Friday, March 6, 2009

To cloth or not to cloth: defending cloth diapers in a plastic age

I feel like just about every friend of our family is either trying to have a baby, expecting a baby, or already has a baby. I figure in just our close circle of friends alone we know about 21 babies currently in diapers. Taking an average from newborns to three-year-old these babies collectively go through about 160 diapers a day. And that's just the babies we know!!

Now, only a mere SIX of these babies (including ours) are in cloth diapers. I don't want people to think I'm being preachy and righteous (because I'm not, I swear), mothers and fathers are free to choose whatever diaper works best for their family. In our case we chose cloth for a few reasons: it's cheaper, we don't live in an area of restricted water use, we felt bad making more trash.

I'm blogging about this issue because I'm sick of people taking bets on how long we'll last with our daughter in cloth. It's like the world would end if they had to put their kid in cloth. News flash: for the past thousands of years babies have crawled around in cloth diapers! Five months and counting and I've been happy with every minute. And I'm even more sick of people (who thankfully are not in our inner circle of friends) who criticize us for using cloth saying that they read somewhere that it's more polluting than disposables. I would like a chance to dispel this myth.

YES: cloth diapers can use a lot of water in the washing process. You have to wash them once in cold then once in hot to get them clean. And I wash them about every five days. Like I said, we don't live in an area of water use issues. Coastal New England generally makes it through the summer just fine. Plus our family uses very little water in other areas of our life.
-We don't water our lawn (we have 0.06 acres most of it taken up by our house) and I have two 100 gallon rain barrels that I use to water my vegetable garden.
-In the summer my husband rarely takes more than two or three showers a week. He claims if he went surfing then he showered. Fine with me. Salt water has cleansing properties.
-I don't think we've washed either of our cars more than three times in their collective 15 years of existence.
-We have a low-flow toilet as well as dishwasher.

YES: there are detergents used in the washing process. But, cloth diapers can't be washed in just any old detergent. It screws up their absorbency. Most diaper-friendly detergents are better for the environment, phosphate-free and work better with the rest of your laundry than regular detergents. Even when my kid is out of diapers I'll still use the detergent I've switched to.

YES: you have to dry them which uses electricity. But I line dry mine and only fluff them for 20 minutes in the dryer to make them soft. And you don't have to do that step.

YES: they are manufactured and shipped via truck to my front door (since I mail ordered them). But they are shipped ONCE. I don't have to drive to the store every week and stock up on plastic diapers wrapped in more plastic (which are also manufactured and shipped). And the ones Lizzie wore when she was a newborn are organic cotton made in Pakistan. Which I know is very far away (i.e. lots of fossil fuels to get them here) but I'd like to think I did a minor part in helping a Pakistani family stay chemical free. Plus I bet most disposables are made in China anyway.

YES: the diapers themselves are expensive. The ones I chose are $12 each and I have 30. That's $360 that luckily friends and family shelled out for them and gave to us as gifts. But it sure beats the $500-$700 a year if I was using disposables!

What I'm NOT getting with my cloth diapers are the nasty chemicals that plastic disposables have in them. The polluting bleach that factories use to bleach the disposables. The landfill space. The gas used to truck all those boxes to the store. The gas I use to go get them from the store. The billions of gallons of water used in the manufacturing process to make the disposables. The ridiculous chunk of my budget that would have to go to buying disposables (I read once that cloth can save about $1000 per kid!) And best of all: the diaper rash. As long as Lizzie is in cloth her butt is happy :)

OK. So after that rant I have to admit here that I do use disposables at night. I like my sleep. Cloth just doesn't keep sensitive baby butts as dry. But I use a chlorine-free diaper that has, from what I can tell, no plastic. And they're made in Vermont so they don't go very far to get to my local organic food store. And I mean local. I can walk there to buy them. Which I do about once a month. So I might use 30-40 diapers a month. Line me up and execute me, I'm just not THAT obsessed with cloth. But I figure I'm doing my best.

So hopefully that is a good rebuttal to all my acquaintances who claim cloth is worse for the environment. You're not making me switch. And I'm not asking you to switch either. Cloth works for us. And we love it.


  1. I'm forwarding this to my sister--about to have her first baby and leaning towards cloth diapers. Thanks for the info.

  2. This is great to read - I've been on the hunt for cloth diapers and there is so much to learn! Thanks for the all the great points.

  3. Feel free to contact me directly about any cloth related questions! I love the diapers we chose, there are so many products and it is VERY overwhelming! A coworker who does cloth brought in everything she uses and I went with her plan and it's great! -Kate

  4. When I worked in the Marshall Islands, disposable diapers were the most common piece of garbage littering the shoreline. There were so many in one area that it earned the nickname "poop beach".

    Disposable diapers are a direct result of our growing fecalphobia. I'm so excited that you are using cloth diapers. Those who tell you that cloth is worse for the environment are just going through their own doubts and justifications for plastic use. Plastic is a drug like no other and we will tell ourselves anything to make it OK to keep using it (and more of it).


  5. "fecalphobia" I LOVE that word! Thanks for putting that in my lexicon!

  6. Great post! And your reasons for using cloth seem valid to me ... and earth friendly. In my opinion, disposable is never an earth friendly option. Something that ends up in a landfill is not good for the environment. So unless they can show me that disposable diapers can be recycled ... I think cloth is the more Eco-friendly option. Thanks for sharing this!

    BTW ... I hope you'll be celebrating Earth Hour 2009. :)

    Small Footprints

  7. Earth Hour is on my calendar!!

    There are diapers called G diapers that are flushable and compostable, but they still have to be manufactured out of paper, and that process I'm sure uses a lot of bleach and water not to mention the cutting down of trees. According to the book Raising your Baby Green the G diapers are the most environmental option, but I'm not too sure.


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