Are Cloth Diapers Better for the Environment? It Depends on YOU (and Your Waste Management)!

By April Duffy •  Updated: 06/23/24 •  9 min read

For a long time, I’ve been angry about the “scientific studies” showing cloth diapers are somehow less earth-friendly than disposable diapers. Sure, I’m biased, I run a cloth diaper community and my brain just can’t understand the logic behind filling up a landfill being better than reusing something. But, I was mad because the studies made outdated or outright wrong assumptions about cloth diaper users.

Why the Early Science Behind Cloth Diapers and the Environment Was so Frustrating

There is very little actual science behind the environmental impact of cloth diapers as compared to that of disposables, but if you see an article online that throws doubt onto the environmental benefits of cloth diapers, they are likely referencing this popular one from 2008 from the UK Environment Agency.

This lifecycle assessment study concluded the environmental benefit of cloth diapers over disposables is “unclear” and claims that cloth diapers require as much energy and produce as much waste as disposable diapers, once you account for the energy and water used to wash diapers in hot water daily and then to dry them in the dryer. Even so, (and what advocates of disposable diapers citing this source often overlook is that) “the report shows that, in contrast to the use of disposable nappies [diapers], it is consumers’ behavior after purchase that determines most of the impacts from reusable [cloth] nappies.”  and that “Cloth diapers can take any number of steps in order to reduce the energy and water amounts used, which will in turn give cloth diapers a substantial environmental advantage.” (Source).

A more recent study, “End-of-life management of single-use baby diapers: Analysis of technical, health and environment aspects” by Płotka-Wasylka et al. (2022), provides a comprehensive overview of the environmental and health concerns associated with different types of diapers.

However, this 2022 study doesn’t spend a lot of effort on cloth diapers, and assumes the use of softeners when washing cloth diapers, which is a practice not recommended by the cloth diapering community (it’s one of the very few things the whole community actually agrees on because it’s so basic).

We all know that using fabric softeners or other softening products can cause buildup on the diapers, leading to repelling and reducing absorbency over time.

This wrong assumption that we’re all using fabric softeners on our cloth diapers means there’s an overestimation of the water pollution and other environmental consequences associated with laundering cloth diapers, making it’s findings invalid.

Comparing Cloth and Disposable Diapers: Key Factors

1. Materials and Production

Single-use diapers are typically made from a combination of plastics, wood pulp, and super-absorbent polymers (SAP) (Source: UNEP, 2021). The production of these materials, particularly the plastics, relies heavily on non-renewable resources and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions (Source: UNEP, 2021).

In contrast, cloth diapers are usually made from natural materials like cotton, hemp, or bamboo, which are renewable and biodegradable (Source: Hoffmann, Morais and Teodoro, 2020). The production of these natural materials has a lower environmental impact compared to the production of single-use diaper materials.

2. Use Phase (i.e. Washing and Drying)

The environmental impact of cloth diapers during the “use phase” (meaning the time when you’re using them) largely depends on how you’re using them. Factors such as washing machine efficiency, water temperature, detergent choice, and drying methods can greatly influence the water and energy consumption associated with laundering cloth diapers. 

Washing diapers in fully loaded, energy-efficient machines, using eco-friendly detergents (avoiding softeners), and line drying when possible can significantly reduce the water and energy consumption associated with cloth diapering (Source: Aumónier, Collins and Garrett, 2008).

In fact, a study found that home-washed reusable diapers, washed in cold water in a front-loading washing machine and line-dried, use less energy and produce similar or lower quantities of solid waste compared to single-use diapers (Source: O’Brien, Olive, Hsu, Morris and Bell, 2009). This demonstrates that the environmental impact of cloth diapers during the use phase is largely determined by the individual practices of cloth diaper users.

How many times you use your cloth diapers before washing them, as well as if you use them full or part time also changes how environmentally friendly they are in the end, but I’ll revisit this in a moment, first let’s talk about when you change a diaper.

3. Disposal and End-of-Life

While cloth diapers can be reused multiple times, even across multiple children, disposable diapers are discarded after a single use.

According to the EPA, about 20 billion disposable diapers are added to landfills throughout America annually, creating an estimated 3.5 million tons of waste (Source: UNEP, 2021). Even worse, most single-use diapers are not biodegradable; each will take an estimated 500 years to decompose in a landfill (Source: UNEP, 2021). This clearly illustrates the significant environmental burden of disposable diapers.

While some studies have explored the potential for recycling or composting disposable diapers, these options are not yet widely available and come with their own challenges (Source: UNEP, 2021). The reusability of cloth diapers gives them a clear advantage in terms of reducing waste and minimizing the environmental impact at the end-of-life stage.

Life Cycle Assessments of Cloth Diapers: What the Newer Science Tells Us

When reading the “Single-use nappies and their alternatives” document from the United Nations Environment Programme (2021), I found in it a very helpful matrix that provided a refreshing and helpful overview of the environmental impact of cloth vs. disposables depending on waste management context and our behaviour as consumers.

This matrix, titled “Life Cycle Assessments of Nappies: What the Science Tells Us,” offers a clear and concise way to understand the factors that can make cloth diapers more or less environmentally friendly.

Here’s an image of that matrix to help our discussion, but if you’d like to take a closer look, please take a look at the study here.


The matrix presents different scenarios based on geographical and technological context, as well as consumer behavior. It shows that reusable diapers are generally the preferred option when consumers follow efficient washing and laundering practices, such as washing below 60°C, line drying, and using fully filled machines. Additionally, reusable nappies are favored when they are reused for multiple children.

On the other hand, single-use nappies are preferred when consumers have inefficient washing and laundering practices or use reusable nappies only a few times. This highlights the importance of proper use and care in determining the environmental impact of cloth diapers.

The matrix also emphasizes the significance of appropriate disposal for single-use nappies. In regions with no formal waste management and poor recycling support, reusable nappies are preferred regardless of the type of nappy used. However, in areas with advanced waste management and good policy support for recycling and composting, there is no clear preference between single-use and reusable nappies if single-use diapers are recycled. If single-use nappies are not recycled, reusable nappies remain the preferred option.

In summary, this matrix provides a valuable tool for a real discussion on the environmental impact of cloth diapers in different contexts. It demonstrates that the sustainability of cloth diapers heavily depends on OUR behavior as well as the specific waste management infrastructure in place. By considering these factors, individuals and policymakers can make informed decisions about the use and promotion of cloth diapers as an environmentally friendly alternative to single-use nappies.

Optimizing Cloth Diaper Use for Minimal Environmental Impact

To ensure that cloth diapers live up to their eco-friendly potential, it’s important to follow best practices:

By adopting these habits, cloth diaper users can significantly reduce the water, energy, and resources needed to care for their diapers (Source: Aumónier, Collins and Garrett, 2008).

Addressing Common Misconceptions

Despite the evidence supporting the environmental benefits of cloth diapers, some misconceptions persist. It’s important to remember that the impact of cloth diapers heavily depends on how they are used and cared for. When best practices are followed, cloth diapers can indeed be the more sustainable choice (Source: Aumónier, Collins and Garrett, 2008; O’Brien, Olive, Hsu, Morris and Bell, 2009).

Educating consumers about proper cloth diaper care, including avoiding softeners, is crucial for maximizing their environmental benefits.

Challenges and Future Perspectives

The study by Płotka-Wasylka et al. (2022) highlights the potential for eco-design and circular business models to reduce the environmental impact of diapers. Innovative solutions like modular diapers, where only the absorbent part is disposable, could offer a balance between convenience and sustainability. The study also discusses the potential for novel waste management technologies like recycling, biodegradation, anaerobic digestion, and pyrolysis to handle disposable diaper waste more effectively. However, implementing these solutions on a large scale will require significant investment and collaboration between manufacturers, waste management companies, and policymakers.


In summary, while early studies may have cast doubt on the eco-friendliness of cloth diapers, more recent research shows that with proper use and care, cloth diapers can be a more environmentally sustainable option than disposables. The study by Płotka-Wasylka et al. (2022), despite its limitations, emphasizes the importance of a holistic approach that considers both the technical aspects of diaper design and the social aspects of consumer behavior and education.

By being mindful of laundering habits, avoiding softeners, and reusing diapers when possible, cloth diaper users can significantly reduce their environmental footprint. Ultimately, the choice between cloth and disposable diapers is a personal one, but it’s important to make an informed decision based on the facts and your own values.


  1. Aumónier, S., Collins, M., & Garrett, P. (2008). An updated lifecycle assessment study for disposable and reusable nappies. Environmental Agency.
  2. Hoffmann, B. S., Morais, J. de S., & Teodoro, P. F. (2020). Life cycle assessment of innovative circular business models for modern cloth diapers. Journal of Cleaner Production, 249.
  3. O’Brien, K., Olive, R., Hsu, Y., Morris, L., & Bell, R. (2009). Life cycle assessment: Reusable and disposable nappies in Australia. ALCAS–Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society.
  4. Płotka-Wasylka, J., Makoś-Chełstowska, P., Kurowska-Susdorf, A., Santoyo Treviño, M. J., Zarazúa Guzmán, S., Mostafa, H., & Cordella, M. (2022). End-of-life management of single-use baby diapers: Analysis of technical, health and environment aspects. Science of The Total Environment, 836, 155339.
  5. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). (2021). Single-use nappies and their alternatives: Recommendations from Life Cycle Assessments.

April Duffy

April is the founder of Cloth Diapers for Beginners and author of The Cloth Diaper Wash & Care Handbook. Since 2015, April has helped well over 75,000 parents and caregivers cloth diaper their children through this website, her book, her YouTube Channel, and the Cloth Diapers for Beginners Facebook Group.