Diaper Changes You Can Believe In

A few years back my wife and I severely wrestled with the issue of whether to go with cloth or disposable diapers for our then newborn child. The issue was complicated, and rife with conflicting data and skewed statistics about energy usage and renewable resources. Ultimately, we went with cloth diapers, not out of any steadfast conviction, but it seemed to me (and my wife) that when choosing between a veritable mountain of dirty cloth diapers that were washable and a mountain of dirty disposable diapers that would remain virtually unchanged on this planet for decades to come, that disposable diapers were a clear and visible loser in this debate.

Now we are 2-plus years into our cloth diaper regimen, and instead of feeling like the self-satisfied, eco-parent that I am, I am residing on a mountain of doubt after reading yet another study that further muddles the cloth vs. disposable debate. From an excellent piece by Brendan I Koerner, written for Slate.com, Koerner sites a comprehensive 2005 study by Britain’s Environmental Agency that concludes that there is no significant difference between the environmental impact of cloth and disposable diapers. Keeping a child clad in home-laundered cloth diapers for 2.5 years emitted 1,232 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, vs. 1,380 pounds for disposable diapers.

However, critics of the British study site that the use of older washing machines (1997) to launder the cloth diapers unfairly skewed the results in the favor of disposables, and did not take into account the advances in washing machine technology and efficiency. In addition, critics also contended that the study underestimated the resilience of cloth diapers and didn’t properly stress the waste-management consequences of disposables. Nor does this study take into account the myriad of health issues and chemical residues attributed to the use of disposable diapers.

Still, if you are to crunch the numbers, the race between cloth and disposable is a photo finish, with cloth being the winner by a nose. As Koerner concludes himself:”The bottom line is that cloth diapers are greener than run-of-the-mill Pampers and Huggies, as long as you’re committed to an energy-efficient laundry regimen. But that commitment takes more than just an EnergyStar washing machine and a clothing line for air drying. It also takes time, a commodity which will be in startlingly short supply once your offspring drops. And thus we must delve into the ceaseless conflict between idealism and reality.”

So, what to do? As a parent that has personally changed at least 4,000 cloth diapers (and counting), I will tell you it is incrementally more labor intensive than changing a disposable diaper (don’t get me started on the fecal train wreck that are G Diapers). However, it all boils down to what you can live with and whether or not the image of a mountain of disposable diapers that will live on into perpetuity will cause you to lose sleep at night. At this point, I refuse to take the moral high ground and make anyone feel bad about any informed decision they make on this subject. In actuality, we (and our children) might be better off if we train our attention elsewhere and instead, curb some of our consumptive habits involving shopping, shipping, and throwing away.

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appťtit among other publications.


Lisa R.
Lisa R.8 years ago

Does anyone know of a cloth diaper cleaning service around the hudson valley?? I can't find anything!! and I'm so very frustrated. My husband and I definately want to cloth diaper our first but don't really have the facilities to wash the diapers, cloth is just so much better all the way around. I was going to try healthy diapers but they have recently gone out of business. If anyone can help please please email me at lisaandrews22@hotmail.com thanks so much!!

Mary Golde
jenn murphy8 years ago

cloth diapering is easier then most think.. If I could do it as a teen mom, struggling on welfare, anyone can do it.. And now with my second it's easier then ever.. At least this time i didn't have to make all the diapers by hand... Better then chemicals invented by NASA on my baby's skin..

Steven H.
Steven H.8 years ago

31 years ago they made diaper liners. The were great for those messy doodie diapers! (very similar to handi-wipes).

Linda Testerman
Linda Testerman8 years ago

I used cloth 33 years ago and never thought twice about the trouble. Of course I had my own washing machine and an outside clothes line to air dry my diapers. It was great. I thoughly recommend cloth diapers.

Skye Hughes
Skye H8 years ago

Well, just to add a different perspective here, I have triplets. I researched what I could on cloth and it was just too expensive. Cloth makes a great deal of sense if you have one baby at a time (and can reuse the cloth next time), but with three simultaneously, it was just too much money. And if you go for those really cool cloth diapers that you need to purchase different sizes for-you can just forget it! Although it may not be that much more work with one baby (if you own your own washing machine), even a few more minutes of work multiplies with multiples. So, as unhappy as I am about it, disposables live at my house. I just try and make up for it in other areas of our life (non-toxic cleaning, cloth napkins and towels, etc.). We all do what we can to make our planet a bit better, even if it isn't what someone else would/could do.

Renee m.
Renee Robichaud8 years ago

There is always the diaper free method. No worries about any environmental or financial concerns....

Cathy T.
Cathy T8 years ago

I used both cloth and disposable for my son. I used cloth the majority of the time, when I knew we'd be at home for changes, and disposable when we were on the road, for convenience. Who wants to haul around a bag of messy diapers? One big motivation for us was cloth diapers saved us a ton of money, and the aggravation of tracking down the best deals on disposables, finding a place to store them, and keeping track when we needed to run out and buy more. My son is 18 now. We still have his cloth diapers and literally have been using them ever since he stopped using them. They make terrific rags for a myriad of cleaning jobs, and are great for sopping up spills of all sorts. Anybody ever factor in the true life of a cloth diaper for those of us determined to use every item until it literally disintegrates? Disposables get used once and into the trash they go, but there are times when that's well worth the price.

Tracy T.
Tracy T8 years ago

I've used both cloth and disposables on my three children. I thought we were done after two so I sold all my cloth dipes and am not researching the different options now available to me.

For me, the safety of the contents of disposable diapers is the tipping point on cloth vs. disposables. The bleached paper. The awful fragrance that makes my baby smell like a Glade Plug-In. And what is with those horrible gel balls that won't come off my baby's bottom?!? Those things scare me. Yeah, 7th Generation is more "green" than Pampers or Huggies, but they feel like burlap and don't hold in a blowout for anything.

I'm waiting for my tax return and I'm going back to cloth 100% of the time.

Eric Rardin
Eric R8 years ago

I agree with the comment that judging cloth vs. disposable can't just look at CO2. You have to look at the waste as well. I think cloth wins if you an do it, we in all honesty were just too lazy. We also tried g-diapers and they actually worked really well for us, but at the end of the day it turns out we're pampers parents. I hope my other conservation efforts will off-set this transgression.

Faith L.
Faith L8 years ago

yah, i would rather use cloth but with living situation & no laundry machine of my own (there is one machine in this apartment duplex) which is expensive too.. but i just dump any poo-poo into the tolite before i throw out the disposables. I also use homemade cloth diapers sometimes just to give a break to the non-stop trash & waste of the disposables...so i sort of mix it up when i can..but now my son wont need them much longer anyways. I HOPE TO USE ONLY CLOTH if ever sum day i have 1 more baby ^_^