Since I often write about reducing waste and general homemaking, it might be strange that I haven’t yet written about cloth diapers. The main reason why, however, was that this subject can veer in all kinds of bad directions. For example: boring and tedious, holier-than-thou, overwhelming, judgmental, guilt-inducing. Not only that, but despite being very determined to use cloth diapers on our daughter, I actually had a hard time getting used to it once the baby herself arrived, so I don’t feel particularly inclined to say 1) ‘This is so easy, you should do it too’, nor 2) ‘I am awesome, look at me’. Because if you had looked at me at various points, you’d have seen a lot of disposable diapers in my trash.
But recently, since I’ve been in a good groove with cloth diapers for a while, I decided to do some research on whether they were actually worth it. I wanted to know, first, was this actually saving us any money? Because some calculations I’ve seen show only a marginal savings over disposable diapers. And, second, I wanted to investigate whether cloth diapers really are a more environmentally friendly option, because I’ve found a few sources that suggest there’s no difference between cloth and disposable.
First of all, here’s what we use.
- A set of prefold-style diapers bought secondhand (rectangular cotton inserts with waterproof covers)
- A set of cloth wipes (came with the diapers)
- A few all-in-one style diapers for lazy times, or the nursery workers at church
- A few wet bags for the diaper pail and one for when we are out
- A pedal trash can to store dirty diapers
- A spray of water and castile soap to moisten the wipes
I wash diapers three times a week, and line dry them on our apartment balcony.
Do I like using cloth diapers? Yes I do, now. It took a while to find my groove, for it to become easy to put them on and achievable to get them washed. However, once I found a workable rhythm, I really like using cloth. I enjoy not having to buy diapers often (except for once every 2-3 months for the ones we use at night), or feel guilty for not clipping coupons for them, or having to trek to the store at 9pm because we ran out. There is a feeling of great satisfaction, for me, to know that we already have all we need at home.
But the first of my questions is: have they saved us money? I finally made a spreadsheet to calculate our cloth diaper costs versus using disposables, and my findings suggest that in the course of one hypothetical year, we saved about $300, or $25 a month. This included the initial outlay for buying the diapers and equipment, the cost of water, electricity and detergent to launder them, as well as the additional cost of the disposables we continued to use alongside the cloth. Of course, since the up-front cost of the diapers and equipment was a one-time expense, subsequent years of use will represent more savings.
Since I got my diapers secondhand, and also bought the cheapest style, this went a long way towards keeping our costs down. I reckon that if you started out with brand-new, all-in-one style diapers, you would have eaten through much of that $300 that we saved in the first year, probably breaking even in that year, though still saving money going forward. That’s probably why some of the calculations I’ve seen show less savings than I calculated.
So on to the heated question, after all this: are cloth diapers actually better for the environment?
I read a study published in the UK in 2005 which ended by saying that it was basically a toss-up, between the types of diapers they studied, as to which was better or worse environmentally: disposables and cloth diapers all came out about the same. The main reason for this, so they said, was the impact of laundering cloth diapers, which apparently put them on par overall with disposables.
But I have since read at least one criticism of this study in the Guardian. And myself, I question some of the study’s assumptions: the assumption about tumble-drying, the number of diapers changed per day, and even the percentage which are assumed to be ironed! As well as their assumptions about the age of the washing machine (ca. 1997), the use of flushable liners, the sanitising chemicals used for soaking, and that waterproof covers have a lifespan of only 15 months. All of these assumptions weight the study against cloth diapers, and certainly do not reflect our method or equipment.
Another disappointing study – or so I thought, initially – was the chapter devoted to cloth diapers in a book I read recently, called Rubbish! (by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy). It’s about the archaeological study of landfills, and fascinating. But the authors also remark on how some of the most visible symbols of waste, e.g. the disposable diaper, skew our perceptions of the biggest sources of waste. Diapers make up less than 2% of landfill volume in America. There are much bigger overall contributors to landfill waste: packaging and construction debris are two examples. From a societal standpoint, the authors suggest, disposable diapers have received more waste-reduction hype than they really deserve.
What is my own conclusion about whether cloth diapers are environmentally better?
Well, first of all, I actually take heart that it’s probably not worth feeling that bad about disposable diapers in the grand scheme. I’m calling this an evidence-based sense of proportion. I’ve decided not to sweat over the disposable ones we use overnight, even though they represent the biggest single category of our household trash, because one diaper a day is not the world’s biggest problem. Nor are multiple diapers a day, even.
Second of all, as I said, I question the main study from 2005 that shows the rough equivalency of cloth and disposable diapers. I think that study adds in a lot of energy usage (ironing and tumble-drying) that is not necessary; it presumes a shorter lifespan of the diapers than mine (and probably most) actually have; and it presumes the use of things like flushable liners and sanitising chemicals that I don’t use. It also presumes just over 4 diaper changes per day on average, which I think is too low, and weights the study in favour of disposables.
So from my own evaluation of the evidence available, I still think cloth diapers are still a greener choice overall.
The general point that I do take from all the studies I’ve read is that the main environmental footprint of cloth diapers comes from their laundering. The good thing is that I have some control over this. We have a front-loading washing machine, which uses about half the water of a top-loader. But in fact, about 75% of the carbon footprint of laundering comes from tumble-drying, so line-drying is probably the single best way to reduce laundry’s impact, as well as well as to save money. I did that calculation too – I think we save about $90 a year by line drying most of our laundry, not to mention saving the up-front cost of a tumble dryer. This approach is very counter-cultural in Texas, I’m not even sure why, given that we have dry, sunny, windy weather year-round.