For many families, the biggest expense in having a baby is diapers and since eco-chic is the latest trend used to guilt mothers, the inevitable question for new moms is all about diaper choice: disposables or cloth? At first glance, cloth diapers may seem like the most environmentally friendly choice, but the benefit to going cloth depends greatly on the needs of the individual family.
Slate reported in 2008 that laundering cloth diapers for 2.5 years emitted 1,232 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, versus 1,380 pounds for disposable diapers. Britain’s Environment Agency said that there was “no significant difference” in environmental footprint between disposable or cloth.
While some mothers are willing to slave over laundering cloth diapers for said 2.5 years, or have a service do it for them, a lot understandably find the idea too daunting when preparing for a new life.
“While I do feel slightly bad every time I take a bag full of dirty diapers out to the trash, I do appreciate the convenience of disposables,” a mother of a one-year-old told me. “With cloth you have to organize the pick up service and I just don’t want to add another thing to my to-do list!”
“I looked into using cloth diapers when my child was a baby, because of how bad pampers are for the environment… unfortunately the cost and time commitment and inconvenience seemed too much to deal with while preparing for a newborn,” echoed another.
Disposable diapers were invented in 1935, but didn’t go big until Pampers tapped the post-war suburban housewife. A large part of Pampers’ marketing tactic was positioning disposable diapers as time savers and as a way to give women more freedom.
“Empowerment of women was a big piece of what was behind that,” Jodi Allen, general manager for Pampers, told The Seattle Times. “Offering conveniences, offering more options, was clearly part of the culture at that time.”
But comfort for baby is a space where many mothers divide, as although some children seem to fare well in cloth, others get considerable diaper rash. A baby’s s weight, body type, and growth can be the determining factor in deciding whether cloth diapers are in fact for your child.
One mother I spoke to described herself as “yay on cloth diapers” having had a very positive experience with the service Diaperkind.com. When considering how many diapers she and her husband were changing during the first months of her son’s life, she says she couldn’t imagine using disposables.
“The company sold a receptacle with a tight-lidded garbage can inside which you’d put the bags in, provided by them, of dirties; no smells lingered at all, which was great. And once a week we’d leave our bag of dirties outside our front door. We only needed to give a key to our outside gate and in the morning we’d have a bag of, like 80 fresh, new diapers,” describes a mother of one. “It was like Santa had come.”
Her son eventually outgrew his diaper covers at six months though, and the family would have to invest another 75 dollars in a new set. He also started consuming solid foods on a regular basis, making for a different diaper changing experience, and the family began traveling a lot that summer. Carrying around cloth diapers or contending with turning off their service sporadically for trips just didn’t seem practical.
Lanette, a cloth diaper enthusiast for her five month old son, wrote on allaboutclothdiapers.com that cloth wasn’t really suitable for her child anymore given his size and as well as some problems with diaper rash:
He gets [diaper rash] EVERYWHERE, but it’s really bad on the area where the diaper meets his thighs. When we put him in disposables for a week, the diaper rash goes away completely. Our doctor said it’s most likely caused by too much moisture sitting there for too long , but I change his diaper every few hours! He’s also a heavier baby (already weighing in at 20 pounds), and has a fairly thick tummy. I’ve noticed that he’s a lot more fussy when he’s in cloth and I’m wondering if it’s because the diapers are pinching at his tummy when he tries to roll and sit up…
The debate on cloth vs. disposible diapers seems to be best suited to individual families given the negligible impact on the environment. Considering so many unique variables and familial circumstances can determine whether to go cloth, and if so for how long, this discussion is one that belongs between partners after a lengthy look at expenses, time investment, and your kid’s diaper rash.