The Oregon Country Fair is coming up July 7 to 9. BRING will once again be making your peachy experience a little less poopy by providing a cloth diaper service. Cloth diapers will be available for $10 per dozen with a $30 refundable deposit. Plastic storage bags and pins are available, but diaper covers are not. Diapers can be rented or returned during Fair hours. Diaper service is located on Wally’s Way, near the Childcare area. Hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

While you’re thinking about diapers (something you probably do a lot if you’re a parent, and avoid at all costs if you aren’t), we thought we’d take this opportunity to do a little diaper education. Disposable diapers represent a surprisingly large portion of the waste stream, so it’s worth having anyone engaged in diapering think about ways to cut down on consumption.

Many eco-friendly parents have turned to cloth diapers as a greener alternative, but they may not be as environmentally sustainable as you think. We dig into why cloth diapers aren’t the end-all, be-all for planet-loving parents.

Diapers in the waste stream

In 1998 (the last time data was compiled) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans threw away close to 20 billion disposable diapers every year. Given that nearly 95 percent of all households with children reported using disposal diapers at some point, this figure probably isn’t surprising. In total, diapers made up 2.1 percent of everything we throw away in a year.

One of the problems with putting diapers in landfills is that they contain fecal matter, which makes them more hazardous than other types of waste. (Technically, users are supposed to place all fecal matter in the toilet before trashing disposable diapers, but studies show than fewer than one percent of Americans do that.) Should they spill out of a trash container – or should a landfill begin to leak – they pose a real health and environmental danger.

And forget about the environmental impact for a minute and look at the cost. A breakdown on this website estimates that it costs about $750 to keep a child in diapers for a year. The cost of cloth diapers (factoring in the initial investment of buying the diapers and covers) is estimated at $225 a year. This assumes the family washes their own diapers and does not pay for a diaper service.

Cloth diapers vs. disposal diapers

Cloth diapers have long been considered the greener alternative to disposable diapers. To begin with, they aren’t disposable, which should automatically make them better than their non-reusable counterparts. Diaper covers can often be passed on to another family when you’re finished using them. Any cloth diapers you can’t give away or sell can be used as rags. This gives them a life even beyond their initial purpose.

However, the conversation about whether cloth diapers are better than disposal diapers is not as clear cut as you might expect. There’s been a lot of debate over the years about whether using cloth diapers will really lower your carbon footprint that much.

When you think about it, cloth diapers still consume resources. Someone has to grow cotton, bamboo or other fibers to make them. Non-organic cotton in particular is a very water- and pesticide-intensive crop that requires a huge amount of input, which has a negative impact on people and the planet. Then the fibers must be transported (typically from far-away places) and manufactured into cloth. The synthetic diaper covers also must be manufactured and transported.

Cloth diapers have to be washed frequently so smell and bacteria doesn’t built up. They also need to be washed in warm to hot water, often with bleach or another type of disinfectant. Washing machines use a lot of water and energy. When you have to dry diapers in the dryer (as opposed to a clothesline), that takes even more energy.

A report (available for download in this Washington Post article) from the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that the carbon footprint of cloth diapers is 570 kg of CO2 equivalent over 2½ years. The carbon footprint of disposable diapers is 550 kg. This is just one study, but it does demonstrate that cloth diapers may not be as green as everyone thinks they are.

In addition, disposable diaper manufacturers are taking strides to make their diapers less impactful on the earth. The article referenced above reports that Pampers and Huggies source their paper products from certified sustainable sources, and Pampers has plans to reduce manufacturing waste, water usage and emissions.

It’s harder to make a plain cotton diaper more eco-friendly, but there are a few things you can do to lower the impact of diapering even more:

  • Use washcloths instead of wipes on your baby’s bum. Wash them with the diapers.
  • Make your own diapers from flannel fabric you already have on hand. If you don’t have any, source it from friends or a craft reuse center such as MECCA or St. Vincent de Paul.
  • During the summer months, dry your diapers on a clothesline rather than putting them in the dryer.

Some families chose to shorten their diapering period through early potty training. There are multiple books that coach parents on how to toilet train children as young as three or six months. This isn’t a good solution for every family, but if it’s something you’ve considered doing anyway, the environmental impact of less diapering might be one more reason to go ahead.

Cloth or plastic?

The last thing we want to do is talk you out of using cloth diapers if you feel good about that decision. Nor do we want to advocate for switching to disposable diapers, which still have plenty of problems. Families often have good reasons for choosing one or the other; maybe cloth or plastic gives their child diaper rash, or perhaps they don’t have regular and affordable access to a washer and dryer.

Because we’re dedicated to keeping items out of the waste stream and encouraging reuse whenever possible, we still feel good about giving a thumbs up to cloth diapers. If you feel the same way, make sure to visit us at the Oregon Country Fair July 7 to 9. We’ll have all the supplies you need to keep your little one comfortable and keep as much trash out of fair bins as possible.

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