When you think of cloth diapering, do images of a lot of leaking poop, or dreadful smelling mounds of dirty diapers pop into your head? You’re not alone. But cloth diapering has come a long way since the days of diaper pins and rubber pants. Even still, it’s hard to debunk the myth that cloth diapering is much more difficult and simply more of a hassle than disposables. So what are the real quantifiable differences between cloth and disposables?
First of all, if you decide to have a baby, you’re gonna be changing diapers every day, whether you choose cloth or disposables. The difference is that with disposables, your dirty diaper goes straight into the trash can (perhaps wrapped in a not-so-environmentally-friendly plastic bag so it doesn’t stink up your house). With cloth, that same dirty diaper goes straight into a washable diaper bag or pail, later to be tossed into your laundry machine. Basically, one gets thrown into the trash, the other gets thrown into the laundry. Considering that the average baby uses roughly 6,000 diapers from birth to potty-training, producing about 4,000 pounds of waste that ends up in landfills, by choosing cloth diapers you effectively prevent roughly 4000 pounds of waste from entering the landfills, per child. Now that’s a lot of poop.
So now lets talk about the differences in cost. If you choose cloth diapers, you are committing to a significant up-front investment in the diapers (usually in the $200-400 range depending on the brand you choose and how many you buy), as well as doing one extra load of diapers in your laundry machine per day (this might cost you something like $.50/load, adding up to about $182/year depending on how efficient your washer/dryer system is). But the great thing is, once you have purchased cloth diapers, you’ll never run out. Every day, you get a clean stash of “new” diapers back out of your dryer (or hang them to dry for more savings). Compare this with disposables, which have no upfront costs, but are a constant drain on your finances. At an average of $.29 per diaper, multiplied by the 6000 diapers most likely used before potty training, disposables will cost something like $1740, or more, per child. That’s a lot of dough and it doesn’t include diaper wipes (more on that later). Another cost benefit of cloth diapering is that you can reuse the same cloth diapers again for subsequent children, saving you even more the second or third time around. So by choosing cloth diapers you will be doing more work with the laundry, but you will probably also save money, as well as avoid the hassle of frequently having to schlep out to buy more diapers.
Many parents turn to natural-fiber cloth diapers because their babies have reactions to the chemicals in disposables. Disposable diapers contain sodium polyacrylate, a type of super absorbent polymer (SAP), which becomes a gel-like substance when wet. A similar substance had been used in super-absorbency tampons until the early 1980s until it was revealed that the material increased the risk of toxic shock syndrome by increasing absorbency and improving the environment for the growth of toxin-producing bacteria. Disposable diapers also contain Dioxin, a carcinogenic chemical listed by the EPA as the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals (it is banned in most countries but not in the U.S), as well as Tributyl-tin (TBT) – a toxic pollutant known to cause hormonal problems in humans and animals. Many babies who use disposables have no clear reactions to these substances, however this information may be helpful in deciding what is right for your family.
Lastly, one big difference between cloth and disposables it the cuteness factor. You may not be able to resist using cloth diapers once you see your baby wearing some of the hip designs that are available these days. One of the hardest parts of the decision to use cloth diapers is choosing which design to invest in! There are four basic types of cloth diapers, each with their own benefits. For more information on different types of cloth diapers you can check out this site which lays out the comparisons.
On a personal note, for my family the journey to choosing cloth diapers was a process. When we had our first child we were living in a one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with no access to a laundry hookup. That was a big deciding factor against cloth (although perhaps we could have found a diapering service to wash the diapers for us, but the cost seemed prohibitive at the time). With our second child, we opted into cloth about half-way through the diapering process and loved the results, which included early potty training. With our third child, we have totally embraced cloth as the right choice for us, and really love it! We feel happy to be able to take a big step toward maintaining an environmentally friendly household and using products that are in line with our beliefs.
If you have any questions about cloth diapering, please feel free to leave a comment below.