Although it is too late for me, I have always wondered if cloth diapers are really more environmentally friendly than disposable due to the cleaning process. What about unbleached disposable vs. cloth.
My short answer to Sonja’s question is YES.
Sierra Magazine’s Mr. Green (he’s like HeyLauraWhat’s brother for all environmental issues! Love him!) has a great article discussing the water issue. In short, he estimates that “the entire process of washing diapers from birth to the joyful day of completion of potty-training will take roughly 24,000 gallons.” And that’s a very liberal estimate, assuming, among other things, a standard 40-gallon per cycle washer - difficult to find in these front-loader friendly days.
I wash diapers every other day in my high efficiency Fisher & Paykel top loader and don’t see a difference in my water bill. (Not so with watering the lawn - that kills me every summer! What a waste!) But even when washing diapers in my old almond-colored behemoths from the 80s, I still didn’t see soaring water usage.
While I have to admit that my reasons for cloth diapering are not entirely grounded in environmental impact (I’m more of a “cheap and easy” type), fair comparison studies (read: ones not sponsored by Proctor & Gamble) show pretty unequivocally that cloth diapers have a much smaller “carbon footprint” than disposables.
Unbleached disposables skip some of the harsh chemicals (which is also better for baby’s bum), but you still have that “disposable” aspect, which means poop in the landfill.
Did you know that it is a violation of American Public Health Association standards to dispose of human excrement in the trash? It needs to be flushed (even disposable diaper companies recommend this on their labels). But since I knew I was never going to break my habit of rolling Poop Burritos to feed to the Diaper Genie, this was what tipped me over into the wonderful world of cloth diapering!
A more earth friendly non-cloth alternative is the compostable diaper (like Nature Babycare or Broody Chick, or a cloth/compostable hybrid choice like GroVia or gDiapers) - but only if you dispose of them properly! Cities that offer curbside composting will not accept diapers, and if you put them in the regular trash, they’re still ending up in landfill, an environment not conducive to composting anything.
There are companies (I think only in California’s Bay Area and vicinity, so far) which provide a pickup/delivery service as well as safely composting the diapers at high enough temperatures to kill the bacteria (something difficult to do in your backyard). However environmentally friendly this may be, it is not cheap. For instance, with EarthBaby, you pay about $30/month for the service, in addition to purchasing diapers for about $12 for a 22-40-count box (depending on size); their wipes are $3.59 per pack of 70.
That said, compostable diaper services are a fantastic, much earth-friendlier solution than regular disposables, if cloth diapering is still too inconvenient (think: laundry mat) or undesirable.
If you want out outside source (with lots of research and footnotes), here is the article that finally convinced me to try cloth diapering. The environmental impacts are discussed in part 4.
It may be too late for Sonja, but if anyone else is interested, here is my take on cloth diapering basics!