Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” changing pad liners, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
Changing pad liners are the unsung hero of keeping nurseries clean and comfortable. While they aren’t absolutely necessary, more parents are being encouraged to use them to maintain nursery hygiene and style. If you’re opting for a couple of liners, here’s what you need to consider before buying or adding to a baby registry.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON
Changing pad liners add an extra layer of ease to diapering routines for when the inevitable mess occurs, and they can also keep children comfier. However, changing pad liners are made with many different materials and not all are created equal when it comes to their ecological impacts. In general, Finch recommends opting for organic cotton liners, but if that’s not possible, then we prefer conventional cotton or recycled polyester for reasons we’ll dive into below.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber on the planet. Unfortunately, it is a water intensive crop that takes a significant toll on the soil and is associated with deforestation. Cotton is also particularly vulnerable to pests and other insects, which has led to a flourishing agrochemical industry around its cultivation. Almost 5% of global pesticide sales and 10% of global insecticides sales come from the cotton industry. Luckily, some cotton is grown in ways that can be kinder to our planet (see organic cotton below). In general, a plant-based material like cotton requires less energy to manufacture than a petroleum-based alternative like polyester.
Organic cotton is grown without relying on the use of harmful chemicals, leaving the soil, air, and water with fewer contaminants. In an LCA looking at the differences between organic cotton and conventional cotton, the Textile Exchange found that organic cotton produces 46% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, creates 70% less acidification of land and water, the potential for soil erosion drops 26%, surface and groundwater use falls anywhere from 48% to 91%, and the demand for energy can drop by as much as 62%. While we think changing pad liners made with organic cotton are the best option, we recognize that they’re harder to come by. Less than 1% of all cotton produced is organic. If you can’t find organic cotton options, we still recommend using conventional cotton liners over plastic.
Fleece changing pad liners are popular for the softness they provide, but children might not rest as easily on them if they knew what they’re really made of. Fleece is actually made from polyester, a plastic fiber that’s derived from fossil fuels. Extracting petroleum (which is needed to produce polyester) involves drilling and fracking, which have a host of negative environmental consequences (*cough*, oil spills, *cough*) that are not infrequent and can devastate already fragile wildlife populations. The environmental effects of drilling overwhelmingly impact people of color and low-income folks, who are more likely to live in communities near these sites.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the chemical treatments used by polyester manufacturers are toxic and known to cause neurological damage and even cancer at high levels of exposure, putting factory workers at risk. Plus, every time polyester gets washed, it sheds tiny pieces of plastic threads (aka microplastics) that enter our waterways and devastate marine ecosystems or even find their way into our bodies. The Plastic Soup Foundation estimates that up to 35% of plastic polluting in our oceans comes from microfibers shed by synthetic fabrics. We’ll pass!
If you really prefer fleece liners, look out for ones made with recycled materials. Recycling uses significantly less energy than making polyester from scratch. Studies have found that using recycled polyester cut water requirements in production by two-thirds and could lead to a 59% reduction in energy use.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Some changing pad liners are made with polyvinyl chloride. This plastic has versatile properties, such as lightness, durability, and easiness of processability, which makes it a highly convenient material for liners. PVC is also typically water-resistant, which can help with leaks during diaper changing, but it’s also one of the most harmful plastics to human and environmental health. PVC contains dangerous chemical additives including phthalates, lead, cadmium, and/or organotins, which can leach out or evaporate into the air over time, posing unnecessary harm to children’s health. Just as with polyester, PVC releases microplastics when it’s washed, which is a big no-no, and it’s one of the most difficult plastics to recycle. For these reasons, we suggest avoiding PVC liners at all costs.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on changing pad liners.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
GOTS is the gold standard of textile certifications (which is why we like to pronounce it as GOAT-S). It requires that at least 70% of materials in the product are organic and that the product complies with multiple environmental and social criteria along its entire supply chain. If you opt for a changing pad liners made with cotton, definitely prioritize finding this label.
The OEKO-TEX standard guarantees that every component of a product has been tested for potentially harmful substances such as pesticides, heavy metals, and formaldehyde, which predominantly impact people working at manufacturing facilities. This label means that the product is relatively harmless to human health, which is great for the people who make the changing pad liners AND the babies who lie atop them.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
The most “sustainable” option would be to not use changing pad liners at all. However, we understand their benefits, so we suggest prioritizing organic cotton liners and looking out for the GOTS and OEKO-TEX certifications. It’s also important to be mindful of how often you wash them - try washing with a fuller load of laundry to reduce their environmental impact.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
“What kind of changing pads are the most sustainable?”
While there’s really no such thing as “sustainable” changing pad liners because they always use energy, water, and other resources through their lifecycle, we came up with this list of more sustainable changing pad liners based on what they’re made of.
“Are changing pad liners necessary?”
No, but just like a mattress, changing pads will get dirty quickly without protection. Changing pad liners can easily absorb liquid messes, preventing any unwanted (or unsightly) stains from occurring. Also, depending on the material, they can make the changing pad a little cozier for the baby.
“Which changing pad liners are non-toxic?”
To be honest, ‘non-toxic’ doesn’t actually mean much of anything. In fact, no chemical or material is purely “non-toxic”. Instead of saying “non-toxic”, scientists will determine whether something is NOAEL (aka it has ‘No Observed Adverse Effect Level’). The NOAEL is the highest amount of a chemical an organism can be exposed to before it begins showing some sort of toxic response, like getting sick or developing a rash. When it comes to changing pad liners, PVC has observed adverse effects, so we recommend avoiding ones made with that material to protect your baby and the environment.