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Healthy Diaper Tips

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).

More Careful
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.

Most Careful
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.

Comments (9)

  • Marcy888 21 May, 2013

    I get my cloth nappies from and wouldn't do it any other way, I strongly believe cloth nappies are the best option for your baby

  • 11866409 1 Mar, 2011

    I knew I loved you Martha! I adore cloth diapering and I know it is the best parenting move I've made in 7 years of child rearing. I just wish I had known about it for my first two children! I use Bumgenius Elemental organic cotton diapers and they are so easy to wash and care for. My husband loves them and we never ever have diaper leaks! What a new world having a baby is in not having to wash carpet, comforters and swing covers constantly from diaper leaks. It's actually cut DOWN on laundry!

  • aaditilathi 9 Dec, 2010

    If you looking for something less expensive than silk, but still very comfortable, you could try with bamboo fabric. Surprisingly, bamboo fabric is natural and very eco-friendly. You don't need to worry for bamboo trees because they regenerate themselves. Bamboo trees are growing very quickly.

  • DJBarton 6 Jun, 2010

    When my first daughter was born 9 years ago, I lived in a city where a diaper service was available. It was wonderful!! So easy. The covers gave great coverage and they even had a travel system, so we pretty much used them excusively at first. Because it was so easy, our child care provider agreed to use them, as well. With my second child, I bought diapers and covers online and washed them myself.

  • dziulia 17 May, 2010

    Does anyone have a combination system where they use both? Like one for nighttime, or out and about?

  • sdanckert 17 Dec, 2008

    I am a busy working mom using cloth dipes (now on child #2!). Most are unaware that disposables should never be tossed containing BM! There are so many really cute, fantastic cloth diapers available that are simple. We use biodegradable rice inserts for easy disposal of poo. When out, it's simple to find a spot for our tiny wetbag - who would want to have their child wear all of the toxins from 'sposies - as well as making our child bear the environmental cost of production and disposal!

  • rubysmama 24 Jul, 2008

    gDiapers are great. They are a little more difficult to dispose of, with the swirling and such, but you can compost them as well. You can also use cloth inserts in the gDiaper covers which is what we do. The covers are fitted very well to our daughter's small legs.

  • loveburd 19 Jun, 2008

    To the previous poster, when you need to change a diaper at the mall or anywhere else you can just carry a wet bag in your diaper bag to carry the diaper home in. They are water proof and keep your diaper bag neat. Below is a link to look at a wet bag.

  • KristinEddinger 19 May, 2008

    Cloth ones wouldn't be good if you're going to be at the mall and have no wear to put the dirty diaper but I would definetly consider using them at home. And the more natural disposible sound good.