Are Cloth Diapers "Good For The Environment?"
I should preface this by saying that one of my least favorite phrases is "good for the environment." This is because both "good" and "the environment" are way more complex than the thought processes of most people who use them together in the phrase. The world is never full of solutions simplistic enough to be caught up entirely in black-and-white thinking.
Specifically, whether or not a particular practice is "good for the environment" depends largely on how you define "good"-- usually this is some metric being lower -- and how you define "the environment"-- are we considering air pollution? water pollution? carbon footprint? some combination of factors? Environments, it must be remembered, are almost entirely local. A low-carbon process that pollutes a lot of water is not a good choice for a desert environment, while a process that conserves water but produces a lot of air pollution is not so good for a place like Cache Valley in winter, where inversions trap the increasingly-polluted air.
That being said, it has been discovered that if you stipulate that "good for the environment" means "low in carbon emissions," a British study shows that cloth diapers are only "good for the environment" if you wash them in warm water, air-dry them, and use them for more than one baby.
Of course, you would only care about that if (1) you believed that carbon emissions contribute to global warming, and (2) you don't already have a much better reason to use cloth diapers.
I'm not currently using cloth diapers (I have enough headaches to deal with, without having to figure out when I'm going to have the strength to haul pails full of stinky diapers down the stairs and wash them) but there are two major reasons that I can see for using them, besides environmental concerns. One is cost: once you've bought the diapers, you've essentially prepaid for everything but the detergent, and detergent is cheaper than dirt. You get them for a baby gift, you never have to spend a dime on diapers again, so there will never be any months when you have to eat beans and rice to afford the diapers. The other is security: in a TEOTWAWKI* situation, your baby will continue being diapered long after all the other ladies have run out of disposables. You can store a year's supply of diapers in two 18 gallon Rubbermaid bins, if you go with cloth. Preparedness is security. That's why I still have 18 gallon Rubbermaid bins full of cloth diapers, and I'm not getting rid of those things until I get a tubal ligation. When the fecal material hits the rotary air mover, I'm going to have a LOT of friends in the neighborhood.
* For those who haven't encountered this acronym yet, it stands for "The End Of The World As We Know It".