For better or worse diapers are going to be your constant companion for years – at least 5 years (or in my case, 12 years – whew!). And if you’re a “conscious” parent looking to lessen your impact on the environment, it can easily feel overwhelming trying to evaluate all your options and decide which diaper is right for your family. Here’s a quick guide to understanding the world of eco-friendly diapers.
Most babies will go through about 5,000 to 6,000 disposable diapers before they are potty trained around age 4 to 5. So, what does that impact look like, exactly?
Eco-friendly diapers aim to be friendlier to the environment by having less of an impact on waste and landfills. But not all eco-friendly diapers are created equal, and the term “eco-friendly” is often thrown around alongside other buzzwords like organic, biodegradable, and non-toxic, making it confusing to know what you’re actually getting when you purchase these types of diapers.
Here's what it all means.
Biodegradable & Compostable
These terms are used interchangeably in the diaper market but are actually quite different. Biodegradable means over time (usually 3 to 6 months), the item will break down into small elements, but never truly vanish. In contrast, compostable means over time (usually 10 to 45 days) the item will break down and vanish into organic material. These break down rates are are significantly shorter than the typical 1,000 years it takes for plastic to break down. But there’s a but. Nearly 100% of biodegradable and compostable items are sent to the landfill. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires landfills to block out air, moisture and sunlight –crucial elements for biodegradation and composting. Under these conditions, biodegradable and compostable items will decompose at the same rate as regular plastic – taking nearly 1,000 years to break down. Additionally, because of the lack of air (oxygen) in the landfill, as these items break down, they release methane gas.
So, the short of it is, the better choice is a compostable diaper that you either compost yourself or your send to a compost facility.
Sustainable diapers are diapers that are free of some of the more common chemicals found in traditional diapers and generally have less of a harmful impact on the environment. But don’t be fooled. Sustainable does not equal compostable or biodegradable. Sustainable diapers are generally made from a blend of plant-based materials and plastic. The percentage of which varies wildly brand-by-brand. And to lessen their carbon footprint, these brands usually make some financial donation to offset their carbon footprint.
Organic, Natural & Pure
Unlike in the food industry, the terms organic, natural, and pure are not regulated in the diaper industry. The lack of regulation has led to these terms being overused and unfortunately, misleading consumers – resulting in nearly a thousand lawsuits. If at least one ingredient in a disposable diaper is organic, natural, or toxin-free – a diaper brand can use the word “natural”, “pure”, or “organic”. Other common buzz words include: plant-based, fragrance-free, non-chlorine, paraben-free, and dye-free. If you see these words, tread lightly, do your research, and read the labels. One brand in particular that I came across in my diapering days was Huggies Natural diapers. Turned out they had the exact same ingredients as their regular diapers with the exception that they included natural aloe vera in the absorbent layer to help combat diaper rash.
Cloth diapers are a great green option (of course, I’m biased), but there are levels of variation there as well. The most common materials used in cloth diapers are microfiber, cotton, bamboo, and hemp. Microfiber absorbs liquid quickly but is made from synthetic fibers produced from plastic. It’s also not very absorbent. Cotton is a natural, chemical-free option but growing cotton (organic or not) requires a ton of water – making the growth and manufacturing of cotton harmful for the environment. Bamboo is more sustainable than cotton but also more fragile. Diapers made from bamboo tend to not last nearly as long as diapers made from other materials. Hemp is the best fiber – it’s the most sustainable, most durable, and even carbon negative, but it can take an extremely long time to dry.
Popular Eco-Friendly Disposable Diapers
Below is a brief assessment of the top 11 most popular eco-friendly diapers on the market. Based on the information above, here’s roughly how you could rank eco-friendly diapers:
Not so Great - Diapers that are made with some natural or biodegradable materials
- Andy Pandy - 87% biodegradable, free of alcohol and chlorine and hypoallergenic
- Pampers Pure - plant-based liner enriched with shea butter and contains 0% chlorine bleaching, fragrances, parabens or latex
- Pampers Pure Protection Hybrid - reusable cloth diaper covers lined with microfleece and disposable inserts that contain sustainably sourced fluff pulp, and are free of elemental chlorine, fragrances, parabens and latex (natural rubber).
- Parasol Clear and Dry - free of things like chlorine, alcohol, dyes, fragrances and latex
Okay - Diapers that are made with some natural and/or sustainably sourced materials, and are manufactured sustainably
- Eco by Naty Baby - 0% oil-based plastic, 100% wood pulp, 85% compostable
- Honest Company - designed with plant-based materials and fluff pulp sourced from sustainably-managed pine and spruce trees in Scandinavia
- Coterie - made from 25% plant-based materials and donate 1% of their net diaper sales to Diaper Recycling Technology
- Healthy Nest - made from plant-based materials in a sustainable facility. There are no fragrances, lotions or odor absorbers and the diapers are free of allergens and irritants
- Bambo - 95% of all waste produced from Bambo diapers is recycled
- Seventh Generation - sustainably sourced wood pulp and are made without fragrances, lotions or chlorine bleaching
Good - Diapers that are made with 100% natural materials, are manufactured sustainably, and can either be composted or reused
- Dyper - unprinted, unscented bamboo diapers, free of things like chlorine, latex and alcohol, and includes a composting service
- Nest Baby - made with sustainable ingredients, free of chemicals, lotions and perfumes. Offers composting in Minneapolis and San Francisco only, but expanding.
- Pooters – made with hemp (the most sustainable crop on the planet), no chemicals, dyes or perfumes, and reusable
Figuring Out What’s Right for You
As you can see, there’s a lot to consider around eco-friendly diapers—some of it good, and some of it not so good. And just like many decisions you’ll make as a parent, it’s less about finding a “right” answer and more about figuring out what’s right for you and for your family.
There are some clear benefits to eco-friendly diapers, especially when compared to traditional disposables. And while they’re far from perfect, many eco-friendly diaper companies are taking steps toward sustainability, improving their production processes, and designing diapers that leave less of an overall carbon footprint than old-school disposables.
But, there’s still a long way to go. Many manufacturers use buzzwords to describe their diapers to make you feel better about using them. And with eco-friendly diapers on averaging costing 47 cents per diaper, compared to 38 cents per diaper for regular disposables, you would need to weigh if the eco-friendly route is financially worth it for your family.
So, as with all things... read, do you research, and talk to other parents. I hope this article helps!
Content in this article was adapted from this article by Babylist.