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” diapers, 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.
Remember how many diapers you went through as a baby? Probably not! But caretakers everywhere can vouch for how many of these things they go through every day. Diapers are a huge market that’s projected to reach $80.9 billion by 2030. And while diapers are effective at keeping our little friends clean, they can also contain harmful chemicals, and from production to disposal, can create a big environmental mess.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON
While disposable diapers were first introduced in the 1940s, it wasn’t until the ‘80s that their popularity really took off. The ingredients that make these diapers leak-proof also make them pretty impossible to break down. We’re talking about 500 years before they decompose! That means diapers used in the early 21st century will finish biodegrading in the year 2500. Gah! Considering that babies require anywhere between 2,000-3,000 diapers in the first year of life alone…well, you can do the math.
Some diapers are known to include phthalates, chlorine, synthetic fragrances, and other ingredients known to cause environmental harm. While many brands use ingredients that are known to be safe (woohoo!), the impacts they have tend to leave a trace before and after the “use” phase. Looking out for trusted ingredients and certifications can help you avoid the most harmful choices.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Sodium Polyacrylate is a super-absorbent polymer, often used in the inner lining of diapers, increasing their capacity to retain liquid. The waterproof outer layer or “backsheet” of the diaper is made of polyethylene. Creating that layer for just one disposable diaper uses 1 cup of crude oil. All the diapers just one baby uses before being toilet trained require almost 405,239 gallons of crude oil. Yikes. Crude oil (i.e. fossil fuel) processing is associated with waste and emissions, which can negatively impact water and air quality.
Disposable diapers often contain a small amount of wood pulp to help absorb liquids. Wood pulp – often referred to as “fluff” – can retain up to 10 times its weight in fluids. That’s a whole lot of something being absorbed in these diapers! The not-so-good? The amount of fluff required to keep one baby in disposables for one year is between 400-800 lbs. This has significant land use and biodiversity implications. While pulp products are considered renewable, we also have to remember that our forests are fragile and are typically depleted faster than they are replenished. That’s why it’s super important to look for certifications that indicate sustainably sourced pulp. More on that below!
Free of phthalates
Synthetic phthalates are sometimes added to soften the plastics used to create diapers. Phthalates are absorbed by the skin and since they belong to the family of endocrine disruptors – i.e. things that mess with our hormones – they can cause developmental hurdles over time. Studies have found that prenatal exposure to phthalates can decrease mental and motor development in children, too, which is not what we’re looking for in our nappies.
Remember that wood pulp we mentioned? Well, that pulp is bleached and fluffed to give it that soft white look. Using chlorine bleach creates dioxins (a highly toxic pollutant that also screws with our hormones and immune systems) and other byproducts that are incredibly dangerous for human health. During manufacturing, chlorine can make its way to waterways, impacting the health of local ecosystems and aquatic life, which often means dioxins can show up and remain in the animal and human food chains for years.
Because fragrances are often proprietary, they’re not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Meaning, ingredients can be labeled as “fragrance” on diaper packaging with no indication of what they contain. Fragrances can contain irritants and phthalates, which as we know, are things we want to stay away from. Whether the doses of phthalates in fragrances can cause endocrine disruption is still being researched, so for the safest alternative, we suggest going fragrance-free and keeping an eye out for phthalates. And let’s be real, diapers only smell clean for a short time!
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 diapers.
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) has a robust set of forest certification standards that enable forest managers in the United States and Canada to demonstrate that they are measuring quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, species at risk, forest conservation value, forest fiber content, and forest product traceability. Companies that purchase wood to use in the manufacture of products (like diaper companies!), can have their sourcing operations certified to the SFI standard.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification ensures products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. If a brand uses the FSC certification, it means that measures are in place to ensure sustainable harvesting of pulp.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
There are a ton of diaper varieties on the market and we should all do what feels best for our babies’ bodies and our budgets! Let’s recap some takeaways. When you’re shopping for diapers, look for ingredients that are plant-based, renewable, and total chlorine-free (TCF). Keep your eyes peeled for certifications that indicate that the brand is taking extra steps to protect forests when sourcing pulp for diapers. If you can, opt for cloth reusables made with organic cotton (more on that here). While there are still environmental impacts associated with cloth diapers, you won’t be left with a (literal!) pile of crap that’ll end up in the landfill. Did you know diapers make up almost 2% of the world’s municipal waste?
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
“What is the most eco-friendly disposable diaper?”
While there’s really no such thing as “eco-friendly” diapers, we came up with a list of the best options available based on key factors across six environmental footprints. Check out the top diaper products here.
“Are biodegradable diapers really biodegradable?”
Unfortunately, “biodegradable” doesn’t necessarily mean the diaper is biodegrading. Biodegradable diapers are dumped in the same landfill as regular diapers and topped with lots of other trash. Without adequate sunlight and air, there’s no difference in the way these products break down. In perfect conditions, different sources say biodegradable diapers can take anywhere from a few months to 50 years, instead of 500 years for regular diapers. But because perfect conditions don’t exist in a landfill, that’s an easy way to say no one really knows!
“How do I dispose of disposable diapers?”
If throwing out diapers at home, never dump them in the recycling bin - no matter how passionately we love to recycle! Always place diapers in a separate bin or liner to avoid contaminating your other household waste and to save waste management handlers time! If you’re a composter, check out local laws and services in your area, though this isn’t super common. Your best bet for compost is to evaluate your resources at home for inclusion in compost for flowers and shrubs - never for food! Wet diapers only, for obvious reasons. Just remember to rip the diaper open and only use the sodium polyacrylate and wood pulp insides. Discard the plastic lining in the trash.