The myths and realities behind cloth diapers

Cloth diapers are undeniably cuter.
Cloth diapers are undeniably cuter.
Image: AP Photo/Nati Harnik
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In February, the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu announced that it planned to ban disposable diapers, plastic cutlery, and some food packaging in a bid to reduce plastic waste. Ralph Regenvanu, Vanuatu’s foreign minister, singled out diapers as one of the biggest contributors to household trash in Port Vila, the nation’s capital.

It’s not alone—the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 4.3 million tons of diapers ended up in landfills in 2015. But even the suggestion of such a ban raised eyebrows with some, given that women would be more likely to take on the burden of cleaning reusable diapers.

There’s no doubt that cloth diapers aren’t for everyone. But some environmentally-minded parents may nonetheless be interested in considering the switch. If you’re weighing the pros and cons of the cloth-diaper life, here’s what you need to know.

Myth: Cloth diapers are for everyone.  

Reality: Cloth diapers are likely not for you if:

  • you don’t have a washing machine,
  • the upfront cost is overwhelming,
  • your child-care provider does not allow them,
  • your partner isn’t willing to deal with them.

The need for access to a washer and dryer is probably the biggest barrier to cloth diaper use. Even if the apartment complex you live in has a laundry room, it’s easy to imagine other tenants objecting to sharing the machines with diapers. Services which pick up dirty diapers and bring you a stack of clean ones are expensive and a hassle to schedule.

The upfront cost is also a hurdle for some, although over time, cloth diapers are cheaper, especially if you buy them used. The cheapest pocket diapers—my first choice for modern cloth diapering—run about $5-6 a diaper, and you probably need 20 to get started. In my household, they’re a clear savings over disposable. The monthly diaper bill went from $60 to about $10, we spent about $100 total for the cloth diapers themselves, and electricity and water are included in our rent for the washing (trash is not).

Cloth diapers also require more hands-on cleaning, although it’s less arduous than people think. Still, if your partner or childcare provider won’t deal with them, they might not be the best option for you.

Myth: Cloth diapers are pieces of cotton held together by safety pins.

Reality: There are several kinds of modern cloth diapers, none of which require safety pins. They range from basic models—often an absorbent cotton cloth called a “prefold” that gets tucked around the baby and covered by a waterproof cover—to more expensive brands, like the stretchy G-Diaper.

I recommend what’s called a pocket diaper. They have a waterproof lining and a pocket that holds a thick, removable terry cloth or microfiber pad. They fasten with snaps or velcro (velcro is easier, but wears out more quickly) and they’re easy to wash, size-adjustable, and come in cute patterns.

One upside is the cute factor.
One upside is the cute factor.
Image: AP Photo / David Lubarsky

Myth: You need tons of brand new cloth diapers.

Reality: Twenty should be enough. If your child is older than a couple months and you’re switching from disposable, just buy a starter pack of six and see how you like using them.

Here are a few other things that will come in handy:

  • A diaper pail: A small, plastic trash can with a waterproof, washable liner should suffice.
  • A diaper sprayer: This optional gadget, which attaches to the toilet to clean off poop, is mostly useful during the diaper-intensive first six months.
  • A changing pad with reusable covers: This goes for any baby.
  • A bag for diapers you change while out and about.
  • Washable, reusable wipes, which you can DIY them, too. Disposable baby wipes are also incredibly useful for cleaning bums, sticky hands, and dirty faces, but can clog municipal sewers if flushed.

Myth: Cleaning poop diapers is a pain in the butt.

Reality: Cloth diaper-parents deal with poop a little more, but poop is so much a part of your life as the parent of a small child that it shouldn’t make too much of a difference. Wet diapers just go in the diaper pail. Poopy diapers can get a spray in an effort to remove as much as possible before being dropped in the washer. Once your child is eating solid food you often can just dump the poop in the toilet and very little actually will remain on the diaper itself.

Washing techniques vary, but I advise running pocket diapers and inserts through two hot cycles. First I do a soak cycle, and I use a small scoop of OxyClean every other week or so. Some cloth diaper folks say no detergents on cloth diapers ever, but I find it keeps them fresher, my daughter’s fairly sensitive skin is fine with it, and the diapers are still absorbent and water resistant. Then I do a second cycle on the heavily soiled setting.

Ideally, you’ll hang these out to dry on a clothesline to take advantage of the sun’s disinfecting powers and save the energy. In the winter or during rainy stretches, we just pop them in the dryer on low. Never use high heat because it can damage both the elastics and the waterproof lining.

Image for article titled The myths and realities behind cloth diapers
Image: AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Myth: It’s all or nothing when it comes to cloth diapers.

Reality: The fewer disposable diapers you use, the fewer end up in the landfill, but it’s fine to mix it up. Currently I buy about one package of disposables a month for overnights, car trips, and anytime I do not want to deal with the possibility of carrying around a bag full of poop. This feels reasonable to me.

Myth: Cloth diapers are clearly the more environmentally-conscious choice.

Reality: The jury is still out. Cloth diapers don’t have wood pulp, the sourcing for which can lead to deforestation. Additionally, the polymers in disposable diapers that are so good at keeping babies dry also make them hard to dispose of.

But, cloth diapers need washing—a concern if you’re in a drought-prone area, or worried about your water use generally.  Most pocket diapers are made from polyester or microfiber, and when washed, send tiny bits of plastic into the watershed. That said, they do divert waste into water treatment systems designed to deal with it, instead of landfills.

Some people criticize cloth diapers for being made of cotton, a highly polluting crop that is also a water guzzler. But cloth diapers are not the place to start a cotton-reduction campaign. We’re swimming in barely-used baby clothes—start there. You need some kind of diaper, but you don’t need 45 brand new onesies, no matter how cute they are.

Many decisions about reducing environmental impact come down to what matters locally. Vanuatu is one of the most climate-vulnerable places on the planet, and banning plastic refuse is a way to draw attention to that.

But personally, environmental-impact-per-use can be a good guide.  You only use a disposable diaper once. The overall effect of each cloth diaper on the planet goes down a little bit each time you use it—and your baby will give you many opportunities to do so.