Babies may be the reason we care most about the environment: We want to protect their future. But even the smallest infant makes a big environmental impact: The average baby goes through 8,000 diapers before toilet training. As of 2005, the EPA estimated that disposable diapers accounted for 3.6 million tons of garbage in the United States, or 1.5 percent of the total municipal waste stream. Most of these diapers will take centuries to break down.
Diapers also contain chemicals, including trace amounts of dioxin, a by-product of chlorine bleaching that the EPA lists as a dangerous, cancer-causing chemical.
Yet cloth diapers aren't the perfect alternative. Although they are biodegradable and chemical-free, cloth diapers can be too much work for busy parents, and day-care facilities may not allow them. Professional laundry services that wash and dry cloth diapers also use large amounts of valuable water and energy produced by coal-burning power plants. So what's an environmentally concerned, health-conscious parent to do?
If you're using disposables, look for chlorine-free varieties, such as Seventh Generation. These diapers are made with a combination of wood pulp fluff and sodium polyacrylate, a chemical absorbent (also found in most traditional disposable diapers) that, when wet, turns into a gel and may show up as small, crystal-like beads on a baby's skin. Although sodium polyacrylate was banned for use in tampons because of links to toxic shock syndrome, there is no evidence that it has adverse effects when used externally.
If you're looking for gel-free diapers, Tushies are made with nonchlorine, gel-free wood pulp from sustainable forests. Nature Boy & Girl makes disposables out of corn-based material rather than plastic, so they will theoretically break down sooner (of course, nothing decomposes very quickly in a hermetically sealed landfill).
Use cloth diapers. Modern varieties are meant to be worn under reusable fitted covers with convenient snaps or Velcro-like closures (goodbye, diaper pins), and come in environmentally friendly fabrics, such as organic cotton, bamboo, and naturally moisture-repellent wool.
The National Association of Diaper Services maintains a list of laundry services around the country that will drop off and pick up cloth diapers. The downside of sending out diapers to be cleaned is that services tend to use an enormous amount of energy to wash and dry them, and you won't always have a choice of detergent. Many parents opt for a hybrid method of using cloth diapers at home and disposables while traveling.
If you can commit to the extra work involved, consider using cloth diapers that you wash at home. Wash the diapers every few cycles with oxygen bleach to brighten the fabric. Use a vegetable-based laundry detergent and line dry diapers outside whenever possible -- the sun is a natural antibacterial, and you'll save on electricity.
If you don't want to deal with the hassle of cleaning diapers, try the new flushable ones that combine the best of disposables and cloth varieties. First introduced in Australia, these come with a cotton cover and a flushable insert. The main company making them stateside is gDiapers (shown above); they're available at many health-food stores. The cloth cover can be used multiple times, while the insert, made of cotton and sodium polyacrylate, requires thorough stirring in the toilet with a swish-stick (provided in a starter kit). These diapers may not be the best choice for use in homes with a septic tank.