I've gotten conflicting information about whether cloth diapers are more ecologically correct than disposables. Cloth diapers require both water and energy to wash—two things California has in short supply. But disposables come from plastic, cotton, and trees, and clog our landfill. What's the most environmentally friendly thing a new parent can do?
--Carolyn in El Cerrito, California
You'll find the full answer to your question in the Jan./Feb. issue of Sierra magazine, but it wouldn’t be fair give away its exciting conclusions.
You do, however, provide a fine excuse for me to expound on the water question, which we didn't have room to address in the upcoming column. Most households waste so much water that they should focus on conserving it instead of worrying about how much it takes to wash diapers. Here's why:
The entire process of washing diapers from birth to the joyful day of completion of potty-training will take roughly 24,000 gallons. Sounds like a lot, but many households waste much more than that in three years simply by flushing inefficient toilets. In an arid climate, twice that amount can evaporate from an uncovered swimming pool of modest size.
The math: A typical newborn requires a change every two or three hours. If your baby needs to be changed on the more frequent side, that's around 84 changes a week, or 4,368 a year. Or about 8,736 for two years. Of course, as your bundle of joy matures, it’ll require less frequent changing. There’s considerable variation among young creatures, but it's fair to say that up to 9,000 changes may be needed. Assuming you can wash about 30 diapers per load, that's 300 loads. At 41 gallons per load, what the typical washing machine uses per wash, that's 12,300 gallons. Allow another 2,000 gallons or so for pre-soaking, if indeed you pre-soak. If you flush the creature's excrement down the toilet, you're looking at another 8,000 gallons, for our total of 22,000. You can cut your water use even more if you get one of those water-wise 28-gallons-per-wash machines—which you can easily afford with the money you'll save by not spending it on throwaways.
Besides efficient toilets, there are many other ways to offset water used to wash diapers: low-flow showerheads and toilets, dishwashers and washing machines operated at full capacity, and less water on lawns and ornamental plants. Almost a third of a typical household’s water use goes on lawns and plants, half of which gets squandered as runoff and evaporation from overwatering and inefficient irrigation systems. For useful advice about saving water, see the EPA's ideas here. Your tax dollars at work.
But don't be satisfied with confining your conservation efforts to your own household. It's high time we got a lot more political about water and pushed much harder for rules to curb waste both by households and agriculture. Getting back to your state, California now has a proposal for a bond to improve its water system, but I don't think it demands nearly enough basic water conservation. To learn more about this, click here.
And it's not just California that needs to cut its guzzling, as you can see when you fly across the country and look down at those huge green circles of pivot irrigation systems drawing massive amounts of water. As I've previously noted, more than 35 states now face serious water issues. For an overview of all sorts of water issues, I highly recommend a visit to the Pacific Institute’s Web site.