Cloth vs. Disposable Diapers: Carbon Footprint, Costs & More

Pros and cons of disposable diapers and cloth diapers.

By Maryruth Belsey-Priebe

Fact checked by Sander Tamm

Cloth versus Disposable Diapers
Cloth versus Disposable Diapers

When it comes to disposable diapers, the costs are high for the baby’s health, the planet, and your family’s budget. But there are many factors to consider when looking at the debate, so here’s your Ecolife’s summary of the pros and cons between cloth diapers vs disposables. 

This article covers the following:

  1. Disposable diapers
  2. Cloth diapers

Disposable diapers

Disposable diapers have only been part of the parenting routine for a few decades, yet they are the default for most families. But have you ever considered their true costs?


  • Convenience: Higher
  • Up-front investment: Lower
  • Aesthetics: Fewer odor problems, especially when traveling


  • Financial costs: You’ll likely change your baby’s diaper an average of 5,400 to 8,000 times before they’re potty trained, and at a cost of between $0.25 and $0.35 per diaper, that’s a total of $1,350 to $1,890 (for 5,400). Cloth diapers, on the other hand, will cost between $200 and $300 upfront and $1.50 per load of laundry (assuming you launder 10 times/month for a total of approximately 360 washes over three years), bringing their total cost up to between $740 and $840. Using reusable diapers for more than one child can further lower the overall cost of cloth diapering for your family.
  • Dioxin pollution: Most one-use diapers are made with bleached cotton and wood fibers, which result in the production of dioxin, an extremely toxic byproduct that can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin, causing reproductive, developmental, and immune system health problems as well as cancer. This can be mitigated if chlorine-free disposable diapers are purchased instead.
  • Pesticide exposure: Cotton and other agricultural materials used in disposable diapers often involve the use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals that are dangerous to babies and the environment, and because of the many-fold increase in resource use, the impact of disposables is much higher in this regard. 
  • Landfill considerations: The average baby could go through up to 8,000 disposable diapers and when thrown in the landfill, they’ll survive centuries before breaking down. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, diapers are the third largest sector of the solid waste stream (behind newspapers and beverage containers). These diapers contain untreated human waste (millions of tons of the stuff every year) that can leach into water supplies, spreading disease.
  • Baby health concernsDisposable diapers can contain super absorbent polymers (SAPs) known as sodium polyacrylate that gel up when wet, but similar substances used in women’s tampons were found to cause toxic shock syndrome, making SAPs a concern. Babies diapered in disposables are also said to have more frequent rashes than those diapered in cloth, likely due to different pH conditions.
  • Resource consumption: Disposable diapers use more non-renewable and renewable resources, as well as water and energy to create than reusable diapers.

Cloth diapers

Cloth diapers on the other hand have been used by parents for centuries. Though they may not be quite as convenient as disposable diapers, they do come with many health and environmental benefits – and could save you money, too!


  • Carbon footprint: Have a smaller carbon footprint compared to disposable diapers if laundered in full loads, line-dried, and used for more than one child.
  • Dioxin pollution: As long as the fibers used for reusable diapers aren’t bleached using chlorine, this issue is completely void.
  • Pesticide exposure: Although this is a problem for reusable diapers made from conventional cotton, it is completely eliminated with organic cotton or alternative fiber reusable nappies.
  • Landfill considerations: Not only does the average baby use thousands fewer reusable diapers than disposables, most cloth diapers are re-purposed after baby outgrows them as rags or sold to other parents for continued use, significantly reducing the landfill considerations.
  • Baby health concerns: Reusable diapers are not saddled with problems from SAPs or dioxins and babies have fewer rashes with cloth diapers.
  • Resource consumption: The per-diaper resource consumption for reusable diapers is much smaller than that for disposables.


  • Convenience: Lower
  • Up-front investment: Higher
  • Financial costs: Assuming the same figures above but with daily washing and tumble drying of your cloth diapers, you could raise the cost to between $1,840 and $1,940 overall.

If you really want to be radical in your baby diapering methods, go for elimination communication and become diaper-free!