Sunday, June 5, 2011

Why Cloth Diaper?

When I tell my friends and family that we are planning to cloth diaper when our baby arrives in September, they generally react with one of two responses: “Why in the world would you do that?” or “Wow, good luck with THAT!”

Our decision to go the cloth diaper route was multi-faceted. Many people assume that we chose cloth diapers because they are supposed to be more environmentally friendly. Yes, cloth diapers are better for the environment, at least from a landfill perspective. Some quick facts:

  • The average baby uses somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000 disposable diapers between birth and potty training ( estimates 9,000 based on 12 diapers a day for the first 3 months and then 8 diapers a day until the age of 3; I’ve also seen estimates of 8,000 on other websites).

  • No one knows how long it takes for disposable diapers to decompose. A quick internet search will show you that the most common answer given is that it takes 500 years for one diaper to break down completely. But, since diapers haven’t been around for 500 years (nor have landfills), we obviously can’t know this – it is a projection based on the rate of plastic decomposition under ideal conditions (that is, with adequate ultraviolet exposure from the sun – which pretty much never happens in today’s landfills). (see or for more information)

  • Technically, it is against the “rules” (set forth by the World Health Organization) to dispose of human waste in a landfill – yes that includes disposable diapers (filled with pee and poo)! Though I didn’t see it on the pack of Newborn Huggies I have stashed away under the bed, I keep reading that disposable diapers packages contain requests that users “rinse away” human feces before disposing of the diapers (whether this is on your diaper package may depend on the specific laws in your state) – to prevent human waste from getting into our landfills and potentially seeping into the groundwater (that is, if the plastic bags surrounding the diapers ever decompose enough to allow it). Does any disposable diapering parent actually do this?? Doubtful. But, I actually wish people did. It’s bad enough thinking about all of the chemicals in disposables leeching out into the ground and water supply without adding poop on top of it! (see for more references on this topic)

On the other hand, some people will argue (rather convincingly) that the increased cost of laundering those cloth diapers on a regular basis (water and electricity) cancels out the other environmental benefits. A study funded by Proctor and Gamble (major diaper manufacturing company) comparing the effects of both cloth and disposable diapers on the environment came back inconclusive – that there were no apparent benefits of one over the other from an environmental standpoint (when you factor in increased energy expenditure of cloth diaper maintenance). That finding is a bit surprising. I wish I could find more information on the original study – to find out exactly how it was funded and completed. I wonder if the third party company that carried out the comparison might have felt pressure to find “no fault” with the disposables, given that a major disposable diaper manufacturer was signing their paycheck?

Honestly, I have no idea if cloth diapers are less wasteful than disposables in their production and maintenance. Even though they are “cleaner” (in that there is no chance of poo and chemicals leeching into the water supply), the environmental factor  wasn’t one that we really considered in our decision to cloth diaper. It’s my gut feeling that there is a definite benefit to using cloth. I just can’t imagine that doing a couple of hot water washes a week is all that detrimental to environment (especially since all of our other laundry is washed in cold water) – but what do I know?

In many ways, our decision to cloth diaper was made from a financial perspective. My husband and I are both still in graduate school, living on teaching stipends and financial aid. We manage to pay our bills and we feel confident that we can provide for a little one, but it is definitely not a life of luxury. (Trust me, we will both breathe easier once Jason graduates and finds a “real job.”)

Drop by your local diaper retailer (Sams, Costco, Wal-mart, Target) and check out prices on diapers and wipes…and some quick math will send your head to spinning. For illustration purposes, I’ll just use some numbers that I got from (

  • The average baby uses 9,000 diapers between birth and potty training. Consumer reports estimates that the average cost of a disposable diaper is 26.5 cents. $0.265 x 9000 = $2385. If you add in the cost of disposable wipes (1 wipe per diaper at 3 cents per wipe), that’s an additional $226.80 – for a total cost of $2611.80 (not including diaper genie refills if you go that route).
  • Cloth diapers, on the other hand, are likely to cost you somewhere between $372 and $931 (depending on the options you choose) over the same time. Add in accessories (diaper pail liners, wet bags, diaper sprayer, cloth wipes, etc.), and estimates you’ll spend another $154. Plus the cost of laundering the diapers (approximately 50 cents per load, plus 8 cents for laundry soap, washing every 1.5 days for 3 years) at approximately $423 and you get a total cloth diapering cost (birth to potty training) of somewhere between $949 and $1508. 
  • That’s an estimated savings of at least $ that we could use to buy other things we need! (Not to mention that the savings increase if you use the diapers for multiple babies!) So really, we looked at the decreased waste in landfills as sort of an “added bonus.

Of course, these numbers are just estimates from a website…the actual costs (or savings, depending on whether you are a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person) depend on a wide variety of factors, including the style of cloth diaper you choose and how many you buy (which, also affects how often you have to do laundry).

“But…it’s so much work…”

Yes, it’s true that cloth diapering takes more effort. You have to wash and dry the diapers on a regular basis (usually every day or every other day, depending on how many you have). But, you know what? You have to wash your baby’s laundry relatively often as well. Apparently they poop, and pee, and spit up all over their clothes…a lot…and if you don’t wash often, stains set in and (even worse) your laundry starts to STINK. In my mind, if you’re already doing laundry every other day…what is the difference between one load and two? Really?

One Last Selling Point… 

A final benefit that cloth diapers have over disposables is the CUTENESS FACTOR. 

There are tons of adorable prints and bright colors out there! It wasn’t an original selling point for us, but I’m finding that as we build our stash of cloth diapers, I am getting more and more excited about the colors and patterns that are available. I’ll admit that my stash is mostly solid colored (though there are some gorgeous reds and blues in there), but I do have a cute little cow print (“moo-licious”) and some adorable pink giraffes from Best Bottoms and a glow-in-the-dark skull print from Happy Heiny’s – and more prints on the way! (Seriously, when it comes to prints, it seems like the options are limitless!)

Best Bottoms Pink Giraffe Print Shell

So much cuter than disposables, right??

Huggies Little Snugglers Disposable


  1. Yay cloth! I'm so sad I started late with mine, I can't wait to get a tiny squisy in cloth one of these days! The target brand disposables I have DO say to dipose of the poo before tossing the diaper, I will take a pic later when I'm less lazy, lol. Another benefit is less chemicals on your precious babys toothy! And less poo blowouts! (really cloth keeps in exclusively breastfeed poo better!). Also I lot of the "which is better for the environment" websites don't talk about the manufacturing of disposables. I don't have facts bc I can't remember where I read it (will look later) but there is something Iike almost a cup of oil that goes into making each disposable diaper! your going to love it! Oh and you HAVE to get a dipe with ruffles!!

  2. I think I read something similar to that as well - about all the oil and energy that goes into manufacturing the diapers- but I couldn't remember where (so I didn't want to post it). I would love to see you pic of the Target diapers though...if I think about it next time I'm there, I'm going to check their packaging for sure (hopefully I remember, lol)!!

    And I absolutely would love a diaper with I'll have to be on the look out for one!! :-)