© Blog First Steps, IDB´s Social Protection and Health Division 

by Agustín Cáceres

world environment dayWe all know that riding a bike is less polluting than driving or that using reusable cloth bags is infinitely better than those lethal plastic grocery bags from the supermarket, which are responsible for the death of thousands of sea turtles each year; however, on World Environment Day, I invite you to think about the environmental footprint of our little ones’, their diapers.

Most families don’t have all the facts when it comes to choosing between disposable diapers (used in 90% of cases) and traditional cloth diapers.

The topic of diapers is more serious than it may seem. Children must reach a certain level of maturity in their use of language, motor skills and physiological development in order to achieve potty training. Not all children attain this level of maturity at the same time and, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most won’t be out of diapers (during the day) until age 3. It is estimated that during the first 2.5 years of a child’s life, between 4 and 6.4 diapers a day are used, or up to 180 diapers per month. The United States alone produces 82,000 tons of plastic and cuts down 250,000 trees per year to make disposable diapers.

A study performed in the United Kingdom looked at the impact of disposable diapers on the environment as compared with reusable cloth diapers, and the results were, at least for me, surprising. Contrary to what many people might think, the study concluded that the impact of both types of diapers is practically the same.

Although disposable diapers generate more waste and their manufacture requires larger quantities of bleach and wood pulp, the amount of energy and water needed to wash cloth diapers also creates a significant environmental footprint. It is estimated that washing cloth diapers for just one child over a period of 2.5 years generates an impact comparable to driving a car between roughly 1,250 and 2,175 miles (2,000 and 3,500 km, respectively).

Many people question the study’s conclusions. For example, the researchers estimated that the average family dries cloth diapers in a clothes dryer, increasing energy spending and emission of greenhouse gases; however, in many countries in the region, it’s possible to dry diapers on a clothesline, which significantly reduces the environmental impact of their use.

Advocates of cloth diapers cite benefits beyond the environmental ones: children who use cloth diapers can often be potty trained earlier, since they notice immediately when the diaper is wet. What’s more, different calculations show that cloth diapers are cheaper. This option saves the equivalent of $800 to $1,200 per year per baby.

And so, the topic is open for debate. Which diapers have less of an impact on the environment? What should moms and dads do to be more green?

Agustín Cáceres works as a communications and external affairs consultant at the Climate Change Division of the IDB in Washington DC.

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