I was two months pregnant when Trump won the election, and the prospects for our planet got immediately bleaker. After the initial flurry of protests, Lefties everywhere looked for coping mechanisms. Some of my friends drank. Some joined socialist organizations. Some took lots of baths. Some took drunken baths while reading Jacobin.
I found solace in cloth diapers.
I had heard cloth diapering would be overwhelming. I had heard it would be gross. I didn’t care. I was fully prepared to do what I expected to be a barf-inducing chore, if it meant majorly shrinking my kid’s carbon footprint. But I never expected to fall in love.
I could write a dissertation, a comparative analysis of cloth diapering fibers, styles, brands, and wash routines, but this isn’t Fluff University, so I’ll skip all that.
I got my “stash” started with 20 diapers that were given to me for free by a friend of a friend, a mom I had never even met. She could have sold this stash for a few hundred dollars, but decided instead to donate to several moms-to-be who wanted to try cloth diapering. I’m so grateful to her, and I plan to do the same and pay it forward with my stash someday.
Honestly, my first thought about used cloth diapers was: ew. My disposable-mindset-conditioning had me believing everything used is sad and icky, and what could be ickier than used diapers? But I knew these 20 diapers would cost $100’s bought new, and my research had assured me that a bleach soak and a good wash would remove any possible germs.
The rest of my stash was bought new—I was gifted a bunch at my baby shower, and then I developed a bit of an online diaper shopping addiction. If I could do it all over now, I would buy every diaper used. Not only would it be much cheaper; the environmental benefits of passing on used cloth diapers to a second, third, even fourth kid makes a tremendous impact. My second-hand diapers faithfully kept another little girl clean and dry for 3 years, now they’re keeping my baby girl clean and dry, and if the elastic holds up, they’ll eventually help out another kid. It might sound creepy, but I love the idea of antique cloth diapers, passed down from generation-to-generation, haunted by the spirits of toddlers past. Think of the literal tons of plastic one cloth diaper could save!
There’s no question that cloth diapering saves money. I estimate we’ll save between $5,000 and $8,000 between now and potty training because we are using cloth. However, cloth diapering does cost more in time. First there’s the initial research you have to do—learning about wash routines, brands, styles, and fit. Acquiring a stash takes time as well. Cloth diapers aren’t just sold at every gas station and pharmacy like disposables. You’re going to spend a few hours looking online.
Once you’re set up, though, the daily time commitment is surprisingly small. We wash every 3 days, so I actually timed myself on a wash day and here’s the breakdown:
- Spraying a poopy diaper & washing my hands (~1x per day): 1m30s
- Grabbing dirty diaper bag and starting cold wash: 2 m 10s
- Starting hot wash: 20s
- Transferring to dryer: 50s
- Sorting clean laundry and putting away: 8m5s
- Making wipe solution: 3m
That averages out to 5 minutes and 10 seconds per day. I can handle that.
Although cloth diapers are much cheaper long-term, getting started can be out-of-reach for many low-income parents. Acquiring a stash can cost a lot up front, which may not be possible if you’re on a tight month-to-month budget. Researching and buying online takes time that stretched-thin parents may not have. And if you don’t have your own washer/dryer, doing the wash routine at a laundromat may be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Additionally, information on cloth diapering is just not that available–you have to go looking for it. There’s only one retailer I’ve found in this city, buybuybaby, that sells cloth diapers in its storefront, and they have a very small selection.
For these reasons, I don’t judge or feel superior to anyone who uses disposables. Cloth diapering is much easier for me due to my privilege–as a SAHM, I have time; I could afford to buy a stash up-front; and I have my own HE washer and dryer. However, from a global perspective, none of us can afford to keep using disposable diapers. We need to create public policies that will make reusable diapering accessible and easy for everyone.
If you google “cloth vs disposable diapers,” some of the first articles that pop up claim that the environmental benefits of cloth diapering are negligible at best. But click-bait articles like “Why cloth diapers might not be the greener choice, after all” are blatantly biased and creating a false controversy. I’m not sure whether the authors are just trying to rationalize their own disposable diaper use, or whether they have stock in Huggies, but they deliberately obfuscate the facts. They include a lot of numbers in these articles, to lend them the air of authority, but their math doesn’t hold up. For one, their scenarios compare the environmental effects of cloth vs. disposable diapers for one year, even though cloth diapers are used for 2.5-3 years at a minimum, many more if the diapers are passed on. This means each cloth diaper should be compared to at least three times more disposable diapers than the number used in this study. For a comprehensive takedown of the spurious claims in these articles, read this reponse. I’m sure that WaPo article is the 2nd google hit because it makes people feel good about using disposables, but it’s just not true.
What is true is that disposable diapers are a massive, extremely toxic problem, and the global True Cost of using them is incalculable. There are so many harrowing statistics about disposable diaper use, but maybe just take a minute and sit with these two facts:
- A disposable diaper takes 500 years to decompose
- 450 billion disposable diapers are consumed each year, and that number is increasing all the time
Because of environmental racism, the harmful effects of all this waste impact people of color the most. In the United States, black people make up the majority of communities living near landfills who are subject to toxic air and water from all this untreated human waste. Economic colonization is bringing disposable diaper use to indigenous communities and countries without a diapering culture, where there may not be municipal services in place to handle diaper disposal. Without even the imperfect solution of landfilling, this diaper waste may be burned, releasing greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals, or dumped in waterways, where it kills marine life, contaminates drinking water, and eventually winds up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Policies We Need
The disposable diaper industry is a juggernaut and growing all the time–expected to reach over 67 billion dollars a year by 2022. It’s not slowing down any time soon without major public policy interventions. Encouraging cloth diaper use is in the public’s best interest environmentally and financially. The cost of disposing of these millions of tons of diapers each year is borne solely by taxpayers.
There are some simple ways we could make cloth diapering more accessible to low-income families:
- Nurture the cloth diaper industry in the US by subsidizing manufacturers who use sustainable materials and low-carbon processes, so they can offer these diapers at greater discounts to families.
- Incentivize purchasing cloth diapers by offering discounts for families on WIC, SNAP, or Welfare.
- Ensure hospitals (who usually put the first diapers on baby) provide information to new parents on the financial, health, and environmental benefits of cloth diapering, and give parents a choice of whether to use disposable or cloth diapers during their stay.
- Support the establishment of diaper laundry co-ops and services (which used to be widespread across the US but are getting fewer and farther between).
A more aggressive approach would be straight-up banning all disposable diapers that are non-biodegradable, as some states have banned single-use plastic bags. But the legislation I would like to see most of all–one that I think would greatly reduce the use of all disposable plastic–is legislation that would ask every company to shoulder the True Cost of their disposable item.
Dream with me here.
First, we would need to found an independent research organization to determine the True Cost of producing and disposing of any given product. What do I mean by True Cost?
Add up the trillions of dollars the government spends addressing damages caused by global-warming-related events such as floods, droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires each year.
Add the $100 billion the US Government spends on waste disposal each year
Add up the income lost and medical bills of individuals who contract cancer and other serious illnesses related to air and water pollution caused by toxic manufacturing processes
Arrive at astronomical figure.
Now ask researchers to make some attempt to determine how much of that astronomical figure a single consumer good is responsible for. One disposable diaper–what does it contribute to the True Cost listed above? Have some brilliant scientists take a stab at a guesstimate. Then tax Huggies that amount for each damn diaper it produces. They should be footing the bill for the horrific effects their products cause, not the taxpayers.
How much do you think the True Cost of a disposable diaper really is? I think it would be enough to make cloth the only reasonable choice.
I know, I know that this is pie-in-the-sky policy in today’s political climate, but we have to dream of and specify the future we want if we have any hope of making things better. True-Cost legislation, with international cooperation and rigorous safeguards against corruption, is the best solution I can think of to deter the manufacture and use of disposable goods within the confines of global capitalism.
I started cloth diapering, fully expecting to grit my teeth and bear an odious, stinky chore. But in reality, it’s been super easy–basically an extra load of laundry every few days. Spraying the poop once your baby starts solid foods is a little gross, I’ll be honest. But it’s a minute of your day, and I can handle that.
Environmental concerns were my primary motivator for cloth diapering, but there’s been a host of other unexpected benefits. When we used disposables for the first few weeks, we were constantly battling diaper rash. But since we switched to cloth diapers and wipes, it’s cleared up completely and has not returned–meaning she’s not constantly getting doused with zinc oxide. I had no idea how much money we would actually save–the thousands and thousands of dollars. And I surely don’t miss the feeling of running out of diapers in the middle of the night.
However, by far the best unexpected benefit has been seriously considering, for the first time in my life, my disposable plastic habit. Cloth diapers were a gateway for me. If we’re cloth diapering–why not do cloth wipes too? We have to do the laundry anyways. Then what about paper towels and napkins? Shampoo bottles and produce bags? Pretty soon you’re side-eyeing all the plastic in your life and wondering what it all adds up to, and whether there’s another way to live.