Cloth vs Disposable Diapers

Which is better to use—cloth or disposable diapers?
For many parents, especially those who own or have easy access to a washing machine and a dryer, and are aware of the problem of diapers filling our landfills and taking hundreds of years to disintegrate, cloth diapers easily win the debate about which is better. Okay, I’m showing my prejudice here. So if the truth be known, I started out using cloth diaper service when my oldest child was born. After my mother left, having complained about how difficult using those cloth diapers was (this occurred nearly 40 years ago, when the diapers were flat, had to be folded, pinned, and rinsed in the toilet), I switched to disposable diapers. In those days, there weren’t many choices – a few major disposable diaper companies offering a few sizes of diapers, and one kind of cloth diaper – the flat white cloth diaper that got folded over, and pinned on, then covered with a plastic or rubber panty type diaper cover. That was that – 40 years ago! I used disposable – with no guilt – for the rest of the babies.

Today, however, times have changed. Now there are dozens of choices, both for disposable diapers and for cloth diapers. Now we are even more aware of – and more concerned about — the environmental burden of disposable diapers. Yet today’s parents are busier than ever! According to recent surveys, 80 percent of all mothers of infants are working and regardless, there is so much to do, from responding to hundreds or thousands of emails to bringing snacks for the entire class, taking other children to myriad activities and being busy, busy, busy.

Add cloth diaper service to the debate, and even the option that is growing popularity of diaperless movement, known as EC, for “elimination communication,” and deciding what to use or do is more complicated than ever. If you are one of them, following are some facts and issues to consider when making your own decision about which diapers to use:

Average number of diapers used:
The comparisons are based on the average number of diapers used, which, according to one study comparison, is based on an average of 6,500 diapers changes over a 2-1/2 year period. This is based on 10 to 12 diaper changes a day for newborns and infants and 5 to 6 changes a day for older babies and toddlers.

Cost comparison
If you are buying cloth diapers new, the investment may be considerable, $350 to $500 and for those choosing most expensive diapers or buying extra diapers, the investment can be $800 to $1,000 or more.

But there are ways to bring down that cost:

  • Buy diapers, used or what someone didn’t use and didn’t want, on Craig’s List.
  • Ask for cloth diapers as a shower present or baby present.
  • Ask your family member, neighbor, or friend if they can give or lend you a an supply of cloth diapers that they don’t need anymore. You can even offer to make a swap, such as clothes or items you don’t need any more, babysitting, gardening, or cooking.
  • Sew your own supply of diapers or ask someone you know, perhaps your mother or mother-in-law, to learn how to sew them for you. Joann Fabrics, for example, has an entire section in some of their superstores, with instructions, fabric and even the necessary plastic snaps. There are also websites devoted to sewing diapers, with instructions and supplies.

Keep in mind that if you are having more than one child, and are going to use cloth diapers, you get to amortize that cost, which makes it half or even less of the initial cost.

In contrast to cloth diapers, especially when you consider the 6,500 diaper requirement, disposable diapers cost many times more, even when you get them at a steep discount, and even when you factor in washing the cloth diapers.

The relative cost of disposable diapers, based on an average cost of the child’s lifetime of 20 to 35 cents per diaper (figuring that toddler and overnight diapers cost more than daytime diapers in small sizes) times 6,500 diapers, which equals 1,300 to 2,275 dollars – per child! Have two more children, and you could be spending as much as a nice vacation for the entire family!

As for the time it takes laundering – the average parent launders two to four loads of diapers per week, for an average of 40 hours of time investment over a 2 –1/2 year period. Use diaper service and the cost goes up, almost equal to disposable diapers but the time investment will be is negligible, while the cost to the environment substantially less, as you will read in the next section.

Environmental issues
Here is where the decision becomes quite black and white, and depends very much on how you feel about the future, about the environment, about land fills, and other related issues. While it is not totally clear-cut, since cloth diapers do require laundering and drying them in the dryer rather than on a clothes line (because the dryer sanitizes the diapers betterf), cloth diapers are far and away more environmental. This is true for several reasons. First, cloth diapers don’t tend to get stuck, by the billions, in landfills. Remember that the average child will use over six thousands diapers by the time he or she is only 2-1/2 years old and there are 4 million children born in the U.S. each year, many of whom are using disposable diapers. In contrast, they will only need several dozen cloth diapers, so even if those diapers did end up in a landfill, the difference is quite significant.

Unlike disposables, cloth diapers can be reused. Actually, the more they are washed, then dried in the dyer, the more their absorbency tends to increase. And when they are no longer needed as diapers, they can be used as cleaning rags.

Another important environmental difference is that cloth diaper users tend to remember to put bowel movement waste down into the toilet, which then goes into the sewer, into a water treatment plant, where the water gets cleansed. Disposable diaper users should do the same (put the waste into the toilet), but it is often tempting not to, which means that too much fecal waste, full of germs and bacteria, ends up in landfills, occasionally seeping into the ground and water supply, and polluting both the ground and water supply with nasty germs and disease.

Disposable diapers, as mentioned earlier, add tons and tons of debris and detritus to landfills, then stay in the land – often for centuries! In the U.S. alone, disposable diapers add an estimated 5 million tons of untreated waste, and a total of 2 billion tons of urine, feces, plastic and paper, to landfills – each year!

Still another issue to consider is that it takes around 80,000 pounds of plastic, and over 200,000 trees a year to manufacture enough disposable diapers for U.S. babies – again, each year!

What may be a compromise, but much more environmentally prudent than using only disposable diapers, might be to use cloth diapers at home, and most of the time, saving disposable diapers for vacations, outings, when your infant or child is sick, especially when he or she is suffering from diarrhea, at nighttime, when more absorbency is required, and when you are too sick – or too tired to do the laundry! Another compromise – for the environment – and because laundering your own diapers does use water and energy – is to use a diaper service, which may cost you as much as disposables but cost the environment far less.

Absorbency and softness
Although cloth diapers, especially the more expensive ones, or the ones made out of hemp, or the homemade diapers that use more absorbent fabrics, are more absorbent than cloth diapers of the past. They are also easier to use, with their plastic snaps or Velcro closings in place of the cumbersome, large diaper pins of the past. Still, a cloth diaper is, on the average, less absorbent than a disposable diaper, in part because even though the cloth diapers got more absorbent, companies manufacturing disposable diapers improved their absorbency even more.

Because they are less absorbent, some cloth diapers (but not all) can leak more than a disposable diaper. Most cloth diapers, because of their inferior absorbency, have to be changed more often than a disposable diaper has to be changed. On the other hand, changing diapers more frequently can be good for many babies, especially those whose skin is extra sensitive and who are more prone to diaper rashes.

Cloth diapers are softer than disposable diapers, though not always; it depends on the fabric used and the brand being compared. Also, some babies are actually allergic to some of the newer fabrics used, such as micro-fibers. But since most cloth diapers are softer than most disposable diapers, they are easier on most babies’ skin, which tends to be sensitive to touch.

One last issue for this discussion
Disposable diapers tend to have chemicals, such dyes, sodium polyacrylate (a gel to make the diaper super absorbent), and dioxin, a by-product of bleaching the paper in the diaper. These can, in turn, cause allergic responses in some infants. In the past, sodium polyacrylate was linked to toxic shock syndrome, and is harmful and potentially lethal to pets. Furthermore, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, some of the dyes, as well as the dioxin used to manufacture some of the disposable diapers, is known to cause damage to the central nervous system, the kidneys and the liver. And fragrances added to some of the disposables can cause headaches, dizziness and rashes. While it happens rarely, a baby or toddler who pulls a disposable apart and puts pieces of plastic into his or her nose and mouth can choke. Even the plastic tabs on the disposables can tear a baby’s skin when improperly put on.

But, lest you think that disposables are villains, consider that cloth diapers can also cause rashes when they aren’t changed enough or properly laundered.

In conclusion
Friends, family members and environmentalists you meet or know may try to persuade you, with rather convincing arguments and evidence, to use cloth diapers. Advertisers hired by the diaper companies and other well-meaning souls may try to convince you that using disposable diapers makes sense, especially if you are working and have other children to care for. If you are working and placing your child in daycare, you may have little choice about the matter, except perhaps to choose a daycare that uses one or the other. However, there may be stronger factors in making the decision that the type of diapers used.

It is also easy to rationalize – filling up landfill with diapers versus all the environmental damage done by fracking, nuclear power plant accidents and other dramatic events, to choose to use disposables when you are thinking that the choice doesn’t feel environmental enough otherwise.

What is most important is to weigh the issues, look at your baby, your family life, your situation, your economics, and your time. Clearly, cloth is more environmental and in the long run, less costly. But there are other factors to consider, and consider them you must. Make a smart decision, and hopefully, a wise, unselfish, and carefully-considered decision. Whether you choose cloth or disposable, or a combination of the two, remember that diaper time can be a fun time, a time to talk to your baby, sing to your baby and just smile, love and enjoy your baby, regardless of the composition or cost of the diapers.