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Tell Me Why! Why it makes sense to ditch disposables and switch to cloth


While there’s no denying that cloth diapers are being preferred by a sizable number of parents today, apprehensions and doubts remain. Are they really as sustainable as they are made out to be? What about all the water used for their regular maintenance? Won’t they end up in landfills too? Why are they so expensive?
Myth: Cloth diaper laundry is a huge water guzzler
Reality: Production of disposable diapers consume six times the water used for the production and regular laundry of cloth diapers

Cloth diapers need to be maintained properly to ensure they perform well and the baby is comfortable and free from rashes. Not surprisingly, one of the more contentious issues when it comes to cloth diapering is the amount of water used to wash and maintain the diapers.

This tendency to consider disposable diapers as the more water-wise option arises because we fail to see the hidden water in the equation--the amount of water consumed in the production and packaging processes. Calculation of this hidden water or "virtual water" takes into account the water consumption through the entire cycle, from the production of the required raw materials to the final packaging in which the product is sold.

Since disposable diapers are used and thrown in a matter of few hours, it is difficult to see the big picture. Here’s a small calculation which will help you make sense of all this.

Water usage of cloth diapers vs. disposable diapers

Going by face value, the production of one disposable diaper consumes 545 litres of virtual water while a cloth diaper needs 750 litres of water. In the case of disposables, the 545 litres goes down the drain within a few hours, whereas cloth diapers can be reused over and over again, justifying the amount of water used for its production and regular laundry.

A generous stash, of say 30 cloth diapers for a child that is being cloth diapered since birth uses up an average of five lakh litres of water through a three year period. This average takes into account the amount of water used for its production as well regular laundry. Similarly, assuming that a child uses an average of 5600  disposable diapers over the same time period (see where this estimate comes from at the bottom of the page), the virtual water that is used up in this period adds up to a whopping 30 lakh litres!

The production of disposable diapers alone takes up SIX TIMES the amount of water required for the production and regular maintenance of cloth diapers over a three year period. While cloth diapers do require water, it is evident that it is significantly less than what goes into making disposables, cementing their eco-friendliness beyond doubt.

Myth: Cloth diapers clog landfills as much as disposables do
Reality: Cloth diapers generate less than a kilogram of waste over three years, while disposable diapers generate 1.3 tonnes of solid waste over the same period

While there is a small portion of cloth diapers such as the polyurethane laminate and snaps  that end up in landfills, a majority of its components are made of natural fibers which are biodegradable. In contrast, disposable diapers cannot be dissected and the entire unit reaches landfills. On an average, at the end of its use cycle, a single cloth diaper generates less than 30 grams of landfill waste as against 230 grams of landfill waste generated per single-use diaper.

Solid waste impact of cloth diapers vs. disposable diapers

As a result, single-use diapers tend to accumulate a much larger footprint over time. If all of the estimated 321 million babies aged under two-and-a-half in the world wore disposable diapers, even the most conservative estimates suggest that close to 6,000 tonnes of diapers would be sent to landfills every single day!*

Disposable diapers stay in landfills for up to 500 years before they disintegrate, provided they are well aerated and get enough sunlight, two conditions that are very hard to meet in most landfills. While in landfills, they generate a host of toxic gases such a methane which add to the ever increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the lower atmosphere.

Going by the same use calculations, a baby wearing disposable diapers generates 1288 kg of waste which ends up in landfills, a cloth diapered child generates less than a kilogram of waste over a three year period! Calculating the amount of waste generated by both type of diapers clearly shows that the quantum of waste generated by babies in disposable diapers is far more than those in cloth.

Myth: Cloth diapers are not pocket-friendly
Reality: Investing in cloth diapers is economical in the long run

Cloth diapers are usually perceived to be more expensive because of the initial investment while the actual expenditure on disposables goes unnoticed as it is done over a period of time and it is easier to lose track of the amount spent on them.

A single cloth diaper may cost us a little under Rs. 1000, but we need to remember that they can be reused for almost the entire diapering years of the baby. The owner of a generous stash of 30 cloth diapers would be spending close to Rs. 28,470 over a three year period while the investment on disposable diapers on an average would be around Rs. 56,000 for the same period of time.

Cost of usage of cloth diapers vs. disposable diapers

When maintained well, cloth diapers can be stowed away and used for another baby as well, more than justifying the initial investment made. This apart, there is a healthy market for pre-loved diapers where used diapers can be sold at a pre-determined price depending upon the age and manner of usage, significantly upping its pocket friendly quotient!

So, be it from the economic or environmental angle, cloth diapers are definitely the more sustainable option, helping you reduce expenditure and solid waste load while encouraging reuse of resources without putting additional strain on nature’s capital. Here’s hoping you make the smart choice and go green with cloth!

Note:

To arrive at a number of disposable diapers used, we have used the following estimates: 

Age

No. of diapers used/day

Total

0-3 months

8

720

3-8 months

6

1080

9-24 months

6

2700

25-36 months

3

1080
Total no. of disposable diapers = 5580

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