Today, we have a question from listener Rachael Corr.

“I'm expecting my first child and have thought a lot about all the diapers that just end up in the landfill,” Corr says. “What is the most environmentally-friendly option for diapers?”

We had Harrison Katz and Fatima Husain from our Possibly Team look into this question.



Megan Hall: So, let’s take a step back. What are your options if you’re buying baby diapers?

Harrison Katz: Well, the main categories would be single-use diapers and reusable diapers.

Fatima Husain: Single-use diapers are made of different materials, but they usually include some sort of wood pulp, tissue paper, nonwoven fabric, and plastic.

Harrison Katz: Reusable diapers, on the other hand, are often made of cotton, wool, bamboo, or  compound fibers meant to help with absorption.

Megan Hall: So, is it better to go with single-use diapers or reusable ones? 

Fatima Husain: It depends on what you mean by better. Are we talking about greenhouse gas emissions? Water use? Trash?

Megan Hall: How about water use and greenhouse gas emissions?

Harrison Katz: Ok. For this, we’re going to turn to the experts—specifically the United Kingdom’s Environment Agency. 

Fatima Husain: In 2008, the agency published a study about the environmental impacts of reusable versus single-use diapers.

Megan Hall: What did they find out?

Harrison Katz: Reusable diapers use less water by a huge margin. 

Megan Hall: Really? Even though you wash reusable diapers over and over? 

Fatima Husain: Yes. It all comes down to scale. While it does take more water to make and wash one reusable diaper over and over again, most people only buy a few dozen reusable diapers.

Harrison Katz: Compare that to the thousands of single-use diapers you’d be throwing away. It takes water to make them too. And that water adds up.  

Megan Hall: And what about greenhouse gas emissions?

Harrison Katz: According to that Agency report, reusable diapers are worse than single use diapers. 

Megan Hall: So reusable diapers create more greenhouse gas emissions?!

Fatima Husain: Not necessarily. 

Megan Hall: What do you mean? 

Fatima Husain: This report came out over a decade ago, when washers were less efficient. 

Harrison Katz: Older washers often have top-load features, with water filling up from the bottom, but newer ones load from the front. That single change can use almost 40% less water and energy.

Megan Hall: What if you’re like me and your washer is at least 20 years old?  

Fatima Husain: Then it comes down to how you dry your diapers. 

Harrison Katz: If you ONLY air-dry them, it could almost cut their greenhouse gas emissions in half! But if you usually throw your diapers in the drier, single use ones would come out ahead. 

Fatima Husain: With this in mind, it’s safe to say that if you have a more modern, efficient washer and air-dry your reusable diapers, they’ll create fewer greenhouse gas emissions than single-use diapers and use a lot less water.

Harrison Katz: And whether you’re facing down years of dirty diapers or not, if you’re able to afford it, switching to a front-loading washer is definitely worth it. Those water and energy savings apply to anything you put in the laundry. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio. Subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts.

For more information, or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, click here.