It is quite common when discussing cloth diapering for the debate to quickly boil down to the end result - throwing something away vs. reusing it. Often people will say something to the effect that one baby's waste isn't going to overflow a landfill. It makes sense to think in these terms, considering the word "disposable" is in the name of one of the diapers being compared, but there are far more factors involved that should be considered. It is not merely a question of throwing something away or reusing it.
I'm sure there are plenty of valid reasons for parents to use disposables. Whether it's that both parents work full time and daycare doesn't allow cloth, or simply a matter of being unaware of the simpler, cuter options available these days (many still envision the rectangular prefold with a giant pin under plastic pants)... whatever the case, I'm not interested in condemning anyone for using disposables. Plenty of people I know who are amazing parents do so. I only hope to open up the discussion to include a much larger picture - one that isn't limited to negotiating the merits of not throwing something away.
An argument that is often mentioned in defense of using disposables is the depletion of a natural resource in the form of water consumption for washing cloth diapers. Over 300 pounds of wood is used to produce enough disposables for just ONE baby for ONE year. Each single-use, disposable diaper takes 1 cup of crude oil to manufacture, resulting in billions of gallons of oil used worldwide for diapers annually, and 246 pounds of plastic used to diaper one baby for just one year. That is just under one TON of plastic per year for every 8 babies in disposables. I believe that crude oil figure is limited to the production of the polyethylene, polypropylene, polyurethane and polyacrylate that are in the actual diapers themselves and their packaging. It does not take into account the machines used to clear cut the forests involved in that wood pulp production, nor the tankers used to deliver the oil to the diaper manufacturers, or even the fuel for the trucks that deliver the diapers to the retail stores. Certainly there is fuel involved in manufacturing and delivering cloth diapers as well, but those diapers can be used repeatedly for years - not just once for a few hours.
As for water, there is plenty involved in bleaching the wood pulp, and toxic, carcinogenic dioxins are the result of this bleaching process. These dioxins don't dissolve well in water, and attach themselves to microscopic plants and animals, where they are eaten by larger animals and begin their way up the food chain, ultimately reaching humans. Since dioxins are difficult for animals to break down, each time it is ingested by a larger animal the toxic concentrations increase, through a process called biomagnification.
Just as there is a ripple effect with dioxin pollution, including poisoning the people who work at the plants and live in the towns where they are located, the environmental impact of disposable diaper production is far reaching on a global scale. Indigenous people are displaced to clear cut forests or drill for oil. Land, water and air are contaminated during the collection of the wood and oil, as well as during the diaper manufacturing. Approximately 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used in the US alone every year, and it is estimated that it takes 250-500 years for one to decompose. This rate may be slowed even further if wrapped tightly in additional plastic. If you look at the instructions on a package of disposables, it should say that solids are to be discarded in the toilet before throwing away. Most users do not do this and add human waste to landfills.
At a time when our natural resources are dwindling, I urge any parents out there who may have considered cloth to give it a second look. It's not just a matter of filling up landfills. I realize that all the types of cloth diapers and numerous brands can be daunting, but there is an abundance of resources and helpful mamas all over the web willing to reach out to new cloth diapering parents and help them navigate through it all. Beyond the environmental impact, I haven't even mentioned the best part of cloth diapering - it's more affordable than disposables, and above all...those diapers are so darn cute!