufactured, but newer, modern diapers also contain absorbent materials, as well as adhesive snaps and other conveniences.

All diapers will likely be transported using the same (or similar) means. But since disposables are used and thrown away, many more of them will be produced and transported. All of that extra manufacturing and transportation will cause more pollution, deplete more natural resources, and cause wear-and-tear on roads that will eventually need to be repaired.

So, Are Diapers Environmentally Friendly?

The answer to the question would have to be that diapers aren’t good for the environment. But can they be used in a more eco-friendly way? Yes, they can.

If you had to rank them in order of their environmental friendliness, cloth diapers would be the most eco-friendly, with disposable diapers being the least eco-friendly. 

But, even cloth diapers can be harmful if they aren’t used and cleaned correctly. For example, if you only use a cloth diaper once or twice and then throw it out, you might be doing more harm than good!

And, while cloth diapers are the best for the environment, they might not be a feasible option for everyone.

So what’s the answer? It all comes back to personal responsibility for your own actions and habits and how they are affecting the world around you.

  • If you’re able to use cloth diapers, use them responsibly. Only use eco-friendly cleaners and strive to find greener diaper accessories to go along with them.
  • If you are using disposable or biodegradable diapers, the quality will make a huge difference. Lower-quality diapers will need to be changed more often, meaning that you will be disposing of more of them.
  • You could also rinse out disposables before tossing them in the trash. You’d be reducing the number of contaminants in the landfill and the amount of methane that is being produced.

At the end of the day, diapers are a necessity, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about using them. If you can make cloth diapers work for you, that would be a great contribution to the welfare of our planet. 

And even though disposables, whether they’re biodegradable or not, aren’t nearly as eco-friendly as cloth, using them responsibly will still have a big impact over using them irresponsibly. 

About the Author: Sophia D. Hope

Sophia D. Hope is a gardener and outdoor enthusiast. She writes about gardening, healthy lifestyle, and related product reviews. She shares creative and affordable ways to DIY and decorate a yard and garden.

You can check out other posts by Sophia on her blog.

This post was edited by Hugh

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