Which Cloth Diaper Fiber is the Best Choice for the Environment?
April 22, 2001
So, you want to use cloth diapers. This is an environmentally friendly choice. The benefits of not putting plastic and chemical gel diapers full of human waste into landfill are probably quite obvious to you. But are you wondering what choices are available? What types of cloth can be used for diapers? What are the environmental and social advantages and disadvantages of each?
Actually, many fabrics can function as an absorbent material in diapers. Since we promote environmentally responsible choices, we will discount any fabric containing artificial (or petroleum-based) fibers. Some try to argue that certain artificial fibers can be environmentally friendly. Several kinds of polyester fleece are made from recycled plastic bottles, for example. The problem is not that recycling plastic bottles is not a good thing, but rather that it does not address an implicit acceptance of the continued manufacture of plastic bottles—or any plastic, for that matter.
Naturally occurring fibers can be classified into three types: mineral, vegetable, and animal. Mineral fibers (such as asbestos) are obviously non-starters, unless you want a flame-proof diaper. In general, vegetable fibers absorb moisture well, so they are suitable for diapers. Animal fibers on the other hand (like wool) tend to repel moisture. This means that they are not useful as diapers, but they do make good diaper covers. (For a discussion of wool as a good material for use as a diaper cover go to "Why Use Wool For Diaper Covers?")
The two main vegetable fibers currently used as diaper fabric are cotton and hemp. Flax, linen, jute, sisal, ramie, etc., are either not absorbent enough, too expensive, or too rough—or we have no experience with them. If anyone wants to try making their own jute diapers, let us know how it works out.
At no point in the growth or production of organic fibers are chemicals used. Even in the absence of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, though, cotton is an intense crop. Cultivation takes a lot of water, which is a big issue in some areas where cotton is grown in the U.S., such as the desert southwest. The following maps illustrate this point nicely: the map on the left shows the counties of the U.S. that grow the most cotton. The map on the right shows average annual precipitation. It is clear that the most densely-planted cotton regions (with the exception of the Mississippi Delta) are in some of the driest areas of the U.S.
U.S. counties growing cotton.
Average annual precipitation.
Cotton is, however, an excellent fiber for diapers—soft and absorbent. Organic cotton can be an environmentally friendly choice, especially if the farms where the cotton is grown practice responsible water management. As long as hemp production is restricted in the U.S., if you are looking for a domestically produced fiber, organic cotton is your best choice.
More organic cotton:
Hemp is a friendly fiber to grow. You've heard it—it's a weed! Hemp is a low-water crop that doesn't require to attention as cotton does in cultivation. Hemp is particularly absorbent, it is also mildew resistant. That is a great plus for an item of clothing that will likely sit wet for several days before it is washed. Despite the ease of growth and breadth of uses for industrial hemp (or perhaps because of it), hemp is not grown commercially in the U.S. [Note: this can change if you take action on "The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2005."] But 100% hemp can be a bit too rough for a baby's bottom. Most hemp fabric suitable for diapers is hemp blended with cotton, taking on many of the properties of cotton, including its softness.
Hemp is also a natural, cellulosic fiber—just like cotton. The difference between the two is that hemp possesses all of cotton's beneficial properties to a greater degree. Hemp is three times stronger than cotton, has good abrasion resistance and is washable. In addition, hemp has some other helpful properties that make it a fine choice for diapers. It is naturally anti-microbial and resistant to mold, mildew, rot and degradation by UV-light. A slight drawback of hemp, compared to cotton, is that most hemp currently available is not as soft (although it does soften with repeated washing, which cotton does not). This drawback can be ameliorated by producing a blend of hemp with cotton. This combines the best properties of both fibers.
This still leave the issue of the social sustainability of hemp as long as it is not produced in the U.S.
Recycled fibers may be considered a good environmental choice. To use old clothes, especially those that aren't good anymore for wear because of holes or stains, diverts those fibers from the waste stream. You can easily cut around those. Cuttings can easily be used as stuffing for toys or as a base for paper. Your local thrift store will usually have a wide choice of colors and, if you search carefully, you may find many clothes, sheets, or towels that are 100% cotton or sweaters that are 100% wool. There is little you can know about where these fibers came from, what chemical processes they were subjected to, or the conditions in which workers made them, but you can renew their future life as useful clothing.
More recycled fibers:
If you want to use make environmentally-friendly choices in cloth diapering your baby, there are several good choices. By considering these issues you are making yourself a more educated consumer and that in itself is good for the environment.
Text copyright © 2001 - 2007 Marc Pehkonen. All rights reserved. Images used by permission.