Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

The Environmental Hypocrisy of Paper Diapers

By Cam Mather

I believe I do a good job of pointing out my own hypocrisy whenever I’m railing on about something. I make it very clear that while I really think I’ve got my “energy” house in order when it comes to heating and powering my home, I live in the country and drive way more than I should. I admit my shortcomings but also share how Michelle and I try to minimize our car trips, use our bikes, invested in a solar-powered electric bike, etc.

As I read The New York Times on November 28th I noticed an article called “Living a Green Lifestyle, But Wrestling With Guilt.” I could certainly relate. My reality of living in the country and being able to grow my own food and produce all my own heat and electricity means that I drive more than someone living downtown with access to transit. But if you live in the city, your food is grown by someone living in the country and is trucked to your local store. So I think it kind of cancels each other out.

The article included an interview with the author of “The Lazy Environmentalist: Your Guide to Easy, Stylish, Green Living.” Alarm bells obviously went off for me. Let’s be honest – if you really want to be a good environmentalist, it’s going to be pretty tough to be stylish in your second-hand store clothing. And I don’t think anyone would suggest that riding your bike 40 miles to visit your Grandma could be considered as “easy”.  By the time you get to your destination, after riding your environmentally friendly bicycle, you’re going to be all hot and sweaty with bad hair. The last time I checked a fashion magazine this look wasn’t considered “stylish.” But really, this is the stuff you’ve got to do. To describe it otherwise is false advertising.

In the article the writer got the author to admit that he and his wife tried using cloth diapers for their 5-month-old baby and he said, “We tried cloth and think it’s totally unrealistic.” Huh? Have you read the title of your book recently? I’ve got news for you, up until about the last 30 years there was no alternative to cloth diapers. Pretty amazing that civilization was able to survive all that time without them. In fact disposable diapers are the poster child for what’s wrong with the planet. And what is that? What’s wrong with disposable diapers? EVERYTHING! Amazingly enough, the writer of the article was able to find a number of other “environmentalists” who use disposable diapers.

So let’s try and get our heads around this. We head out into the forest and we put gas in our chainsaw and we cut down live, beautiful, carbon-absorbing trees. Then we use massive diesel-sucking, pollution-belching tractors to haul those trees out of the forest, and put them on huge diesel trucks and ship them to huge energy-inhaling factories that turn those trees into pulp. Then we package and ship that pulp to another factory hours or days away in another diesel-belching truck, then use massive amounts of energy to turn that pulp into diapers. And since no one wants a leaky diaper we then wrap those diapers in plastic liners. And where does that plastic come from? … Anyone, anyone?… Yes – oil. Did you watch TV last year? Did you see the Macondo oil well blow out in the Gulf of Mexico? And you say cloth diapers are unrealistic?

Don’t forget all those wonderful “moisture absorbing” chemicals like sodium polyacrylate that we put into those diapers so they that can retain more liquid. And since they don’t leak we tend to leave them on our babies for way longer than their tender behinds should be exposed to that stuff.

Finally, we use massive garbage trucks to ship those single use diapers to a landfill. And in most jurisdictions it is illegal to put human waste in a landfill, so when you toss that disposable diaper in a landfill, you’re breaking the law. I’m sure the packaging today says the diapers are “biodegradable,” but they won’t biodegrade if they end up compacted in a landfill where no oxygen can get to them. I guess that’s why I see so many tossed on the sides of roads when I ride my bike – I guess the parent is doing the responsible thing and hoping they’ll biodegrade. In all my years I’ve never seen a cloth diaper tossed in a ditch. And in my home province of Ontario we’ve filled up 650 out of 730 landfills, so we only have 80 left. Disposable diapers are a major problem in landfills.

The disposable diaper advocates will no doubt point to the water that is used to wash cloth diapers. Yes, what about it? You think using a laundry tub full of water has a bigger impact than the carbon footprint of paper diapers? Come on. And when you rinse out a cloth diaper the human waste goes into a sanitary sewer system to be treated with other human waste, where it’s supposed to go!

It’s like the debate over washing dishes by hand versus using a dishwasher. Using a dishwasher uses more energy than doing them by hand. I put a couple of inches of hot water in the bottom of our dish pan, start with glasses and as I rinse the glasses the pan fills up, and by the time I’m done I’ve used one pan of water. And the hot water I use? I heated it on the wood stove or with my solar domestic hot water heater. Zero-carbon dishwashing. When I hear dishwashers working away at other people’s houses and think about the electricity they’re sucking up to blast all the water around and how hot the water has to be to melt off 3-day-old macaroni and cheese, it’s crazy. And yet some appliance manufacturer in Europe commissioned a study decades ago and was able to skew the data toward automatic dishwashers and this has been the public’s mindset ever since. It’s a myth as is any argument that says paper diapers can possibly be anything but an environmental nightmare.

When our first daughter was born almost 25 years ago we bought 2 dozen flat cloth diapers. We then used the same 24 cloth diapers for our second daughter a few years later. After we were finished using them as diapers they became the best rags I’ve ever used. I still have a couple left 25 years later. Seems like a pretty low impact piece of cloth to me. And as you can see by the photo our diapers were square and you had to pin them on and use a rubber pant over top of them. Today you can get wonderfully colourful organic cotton diapers that are all nicely cut and shaped to fit your baby and you don’t have to use diaper pins anymore!

A 25-year-old cloth diaper that we use as a rag.

I have no doubt that I’ll have offended some of my readers with my rant about dishwashers and disposable diapers. But really, we can’t find a solution to our environmental problems if we keep kidding ourselves that some of the most destructive things we do like flying and using single use products like paper diapers is anything but bad for the planet. We’ve got to suck it up and start rinsing those poopy diapers in the toilet and dealing with them the proper way. To do it any other way is to deny that child their right to an inhabitable planet when they grow up.

* * * * * * *

Here’s one example of the new fitted cloth diapers available. This company was started by one of our daughters’ friends. There are plenty of choices out there and I’ve even seen fitted cloth diapers for sale in secondhand stores!

Here’s an interesting website comparing the environmental and financial costs of cloth and paper diapers….



  1. Larry

    Yeah, I hate dishwashers too. I mean really, a 2 hr cycle to clean dishes? That’s crazy.

    • i

      Assuming that the user doesn’t use heat dry (or extra hot wash/any feature of the nature), the energy a dishwasher uses is used to run a small pump.

      Modern machines use 100-200 watts when circulating water or about 0.2kwh per cycle excluding water heating. (note: people wash dishes by hand with heated water. Hand-washing a full load is more water intensive than recirculating it in a machine)

      Even 0.5kwh every couple of days is no big deal.

      Other larger loads, commonly used in North America:

      Dryer – 5kwh per cycle (Most wasteful appliance ever invented, though I’m guilty of using one)
      Space heater – 1.5kw for 5000 BTUs
      Pot lights – 50 Watts x 6-8 per room. Light a couple of rooms with potlights and it’s like running a space heater. Those things need to be banned!
      Furnace, 75 000 BTUs – equivalent to 22kw,
      Hair dryer – 1.5kw
      Furnace blower 300-500 Watts, 10+ hours per day, several kwh per day

      Typical electricity consumption per day of north american house – 30-40kwh per day

      Dishwashers aren’t too significant right now.

      Frivolous unnecessary luxury? Yes
      Energy Glutton? No

      • aztextpress

        I would agree that plenty of people who handwash their dishes are incredibly wasteful too. According to this website
        “According to researchers, a load of dishes cleaned in a dishwasher requires 37 percent less water than washing dishes by hand. However, if you fill the wash and rinse basins instead of letting the water run, you’ll use half as much water as a dishwasher would. “
        You’ll note that our water for dishwashing is heated one of 3 ways; on our woodstove, by our solar thermal domestic hot water unit or electrically using excess energy from our off-grid system (once the batteries are fully charged, excess energy generated by our panels would normally be wasted)
        I think we need to re-think our energy usage in ALL WAYS and unfortunately tossing the dishes in the dishwasher, turning it on and walking away is a really easy way to forget just how much energy you are using!
        ~ Michelle ~

  2. K

    I could relate to the frustration in this post so closely that it’s almost eerie.
    Well written : )

  3. Linda

    I’ve always agreed that using cloth diapers is one of the most responsible ways to raise a child – it can be an “awakening” for many people and a begining in their journey towards sustainability.
    I raised seven children in cloth diapers – 4 dozen square flannellete diapers with the first child (they make great “burp” cloths) -then an additional 2 dozen for each subsequent child. My husband alway excitedly awaited the “decomissioning” of older, thinner diapers as they were his favourite “rags” too.
    I’m happy to report that my grandchildren were also raised in cloth diapers and are happy little “greenlings” as well.
    Margaret Mead quote is the best – and as I’ve discovered throughout my life – completely true.
    Just dicovered your blog, Cam. Thank goodness it’s been raining alot because I’ve had alot of reading to do! lol


  1. A Look Back at 2011 « Aztext Press Solutions for Sustainability

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: