Are biodegradable diapers better for the environment?

Are All Natural and Biodegradable Diapers Better for the Environment?

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You’ve seen them out there and may have even used them. Disposable diapers that claim to be all natural or biodegradable that have less potentially harmful ingredients than their conventional counterparts. It’s a fantastic marketing strategy, but are they really better for the environment than conventional diapers?

As a new parent, we only want what’s best for our baby and we hope that the companies selling products are being honest in their claims. When it comes to all-natural and biodegradable diapers, there is a lot to unpack. It isn’t as cut and dry as the commercials and labels make it seem, but it isn’t all bad either.

Are Natural and Biodegradable Disposable Diapers Really Better for the Environment?

If you aren’t interested in using cloth diapers, either of these choices might be better for you than traditional diapers, but you should also know that each type does come with their own drawbacks.

Let’s see what those are.

What about all natural or free and clear diapers?

There are a lot of all-natural and free and clear diapers on the market these days. Some of these diapers include The Honest Company, Target’s Up & Up brand (yes, really), Seventh Generation, Earth’s Best, Bambo Nature, etc.

These diapers claim to be made from natural ingredients extracted from plants, are minimally processed, and are free of dyes, perfumes, and chlorine. 

However, these diapers still contain sodium polyacrylate, otherwise known as SAP. This is the gel that soaks up hours worth of urine and gives wet disposable diapers their puffy look. But is SAP safe?

  • Most SAP is derived from petroleum and it has been said that petroleum-based products could contain carcinogens.
  • Sodium polyacrylate can also be a contributing factor to staph infections. 
  • SAP is also a skin irritant since it can absorb the natural oils and moisture, causing dry skin.

One of my favorite claims from Seventh Generation is that they don’t use chlorine to whiten their diapers. But did you know that they dye their diapers to be that light brown color to appeal to your subconscious?

You see the light brown color and think, “Oh! They look so natural. How great!” Here is what they say about their dyed diapers:

While most designs on the market use pigments that result in a white color, we use a small amount of blended color pigments to impart a tan color to our diapers. The blend is proprietary to the supplier of the pigment. To the best of our knowledge, there are no known toxicity issues associated with the use of these pigments in our diapers. Without the addition of color pigments, these materials would be colorless, much like a plastic milk jug. We use brown pigments to help distinguish Seventh Generation Chlorine Free Diapers from others in the marketplace that are bleached with chlorine-containing substances. 

Seventh Generation

If you are concerned about dyes, maybe Seventh Generation isn’t the diaper for you after all.

What about Huggies Pure & Natural diapers?

Look at that packaging. It looks so fresh and green, doesn’t it?

Huggies Pure & Natural diapers

Don’t buy into it. It’s a deceptive marketing ploy and nothing more. The outer is made of organic cotton (maybe, they won’t disclose whether its certified organic or not) but it ends there. The inside that touches your baby is still made of bleached materials (ie: dioxin) and SAP. 

Biodegradable diapers

These would include Naty by Nature Babycare, GroVia, etc. These diapers are also fragrance and chlorine-free. While they still contain SAP, they claim to use lower levels of it than conventional diapers.

Nature Babycare (my favorite diaper when I was using disposables) contains corn starch instead of wood pulp in their diapers. This is a fully compostable material, but please be aware that these diapers are only 60% biodegradable.

To compost them you will need to pull them apart and compost the compostable materials and throw away the rest. Better than the alternative of mainstream diapers, yes, but do not assume that you can throw this diaper in your compost bin as-is. 

This brings me to the most important point about “biodegradable” diapers. In order for these diapers to biodegrade, you really need to compost them.

If you ball them up, throw them in a Diaper Genie device then throw them in the trash, they will go to the landfill just like any other diaper. There they will sit…and sit…and sit. You see, you put them in a NON-biodegradable plastic trash bag and put them in an airtight landfill. 

What Happens to Trash in a Landfill?

Trash put in a landfill will stay there for a very long time. Inside a landfill, there is little oxygen and little moisture. Under these conditions, trash does not break down very rapidly. In fact, when old landfills have been excavated or sampled, 40-year-old newspapers have been found with easily readable print. Landfills are not designed to break down trash, merely to bury it. When a landfill closes, the site, especially the groundwater, must be monitored and maintained for up to 30 years!

How Stuff Works

So, the bottom line is, in order for biodegradable diapers to be biodegradable you would need to compost them or flush them (the poopy ones cannot be composted). Note, when flushing an insert like a gDiaper, please don’t make the same mistake as I did. You need to pull them apart and dump out the inside material first, let it dissolve a bit, then flush the paper components of the diaper. If not, clogging may happen and it won’t be pretty!

So in conclusion, I don’t think that free & clear and biodegradable disposable diapers are as great as their marketing campaigns make them sound. However, while cloth is the far superior choice in my humble opinion, they are definitely a better alternative than the big name conventional diapers if you are unwilling or unable to use cloth diapers. 

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14 Comments

  1. I also prefer my cloth but there are times when disposables are needed. I use G Dipaers or the Honest Company for disposables. When throwing them away I use biodegradeable dog poop bags and throw that in my trash. Like it states- biodegradeable is great..unless you put it in a platic trash bag!

  2. Thanks for the info on the Target Up & Up brand. We occasionally use disposables when traveling when we won’t have access to a washer and dryer, and in the past have used the 7th Generation ones, but I hate buying a big box when we won’t use that many. Target ones come in smaller packages so they are perfect.

  3. What a well thought-out and researched post – thank you. I love the term you use: Cloth Curious! We actually use disposable diapers for overnights, and your post helped to clarify a lot. I’ll be honest, my head was spinning when I was trying to research disposables, so I gave up and just reached for the easiest pack. We use one per day, so I’m not that committed 🙂

    1. A lot of people use disposables at night and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You do what you need to do to keep your kid dry 🙂 The Target Up & Up brand is what we used when we moved across the country and they are relatively inexpensive and are also chlorine, latex, and perfume free. Pretty much the same thing as the “free and clear” diapers at a fraction of the price.

  4. I’m “cloth curious” as you say, but I did look into the Huggies Pure and Natural diapers. I’m like… so what is the difference?! Just a marketing ploy! Thanks for this eye opening article. I’m going to add it to my Parenting Board on Pinterest to spread the word!

    1. The Huggies Pure & Natural is the biggest joke of them all.

  5. I’m a huge advocate for cloth diapers both for the environmental impact and health impacts of disposable. I think that biodegradable are the lesser of 2 evils, but IMHO nothing is as good as cloth 🙂

    1. I completely agree! I do understand that there may be times that a cloth family would prefer to use disposables though and if you have to, these would be the better choices if for no other reason than the stinky fragrances. I can’t even walk by the diaper aisle at the grocery store without wanting to hurl LOL

  6. I completely agree. I used cloth diapers about 75% of the time, the other times I used disposable. I looked into the “natural disposable diapers”, but decided they were not green enough to spend more $$ on disposable diapers.

    1. Have you tried the Target Up & Up brand? I used them when we moved across the country and I didn’t know what kind of laundry facilities I would have access to. They are pretty much the same thing as the free & clear diapers. They’re chlorine and fragrance free and a fraction of the price of the other “natural” diapers. I chose them because they didn’t smell through the package and was pleasantly surprised to find that they also are chlorine free. I mean, isn’t that the biggest selling point of Earth’s Best and Seventh Generation? 😉

  7. It’s the greenwashing trend. But, really, though, the petroleum bit? Petroleum is used to make lots of things. It goes beyond gasoline and motor oil. It’s in your ball point pens, your petroleum jelly in the bathroom, insect repellent, and a thousand other things in your home.

    1. I love the term greenwashing.

      Yes, it goes beyond gasoline but I don’t use Vaseline either. It is still a byproduct of crude oil. Whether it’s a carcinogen or not remains to be seen but it’s still not a sustainable product so to have it in a “natural” product is iffy to me.

  8. I honestly do not think these “biodegradable” and “natural” products are any better than conventional disposables. The manufacturing process is way to similar. Plus there is still waste.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree but some people who use cloth still use them at night or when they need to use rash creams. I think they are the lesser of two evils, but definitely not an equal choice to cloth.

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