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Yes. disposables are made of plastic that often winds up filling landfills (or worse-yet) floating in bits in the ocean, but what about all the harsh cleaning fluids used in cleaning the diapers by diaper laundering companies? The dioxins alone can't be great for our water resources! In terms of waste during production vs. waste during production and maintenance is there really a significant difference?

Has anyone seen any non-biased (or at least less-biased) research showing one or the other to actually be a better choice environmentally?

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(+1) I think the answer really has to be "It depends..." (as @Treb has hinted at in his answer) because it's not just a simple choice between disposables and diaper service. There are a broad range of disposable options from dolphin killers to compostable. And you can use a cloth diaper service that bleaches diapers 7 times in 95 C water or you can own your own cloth diapers and wash them in 45 C water with "green" environmentally-friendly detergent and recycle them for multiple children! –  smillig Dec 11 '12 at 15:08
    
Related –  Beofett Dec 11 '12 at 16:56
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You need to clearly define "environmentally minded". The study Treb mentions shows that: "Electricity use for nappy care is the most significant single contributor to the impacts assessed". In my mind, electricity is a (potentially) renewable resource, whereas plastic landfill space is non-renewable. Where I live, we have the option to pay $10 extra per month to have all of our power bought from a wind farm, so the cost savings of cloth diapers can be put to offset the environmental impact of increased electricity use at home. –  Crake Dec 13 '12 at 21:59
    
@Beofett-- how are these not identical questions? –  mmr Dec 16 '12 at 0:39
    
@mmr Bank-balance vs Environmental friendliness –  deworde Dec 19 '12 at 10:22

2 Answers 2

A 2005 study by Britain’sEnvironment Agency (which has now been lost from my browser bookmarks) took into account some of these technological advances. In making their calculations regarding cloth diapers, the study used average energy-consumption figures for machines made in 1997. They concluded that there was “no significant difference” between the environmental impact of cloth and disposable diapers. Raising a child in home-laundered cloth diapers for 2.5 years emitted 1,232 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent vs. 1,380 pounds for disposable diapers. Perhaps the study would have been more widely accepted had the authors of the study used statistics from more recent washing machines. The study also left out the resilience of cloth diapers and didn’t touch on the waste-management consequences of disposables. FACT: In the United States, disposable diapers make up about 2 percent of all garbage!

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There exists a UK study dating from 2005, which was updated in 2008. A good summary can be found at the Kimberly-Clark Australia and New Zealand homepage.

To summarise the summary: It depends...

If you are always washing the fabric diapers at 95 °C and put them in the dryer, the overall energy use will be higher than if you use disposable diapers. If you wash them at 60 °C and hang them on the washing line for drying, you will need less energy.

Of course, there any many criticisms of this study:

  • It assumes that you buy 40 cloth diapers for your child (in my experience 20 is enough, but the production accounts for far less energy consumption than the washing, so I'm not sure if this is relevant)
  • If you have a second child, you can reuse the cloth diapers from the first child (the caveat from above applies)
  • There is a widely held belief (no idea if it's true or not) that using cloth diapers will speed up toilet training, which would in turn reduce the energy consumption through washing quite some
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+1, but can someone summarise this summary of the summary? –  Konerak Jan 3 '13 at 12:05

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