When we made the decision to go Zero Waste, my husband drew the line at two things: worm composting and reusable diapers. While I’m still working on the worm composting (It's all I want in the world!) I had to see his point about the diapers. It’s enough work keeping up with the laundry we already have. Adding several washable diapers to the mix every day would throw off our current state of laundry equilibrium. Besides, many daycares won’t do reusables, and with both of us working full time, they weren't really an option anyway. (To be completely honest, I’m also pretty sure there was a certain yuck factor on my husband’s part).
So what is the eco-conscious family to do? Most babies will use over 2000 diapers in their first year alone, and a single diaper can take up to 500 years to decompose. That’s a lot of plastic piling up in landfills.
Until recently, I had no idea there were any sustainable options OTHER than reusables. I was amazed to find out there are now several solutions, from cloth diapers to hybrid diapers, to biodegradable and fully compostable disposables. If I had known these alternatives existed, I would have looked into them much sooner.
Now that I do know, I want to stand on top of that mountainous pile of used diapers and shout from the top of my lungs: There is a better way!
Of course, depending on your own time constraints and needs, some options may be more viable than others. And while all of the diapering solutions we discuss below are a vast improvement over conventional disposables, some are more environmentally friendly than others. Let's take a look at the options.
Reusable Diapers: There are actually a few different types of reusable diapers.
All-in-One’s: “All-in-One” diapers are just what it sounds like. Instead of having a removable insert after the diaper is soiled, the entire diaper is contained as a single unit that goes into the wash. Many all-in-ones have snap systems so the diaper will “grow” with your baby, meaning each diaper can last years if cared for properly.
Hybrid Diapers: Hybrid diapers consist of a waterproof outer cover with removable inserts. The inserts can be either disposable or washable depending on the brand. These can be a good middle ground between disposables and reusables.
Prefolds: Prefold diapers are your traditional cloth diaper They are similar to hybrid diapers in that you need to purchase a cover to go over them, however, the prefold diaper is much larger than an insert and is washable.
When considering reusable diapers, the materials they are made from are also important. There are some awesome diapers out there made from organic and sustainable materials, and there are also some not so awesome ones that incorporate a lot of polyester and synthetics. To find earth-friendly reusable diapers of all types, I recommend:
Green Mountain Diapers: This site has many different diaper styles to meet a variety of diapering needs including all-in-ones, hybrids, and prefolds. Many options use unbleached, organic material. They even carry wool diaper covers if you ‘d rather not purchase a cover made from polyester or other synthetic material. In addition to their company's dedication to sustainability, their website also offers a lot of educational content and instructions for parents to help them get started with cloth diapers.
GroVia: GroVia also offers organic cloth diapers. Their all-in-one diapers are designed to grow with your baby (they can fit babies from 10-35 lbs), so although the diapers may be a bit more expensive up front, they last a long time. Their site also carries hybrids and reusable swim diapers. Our one exception to the “no reusable diapers" rule is for our reusable swim diapers, which we love.
You can also find some good reusable diapers on Amazon (including the GroVia brand). It just takes a little more time and effort to determine which diapers are made from high-quality, sustainable materials and which aren’t. A few good options from Amazon include:
OsoCozy Prefolds: These are classic prefolds made from unbleached cotton. Note: You’ll want to get a cover to go with them.
Sage and Sea Hybrid Diapers: These diapers are a more affordable option than many reusable diapers. They come with washable inserts made from a bamboo/polyester blend.
While cloth and other reusables can be a great choice, keep in mind they come with some downsides. The carbon footprint involved with washing them can be surprisingly high. To bring this down, it’s best to wash a full load of diapers and air dry them. When your child outgrows them, save them to use with your next child, or you may be able to give them to a friend or family member who is expecting (and maybe don’t mention to Cousin Billy that he wore hand-me-down diapers). Washing in bulk and waiting for them to dry means you will need quite a lot of diapers to keep from running out (think 20, 30, or more diapers), which can involve a fairly large upfront investment.
This is not to discourage anyone who thinks reusable diapers are right for them! Apart from the environmental benefits (if done properly), there is something extremely satisfying about lovingly washing and folding your baby’s diapers. If you have the time and resources, they can be a wonderful option.
But What About Disposables?
If you don’t have the time or energy for reusables, can disposable diapers really be sustainable?
Yes, amazingly. Yes, they can (with some caveats). As in all things, it pays to read the fine print and do your research before purchasing. Also, environmentally friendly disposable diapers tend to be more expensive than traditional disposables, so budget is a factor.
With that said...there are a couple of different types of environmentally conscious disposable diapers available on the market right now:
Biodegradable Diapers: Most diapers of this type contain no chlorine, allergens, or harmful chemicals. Many are being made from more sustainable materials such as bamboo and incorporate renewable energy or other sustainable initiatives in their production.
Fully Compostable Diapers: These diapers have all of the benefits listed above, but they are also fully compostable using industrial composting services. There are both regional and--more recently--national diaper composting services available.
After doing a lot of research and reading a lot of fine print, here are the disposable and/or compostable diaper brands that live up to the hype:
DYPER: This is the diapering solution we decided on for ourselves. The diapers themselves are good quality and made from sustainably sourced bamboo fibers. But here's the real GAME CHANGER. DYPER will not only deliver responsibly sourced bamboo diapers to your home, but through their REDYPER service (in partnership with TerraCycle), they also ship your used diapers to a composting facility for you through UPS. This service is available nationwide. For us, this was the best compromise between our Zero Waste ideals and the demands on our time.
Nest Baby Diapers: These diapers are made from sustainable materials and are free of allergens. They are fully biodegradable and compostable (under the right circumstances). Their website lists composting resources that may be helpful depending on where you live, though these services are only available in certain regions and not nationally.
Eco by Naty Diapers: This Swedish company delivers to the US and offers a subscription service for their diapers and they are delivered in packaging sourced from renewable materials. The diapers are biodegradable but not necessarily compostable. Still, the company’s commitment to sustainable and renewable resources makes them a top option. You can also find these diapers in the diapering section of the EarthHero website.
It's important to note that biodegradable diapers (that are not composted) take about 50 years to fully decompose, which isn't great, but it's still much more sustainable than the 500 years it would take for a traditional diaper to break down. However, if you can make a diaper composting service work, that is definitely the most sustainable disposable option.
Whether you choose reusables or disposables or some combination (I know of families who use disposables at daycare and reusables at home on the weekend) I think it’s important to know that options exist beyond traditional disposable diapers. It has been a huge weight off of my mind to find a sustainable solution for our diapering conundrum.
Are any of these solutions absolutely perfect? Maybe not, because by nature, diapers deal with waste. But as in all things, perfection is not the goal. The goal is to do the best with the resources we have and with what we can afford for our babies and for the environment.
If you know of any other sustainable diapering brands or services, please contact me or let me know in the comments so I can update this post!