This conversation repeats itself on a regular basis. Some parent sees my toddler wearing a bulky cloth diaper and asks in surprise, “You use cloth diapers?”
“Oh, wow. How do you find that?”
“Great! I love it.”
“Isn’t it way more work?”
“Not really – just an extra load of laundry every four days or so.”
“I really wanted to do cloth, but….”
Then the justifications begin. “Too much work” is the most popular excuse, but I also hear “I hate doing laundry,” “I just never got around to switching,” “My daycare provider won’t do cloth,” and “If I only had one kid, I’d do it.”
I nod and smile, but my brain is glazing over at that point. I am rather tired of hearing parents go on about why cloth diapers don’t work for them. Yes, disposables are wonderfully convenient under certain circumstances, such as overseas travel, but I think that disposables are unjustifiable for day-to-day use at home. The real problem is not cloth diapers’ alleged inconvenience, but that many parents don't seem care enough about minimizing their child's environmental impact.
The average baby goes through 5,000-8,000 diapers until being toilet-trained. The United States alone produces 18 billion dirty diapers annually, thanks to the eighty percent of parents who use disposables. These 18 billion diapers add up to 82,000 tons of plastic and 1.3 million tons of wood pulp (250,000 trees). After a few hours’ use, they’re tossed into a landfill and left to sit for 200-500 years until they decompose. Actually, no one knows because none have been around long enough, but if they really do take 500 years, then the first disposables created 40 years ago will likely still be around until your great great great great great great great great great great great great grandchildren are born. (See this report for more dirty diaper stats.)
What I think a lot of new parents don’t realize is that cloth diaper technology has evolved by leaps and bounds in recent years. Gone are the archaic practices of boiling diapers to sterilize them, folding squares in complicated shapes, and using big, scary pins to attach them to a squalling newborn. Modern cloth diapers are surprisingly easy to use, almost no more work than putting on a disposable. As for changing, there are just a couple of extra steps required to flush waste and toss the diaper in a pail. The result is a zero-waste diaper change, free from the environmental disaster that disposables, Diaper Genies, and chemical-soaked wipes are.
If parents truly have a moral obligation to raise children who are environmentally conscientious and have the smallest possible footprint on this earth, then a ban on disposable diapers would be an ideal place to start. Since that’s unlikely, more emphasis should be placed on the many additional benefits of cloth:
- Cloth diapers are trendy and attractive.
- They reduce allergic skin reactions to the many chemicals in disposables.
- They prevent boys’ testicles from overheating, which happens with prolonged use of disposables and may even be linked to low sperm count later in life.
- They don’t smell because you don’t have stinky diapers hanging around.
- They’re far cheaper, with an upfront cost of $300-400 instead of approx. $7500 for disposables. You pay for hot water to wash them, but hanging to dry in the sun bleaches them after each use.
- They aid potty training because a child is more aware of what’s in his or her pants.
- Kids can’t take them off as easily as disposables.
Environmental education starts from day one -- and that means diapers. I urge parents to give cloth a chance before jumping to conclusions. Most would be pleasantly surprised at how easy it really is.