When Are Disposables Greener than Washing Cloth Diapers?

It pains us to admit that cloth diapers do not always win the fight against disposables. We love cloth diapers for their cuteness, cheapness, and eco-friendliness, but the truth is, many people waste so much water and energy laundering their Fuzzibunz that they might as well switch to Huggies as far as the Earth is concerned.

So how can you tell if you’re doing more harm than good? Do a little bit of math to determine how much water you’re using laundering your diapers: multiply the gallons of water your washing machine uses by the number of loads you do per year. (If you aren’t sure, use 40 gallons for a top loader and 12 for a front loader.) Is your resulting number less than 4,000? Then you are on the right track! More than 4,000? You should probably re-evaluate your laundering habits.

Let’s say you have a top-loader and wash diapers every other day. You’re using at least 7,280 gallons of water a year to wash diapers. Do you do an extra rinse each time? You could be blowing through twice that much water.

But don’t panic! There are several easy ways to reduce your impact. Try washing fuller loads less often, eliminating extra rinse cycles, or thinking of ways to reduce the overall amount of laundry you do to “offset” the diaper loads. Our book, The Eco-nomical Baby Guide, contains a thorough list of ways to “green” your cloth diapers to cut down on the water and energy you use. Check it out if you’re ready to get serious about conserving resources!

How many gallons a year do you use on diaper laundry?


  1. I am guilty of pre-rinsing and washing diapers every other day. We also switched to a hot wash cycle after a really troubling, nasty spell of stinky diapers. I am curious as to how you came up with the 4,000 gallon threshold for “greenness”. I admit, that I was upset with myself after reading this part in your book, but we are generally pretty conservative with our water (limit our showering, reuse water when possible). Some questions I have been pondering: Can I wash Happy Heiny’s every 3 days? Is the pre-rinse necessary? We are in the stinky poop stage of solid foods right now and I do scrape as much off the diapers as possible before I throw them in the diaper pail.

  2. I have wondered about this on many occasions!! I too would like to know where you come up with the 4000 threshold. There are so many factors to consider besides the water- there’s the energy required for washing/drying, detergents, transport (for disposables), etc. I would love to see an environmental impact breakdown for both cloth and disposables.

  3. BB and Sarah, our book goes over this in much more detail, so you can see where we arrive at the 4000 gallon number. We got our information from the British Environment Agency, who did a complete LCA (lifecycle analysis) of cloth and disposable diapers to determine how much energy each used.

    The study is really detailed and complicated (over 200 pages), but basically they determined that people washing cloth diapers using about 4000 gallons a year is equal in environmental impact to buying disposables and throwing them away. Generally, the more water you use, the more energy you use–it takes energy to heat the water and for the city to manage the water once it goes into the sewer system.

  4. But what about the other factors that go into the manufacturing of disposables-the chemicals, the energy used, the raw materials, the constant trucking or raw materials and finished products, etc? Sure water useage is a major factor to consider and find ways to decrease that but continually stuffing the landfills along with the manufacture process can’t equal the water usage issue. But I’ll conced math is tough for me lol!

  5. d, the study took all that stuff into account. It was a surprise to us, too! But apparently all the energy used to produce the diapers, truck them around, and dispose of them is equal to the energy used to wash and dry cloth diapers–IF you’re using about 4000 gallons of water. (And of course water is not the only factor, but we can guess how much energy is used relative to the amount of water used. Of course, this is only a crude way of figuring out how much energy you’re expending washing/drying cloth diapers.) The study even took into account the energy people use to go to the store and buy the disposable diapers–they didn’t seem to leave anything out!

  6. There are serious flaws with the UK Environment Agency studies, particularly the first 2005 one that you cite (the long one). I have read both original (2005) and the update (2008) studies in detail. You might want to look at the update, which admits some of these flaws, such as too small a sample size, highest-impact cloth diapers, no data whatsoever for the most common cloth diapers. If you don’t think they left anything out, go back and read it again and don’t get stuck in the conclusion, which doesn’t accurately represent the rest of the study. Though the absorbent hygiene representatives who advised the study were very happy with the assumptions, the data, and the conclusions, the environment and reusable nappy representatives advising issued responses that pointed out extensive flaws. The study, they wrote, was not disinterested science. Even if I were to accept the studies as is, my takeaways from the second study are: 1. that the highest impact terry nappies have similar impact to a theoretical (not in production) disposable diaper, and 2. that the end user has no control over impact of disposable diapers but the end-user has all of the control over impact of cloth diapers through washing. This site has a review of these studies. http://whatawaste.info/but-i-heard/ Perhaps you will reconsider your conclusions when you read it.

  7. Lori, we did use the 2008 update of the study when writing about it in our book, and we came to the same conclusions you did: That cloth is preferable because we can control the factors of their use. That is why it is important for cloth users to look at how much energy they are using and do their best to “green” their cloth diapers as much as possible. (Again, we go over this in detail in The Eco-nomical Baby Guide.)

    The British Environment Study was not perfect, and we did have a lot of problems with the 2005 study, many of which were addressed in the 2008 update. It was ridiculous that they had such a small sample size and then came to the conclusions they did without acknowledging the ways in which cloth users could reduce the impact of cloth to make them environmentally preferable to disposables. They admitted as much in the 2008 update.

  8. Tncastro says

    I just purchased a non-electric portable Washing machine, which claims to use 90% less water and detergent and no electricity. It is portable so I am assuming it is small, but hopefully it will be both economical and environmental! Has anyone used it to wash diapers?

  9. Wow, that sounds really cool, Tncastro! I’m interested to hear how you like it.

  10. I have read that it takes more water to make one disposable than it does to wash an entire load. The information came from the Maine Cloth Diaper Company, I am not sure where they got it from, but I’ve seen it stated on other websites as well.

  11. AnotherRebecca, that sounds familiar to me, too. If it’s true, it certainly builds a strong case for using cloth! Believe me that I don’t want to discourage anyone from using cloth diapers. I did! Still, it’s important to conserve as much as possible when doing laundry, and diapers are no exception.

  12. I’m lucky to have an energy-star top-loader and a clothesline so we don’t run the dryer and don’t have to wash so crazy during the summer as we might in the winter to get the stinkies out. I would add that cloth-diapering is also a health choice — I don’t want Pampers or Huggies plastic chlorinated crap against my baby’s tender tushy 24/7 anymore than I’d massage parabens into their skin or have them chew on BPA-ridden teething toys.

  13. I generally use cold water to wash our cloth diapers, then I dry them on VERY HOT in the dryer. I am interested in finding out how that changes the equation.

  14. Isn’t that the study where they took into account the energy used to iron your cloth diapers? And assumed that cloth diapers were used an average of 50 times before they were thrown away?

    I don’t know how I could have washed diapers less than every other day while my daughter was in diapers full time. The diaper pail and pail liner weren’t big enough to hold any more and neither was my top loading washer. The only thing I could do was to change my daughter less and that wasn’t an option for me.

  15. Pippi, yes, in the first version of the study, many of the people they interviewed (in England) ironed their diapers. I wonder if they were doing that because they weren’t tumble drying . . . maybe they were doing it for some sort of germ-killing reason?

    Do you use pocket diapers? I washed three dozen prefolds at a time in my front loading washer, so I was able to wash every four days. That was actually a big reason I chose prefolds.

  16. Just thought I’d update that I have been washing our Happy Heinys every 3 days now without any problems.

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