Offsetting the Water Used to Wash Cloth Diapers

I often hear people say that cloth diapers are no better for the planet than disposables because of all the water used to wash them.  This argument has never made too much sense to me.  Water is a renewable resource, but the trees cut down to make disposable diapers are often harvested unsustainably.  The plastic used on each diaper is a petroleum product-definitely not a renewable resource.  Then there’s the whole landfill issue. . . .

Not to say that I don’t care about wasting water.  If you wash diapers every other day in a top loader, you’ll use a whopping 7,200 gallons water a year.  Do you use a wet pail to soak your diapers?  That’s 360 more gallons a year, for a grand total of 7,560.  The good news is, it’s not necessary to blow through that much water.  I estimate that I use under 1,200 gallons water a year washing diapers.  I have a front loader that uses 12.4 gallons per wash, and I wash diapers every four days instead of every other day.

I came up with the brilliant idea of “offsetting” the amount of water I use to wash diapers.  The concept is simple: you try to make up for an environmental sin by doing a good deed for the planet.  (Disclaimer: I realize that this whole “offsetting” concept is suspect, and we should all be doing the most to conserve resources at all times.)  The first step in my personal water offsetting mission is to use as little water as possible on laundry.  It would be difficult to offset 7,560 gallons of water a year, but by practicing just a few extra water conservation techniques, I can easily offset the 1,200 gallons I use.

Of course there are dozens of ways to reduce water waste.  I was surprised to find that my first two water-saving ideas conserved more than enough water to make up for my diaper-laundry water. 

1. Double up your toilet flushes.  The average person flushes eight times day.  At 1.6 gallons per flush, that equals 12.8 gallons a day.  Double up just one flush and you’ll save 584 gallons a year.  That’s almost half the amount of water I’d use washing diapers already.

2. Reduce showering time.  I am guilty of wasteful showering.  The average shower uses 2.5 gallons of water a minute.  A ten minute shower uses twenty-five gallons of water.  If two adults each take ten-minute showers and reduce them to five-minute showers (or shower every other day), they could save twenty-five gallons a day, or 9,125 gallons a year!  Now I’ve more than offset the amount of water used to wash diapers.  It’s interesting to note that two adults taking daily 10-minute showers are using fifteen times the amount of water needed to wash a year’s worth of diaper laundry.

Does anyone else feel guilty for washing cloth diapers in water?  How do you assuage your guilt?  Any crazy water-saving ideas you care to share with us?  Please tell!


  1. it drives me nuts when naysayers insist washing cloth diapers is worse than producing disposables with plastic and paper and then landfilling them where they will never biodegrade! don’t they realize that those “studies” are often funded by diaper companies?

    we, too, practice “selective” flushing. i’ve heard sticking a brick or something in your tank will displace water and help you to use less. anyone tried that?

  2. We use a laundromat and because of the cost, I only wash diapers twice a week- which is how I assuage my guilt. I also make sure that I use detergents that are earth-friendly so that even though I’m dirtying water, I’m not adding gross chemicals to it.

  3. Great article! A few other tips – Always ensure you are washing full loads, and not partial loads. Don’t let the water run when brushing your teeth or washing the dishes (my DH does this – drives me nuts! lol!). Keep a dishpan of water under the sink (locked, if you have kids around) to pre-soak your dishes. This makes washing faster and easier. And I understand using the dishwasher for the average household of 4 or more actually conserves water more than using the sink, but I think this has a lot to do with *how* one washes the dishes.

    Looking forward to reading other’s responses!

  4. We use a front loader, wash every 2 or 3 days. I do NOT feel guilty about washing my cloth diapers in water. The increase of water usage on our water bill since the baby was born has been VERY small, less than 5-10% increase, I’d say. We also do more laundry due to baby “bloops” and baby clothes. In a couple of short years, the baby will be using the toilet and flushing (selectively perhaps) accordingly, and I imagine that water usage will end up being MORE than what it takes to wash our cloth diapers.

    I agree – water is CLEANABLE, the plastics and other junk of disposable diapers (including the fact that human waste is likely being disposed of in a landfill – something that just shouldn’t be done) is SO MUCH worse in my opinion.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. We do selective flushing. I also heard this logic or whatever you would call it – are paper plates, disposable cups, and plastic silverware better for the environment or are real dishes. Almost everyone will say real dishes. But those need to be washed, isn’t it wasting water to wash the dishes? Most people would then say that is absurd. I don’t the disposable anything can be considered better, no matter what. Reusing, even after washing, is always going to trump putting more stuff in a landfill.

  6. We’re trying to collect rain water and siphon it into the washer for non-diaper loads. It is fairly easy to do, the only problem is, it’s not raining enough.

  7. Thanks for all the comments so far!

    Suzannah, I have not tried putting a brick in my toilet tank. I’ve heard it reduces the power of the flush. I’m interested to hear if anyone else does it, though!

    Heather, before my daughter potty trained I washed diapers every four days–which is less than twice a week. I’m impressed that you wash diapers in a laundromat!

    Tamara, I think you’re right about a dishwasher using less water than handwashing dishes. If you don’t have a dishwasher, though, I believe it’s probably eco-friendlier to never get one, considering the energy that goes into manufacturing a huge appliance. I still want one, though!

    Anna, I am glad you agree!

    Kelly, I wrote a post about this very argument many months ago. I agree that reusing is always better for the environment than tossing something.

    Nicole, I love the idea of collecting rainwater to use on diaper laundry. I still haven’t hooked up the rain barrels yet. Maybe I will after it stops snowing. . . .

  8. I just bought a Waterpik shower head that uses 1.5 gallons per minute and has a pause button. This means we can use even less water and pause it while we suds up! 🙂

  9. If you can collect the rinse water from your washing machine, you can use it to flush your toilet or to water your garden. This is really great in times of drought in the summer. And good weight bearing exercise hauling buckets back and forth.

  10. I am trying to use the grey water from our washing machine to water our garden, but all the DIYers warn against using water from diaper laundry on your garden. Thing is diaper-laundry is by-far our greatest use of water laundry-wise, so I would like to save it from going straight down the drain. Is there any safe way to “re-use” water from diaper laundry? Can I treat the diaper pail or used water somehow (naturally, of course) or maybe use it only on non-food plants? What if I poke holes in the the grey water pipe and bury it, so that the reclaimed water “drips” straight on the roots of our plants and isn’t just sprayed on top of them? Thanks for any advice you can offer.

  11. what about keeping a bucket in the shower to catch some of the extra water and add that to the washer?
    I use a 5 gal bucket and while it doesnt ‘fill up’ all of the way, every little bit counts… right? If I were more motivated I might scoop water out of my sons bath…. hmm
    I wouldnt use the used washer ‘diaper water’ again for any other purpose.. that really should go to the sewer/septic system in my opinion.

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