Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cloth vs Disposables vs None?

This post is part of the Real Diaper Facts carnival hosted by Real Diaper Events, the official blog of the Real Diaper Association. Participants were asked to write about diaper lies and real diaper facts. See the link at the bottom of this post to read the rest of the carnival entries.

Brief background: My daughter is currently 16 months old. We used disposable diapers for the first year and have recently switched to cloth, with some disposables as needed. We also have been practicing Elimination Communication and taking our daughter to use the toilet since she was 5 days old. Because we've tried disposable diapers, cloth diapers and no diapers at all, we have a unique perspective on diapering and a respect for all options. Here are some of my opinions on the cloth vs disposable diaper debate.

Cloth diapers are cheaper.
Generally, yes. Assuming an initial cost of $500 for diapers, adding the cost of detergent, water, energy, wear and tear on the washing machine, then subtracting a small resale value at the end, and assuming that cloth diapered babies (on average) potty train 6 months earlier, then cloth is cheaper. Even if you include the cost of my time that it takes to wash at minimum wage (15-20 minutes to deal with the laundry 3-4 times per week at $8/hour), then cloth costs the same as disposables if only used on one child. Since the initial cost is already covered, it's cheaper if the diapers are reused for a 2nd/3rd/4th kid. Of course, it's easy to get carried away and buy more styles, brands or colors, but those aren't necessary. If you were using disposable diapers, continuing to buy would be necessary. Around $40/mo on disposables adds up quickly!

Cloth diapers are just as easy as disposables.
They aren't too hard, but they are not just as easy. That doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile-- for cost, health, environment, etc-- but they are not as easy. It takes more time to put in a load of laundry than it takes to click "buy" on the internet and have my diapers delivered to the door. (Or I could just set up auto delivery and have them pop up like magic.) It takes more time to troubleshoot problems in cloth (stink, developing water resistance, rash, etc) than it would be to just choose a different variety of disposable. It might be fun for people to experiment to figure out what works for them, but it does take a little bit more effort. This is just the nature of something that is reusable. For people who encounter some problem with disposable paper diapers (ie poor fit that leads to leaking), they just don't buy that kind again.

Therefore, I don't believe cloth is just as easy. That doesn't mean that they're too hard though. For anyone who feels that cloth diapering is a good idea, I think it's reasonable to do.

Better for the environment.
In most cases, cloth is probably better, but we're comparing apples to oranges. Disposal in landfills vs repeated energy/water use.

Disposables are straightforward. They are created. They are used once. They are thrown into landfills where they basically stay forever. I doubt anyone thinks that filling landfills with diapers is good, but disposable users might still find it's the best option for their circumstances. (Someone living in the middle of the desert with minimal water but tons of land might be better off using disposables.)

Cloth is not as straight forward. There are different varieties requiring different kinds of care. Some cloth users have flats or prefolds used with covers. The diapers are washed 2x/week by soaking in cold water, then washing in hot with an environmentally friendly detergent, and then line dried. Then these items are reused for additional children. These are almost certainly better than disposables.

However, other cloth users (myself included) are using more complex diapers and using additional washes and dries. Until recently, I was doing a cold rinse, hot wash with detergent, rinse with vinegar, additional rinse, then putting my diapers in the dryer for 2 cycles. This is roughly equivalent to 2 loads of laundry each time I wash diapers which is every 2 days. That means I was set up to do an additional 300+ loads of laundry per year. (I've now changed to a cleaner rinsing detergent so I can skip extra rinses.) Is that worse than disposables? Depends on whether water use is worse than space use.

I live in a city where I know my disposable diapers are going to a landfill that is nearly full and we aren't currently undergoing water rationing so I think the land use is harder on the environment here than water use. However, I can't feel comfortable claiming that I use cloth because it's good for the environment when my cleaning habits are on the high-end of environmental impact.

All diapers cost money and affect the environment. I think the best option is to use diapers as little as reasonably possible. Caregivers can learn a newborn's signals for needing to eliminate and can respond by taking him or her to the toilet. As children get older, they can tell a parent when they need to go and eventually take care of their own elimination needs independently. Toilet use also impacts the environment, but I believe it is minimal compared to the affects of diaper use. Of course, it's not realistic to think we'll have a bunch of naked babies running around, but maybe we could all reduce our diaper dependence. It's very inexpensive, healthier for babies to get more "air time," and better for the environment. It takes a little bit more effort to learn an infant's cues and drop everything to take him or her to the bathroom, but it's definitely worth the effort. Try it out! :)

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