Diaper Options for Raising Plastic-free Babies

To diaper or not to diaper? That is the question.

By Jean Nick


alternatives to disposable plastic diapers Bringing a child into the world is always a happy occasion, but in our modern Western society, it also brings the environmental burden of diapering the adorable little bottom some 7,000 times over the course of the first three years of his or her life. For the average U.S. parent, that means landfilling 7,000 plastic-encased packets of soaked synthetic absorbent material that are often filled with poop (which doesn’t belong in landfills at all), where they will remain virtually unchanged for generations or millennia—hardly the legacy most parents want for their children. Luckily, it is possible—even easy—to reduce this impact and save money at the same time.

Plastic-Free Alternative #1: No Diaper

When I was in the diaper-washing phase of my life, my mind would often wander (often while I was hanging out diapers to dry on the line) to how on earth mothers managed before automatic washing machines (or servants). It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that diapers, both cloth and disposables, are a modern invention, and in many parts of the world, babies still don’t wear diapers. They are watched carefully by their mother or caregiver and held over a chamber pot when they are about to eliminate. They are gradually conditioned to go when a specific sound is made or when they are held in a certain position. As they begin to toddle, they wear dresses or open-crotched pants and learn to squat when they need to. It sounds odd to us perhaps, but caregivers in other countries cringe in horror at the very idea of making a baby sit in his own waste. If the method, called Elimination Communication, Natural Infant Hygiene, or Infant Potty Training by various groups, appeals to you, there are books and websites (Diaper-Free Baby, for instance) to teach you how to do it. And it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair: According to parents who practice the method, babies can be diapered part-time and managed diaper free when at home.

Plastic-Free Alternative #2: Cloth

Most environmental comparisons between cloth and disposable diapers have come to the conclusion that they're about equal in terms of overall impact. Plastic diapers pile up in landfills, while cloth diapers require lots and lots of soap and water to wash, and plenty of energy to dry. But that doesn’t mean you should abandon cloth. The big problems with cloth diapers are associated with the diaper services that most people use for convenience. They drive their fossil fuel–powered trucks to your house to supply you with diapers, a diaper pail, and liners, and then drop off a stack of neatly folded, clean diapers each week when they pick up the previous week’s used ones to be laundered (which they usually do with multiple rinse cycles and high-heat dryers). I used a diaper service for a while with my first baby, and it was indeed very handy. But then my nickel-pinching gene kicked in, and I discovered it really wasn’t all that much more trouble to launder my own, which is what the experts agree is really the ecofriendliest way to deal with diapers. Wash them at home and line-dry them, and the water and energy issues are (for the most part) resolved.