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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2009

Progressive Detective: What’s the greenest diaper choice?

Melissa WilsonWebsite

Dear Progressive Detective: I want to raise an environmentally friendly child right from the start. What’s the best diaper choice for my baby?

What's the greenest diaper choice?The diaper issue is a messy one, especially since your baby will demand 5,000 to 7,000 changes before his second birthday. Currently, 85 percent of Canadian parents use disposable diapers, making them the third-largest landfill item (after newspapers and food containers), accounting for 250,000 tonnes (1.7 billion diapers) per year of solid waste that will take centuries to decompose. One study showed that one year’s worth of disposables requires about 88 kilograms of chlorine-bleached paper fibre. By comparison, six kilograms of cotton will yield enough cloth diapers to cover your baby until she is potty-trained.

However, cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop on Earth and requires 175 litres of water to produce one kilogram, meaning that while cloth diapers have the greener edge, they aren’t sporting the shiniest halo. Home laundering requires an additional one or two loads of hot-water-only laundry a week, so expect your energy use to increase, along with your detergent bill. If you go with cloth diapers, choose a green detergent that is phosphate-free, unscented, and biodegradable.

Then there are the new additions to the diaper market, like gDiapers, a disposable-cloth hybrid made of flushable inserts for cloth pants. They tote the “biodegradable” label, but like anything else will only break down if exposed to air, something that doesn’t always happen in landfills. According to Samantha Leeson, co-founder of, the green disposables are often less absorbent than cloth nappies, which means more changes and more products weaseling into our sanitation system.

So the best choice really depends on your neighbourhood. Landfills overflowing? Use cloth diapers. If water quality is an issue, choose disposables. Personally, the Progressive Detective suggests cloth diapers, to minimize chemical exposure. However, you may want to pick up a few planet-friendly disposables for long car trips, or you might run into a messy situation.

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