I am looking for specific studies on the life cycle of cloth diaper versus disposable diaper. The municipality I work for wants to establish a compensation program for parents who want to choose a sustainable, zero-waste alternative to diaper. A life cycle analysis would give support for or against this program, depending on the conclusion about their respective environmental impact. It is a bit different from this other question already posted as I am looking for recent, as much as possible, scientific data, more specifically a life cycle analysis.
There are several life cycle analyses, but none of them very recent:
This webpage links to a report on life cycle analysis done by the UK Environment Agency, originally in 2005 and updated in 2008. Their conclusion was that the global warming potential of reusable diapers worn for 2.5 years is slightly higher (570kg CO2e) than that of disposable diapers (550kg CO2e), but that this very much depends on how the reusable diapers are washed and dried. Line-drying reusable diapers for example reduces the global warming impact with 16% and washing with full loads and reusing diapers for a second child reduces the impact further up to 40%.
A 2009 Australian study concluded something similar:
Home-washed reusable nappies washed in cold water in a front-loading washing machine and line-dried were found to use less energy and land resources, comparable water resources, and produce similar or lower quantities of solid waste, compared to the other nappy systems [disposable or commercially-washed reusable diapers]
Full PDF of the Australian study is here)
This old 1991 study says that single-use diapers have a greater overall environmental impact than reusable diapers but it's based on very old data and is written by the The National Association of Diaper Services, so it may be biased.
This is a bad answer, but it will put some boundaries on it. This just looks at the economics of both. This is an incomplete analysis since it doesn't take into account the cost of landfill.
- A tidepod of detergent is 25 cents.
- A front load washer uses ~10 gallons. Water at $1.00 per thousand gallons means water is 1 c
- Add another gallons of water for the diaper pail.
- A cup of bleach for the diaper bucket at $4.50/gallon = 28 c
- 45 minutes drier use at 2 KW is 1.5 kWh of electricity. At $15c/kWh = 23 c
So to wash a load of diapers is ~77 cents. Let's round this up to a dollar.
Various sources online give numbers between 15 and 20 diapers per load. So the differential cost of using a cloth diaper is about 5 cents.
Plain cloth diapers on Amazon are about a buck each. You will likely buy different sizes as the kid grows up. If you buy a full load's worth at newborn, baby and todler size you are looking at an expenditure of around $60.
You can also get drywick liners, leak prevention outers, wet bags for transport. These are also one shot expenses.
Overall this is a no brainer: Big win.
Time: Fairly small compared to the action of changing a diaper. Pampers on Walmart.ca run 16 to 30 cents each depending on size. So you save 10 to 25 cents, assuming that you always buy the jumbo economy pack. There is also the time to go pick them up. At this point it gets nebulous: Local stores take less commute time but have higher prices, and may not carry the economy sizes.
Conclusion: Even without considering the disposal costs, the cloth diaper is a clear winner.
If you use a laundry service, it's less clear. Lot of driving around gets involved.