First of all, people are reading my blog. Hooray! I know this because my friend Quyen wrote to ask what I recommended for her neighbor who's having a baby and is trying to be green. Having just struggled through this decision myself, I thought it would be a good post for others. Your first thought is probably that cloth is the greenest option. Not so fast.
Cloth diapers have to be made, usually from cotton, which is one of the most pesticided crops on the planet. Then they have to be washed and dried with every use, requiring energy and water. If you use a diaper service, add in the effects of driving a delivery truck around.
Could disposable diapers really be comparable in environmental terms? Well, it depends whom you ask. Mass brands seem not to be good for several reasons. One, they bleach the pulp with chlorine. Not good for baby or environment. Two, the gel used to contain the wetness has been questioned by environmental health groups. Three, they use chemicals to scent the diapers. Again, not good all around. (I bought a pack of Pampers Swaddlers out of desperation this week because they don't carry Seventh Generation at my grocery store and could not believe how strong the fragrance was. Even Alex noticed and raised concern.)
The more eco-friendly diapers -- Tushies, Nature Boy & Girl, Mother Nature, Seventh Generation and TenderCare, to name the most available brands -- are slightly better than conventional in that they don't use chlorine bleach or synthetic fragrance (or any fragrance in most cases). The brownish color of Seventh Generation may be offputting to some, but I've had great success with them, and so far, no diaper rash at all (two months in). Only Tushies do not use the gel, though.
The third and newest option is a hybrid, which generally means a cloth outer diaper with snaps or velcro to close it, along with a flushable/compostable liner. Bum Genius and gDiapers are the leaders in this category. We have tried gDiapers but found it to be difficult to pull off with a baby on a changing table and the toilet several rooms away. I'd encourage you to consider this option, though, as it does make better environmental sense.
Grist has a number of great articles related to this subject. One on disposables. Umbra's advice on the cloth versus disposable debate. Tips for...wait for it...diaperless parenting! And an interview with the founders of gDiapers, one of the better hybrid options.
Also, depending on where you live (like me), you may not have access to bulk sizes of natural disposable diapers. To try to minimize my impact, I order diapers and wipes in bulk sizes, as many as make sense at one time, from drugstore.com through ebates. This way, I get a rebate of 6% from ebates and a credit of 5% for future purchases on drugstore.com, plus free ground shipping. And I only order about once a month. You can also find these at Diapers.com (used to be 1800Diapers). If you want to use Diapers.com, let me know and I can send you a referral for $10 off your first purchase.