In defense of cloth diapers

When I became pregnant with my first child, I knew I wanted to use cloth diapers.  Maybe “wanted” isn’t exactly the right verb, but I guess I felt I had no other choice.  I’m not a hard-core environmentalist, but I once read a quote somewhere that sums it up for me: I try to tread as lightly as possible on Earth for the time I’m on it.  Disposables were a no-go, as I simply couldn’t justify generating that amount of waste just in order to avoid sticking my hands into a toilet!  And so, I found myself automatically inducted into the amazingly complex world of cloth diapers.

6-week-old wearing cloth diaper

A friend took me to Diaper-Eez, the Mecca of cloth diaper fans in Toronto, in order to figure out what “system” I wanted to use.  I quickly realized that any mental images of boiling pots, nasty gray flannel sheets, and evil-looking giant pins were very outdated and that cloth diapers can be, in fact, downright trendy.  The store was filled with every kind of cloth diaper imaginable – from basic flannel squares to all-in-one cotton diapers with plastic exterior already attached.  I could choose snaps or Velcro, disposable or cloth inserts, hemp or bamboo or organic cotton options.  It was rather overwhelming!

I ended up with a Canadian-made diaper called Snug-to-Fit.  The front can be adjusted to fit all sizes and, sure enough, I’m currently using the exact same diapers with my 2-month-old as I do with my 2½ year old.  They fit just as well on both kids!  I opted for separate adjustable plastic pants made by Mother-Ease (also Canadian), in order to speed up the drying process. I use a roll of biodegradable flushable liners; one gets inserted with each change and, if there’s a mess, tossed in the toilet and flushed.  The diaper hand-washing gets minimized, though not entirely avoided.

The diapers are tossed into a state-of-the-art diaper pail with a carbon filter built into the lid, no water added.  They sit in the dry pail until laundry day, at which point hot water and detergent with a bit of bleach occasionally gets them squeaky clean.  Hanging them out in the sun does wonders for stains, but the dryer is a necessity if I’m in a hurry.  Are they more work than disposables?  Yes, but not much more.  They simply require a few extra steps in the daily routine.  Doing the extra loads of laundry can be tiresome, but no more so than having to rush out to the store to buy diapers when you suddenly realize there aren’t any more in the house!

Here are some reasons why I support and strongly encourage the use of cloth diapers:

1.              They don’t contain many of the chemicals that disposables do: volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can have toxic effects on babies, causing cancer and brain damage in extreme cases; traces of dioxin, a carcinogenic byproduct of the bleaching process that is banned in the EU but not in the US; tributyl-tin (TBT), a hormone disrupter in humans and animals; and sodium polyacrylate, the absorbent gel, which was removed from tampons in the early 80s when it increased the incidence of Toxic Shock Syndrome.   Boys’ scrotal temperature is also increased by prolonged use of disposables, affecting the natural cooling mechanism that’s necessary for healthy spermatogenesis ( I’ve heard several moms complain about the allergic reactions that their children have to disposables.

2.              They represent a significant reduction in landfill site waste, as 49 million diapers are thrown away in the US every day – 18 billion annually.  Even under ideal conditions, a disposable diaper takes hundreds to years to decompose.  Travel to any third-world country and you’ll quickly see that disposable diapers don’t disappear from sight as easily as they do here in North America!  What about the fact that it’s illegal to dispose of human waste in landfill sites?  That’s overlooked for diapers, so either no one cares or the diapers are so non-biodegradable that their contents presumable don’t leak out at all!  At least cloth diapers put sewage where it belongs.  I’m also horrified by the amount of plastic wasted by disposable diaper systems, i.e. the Diaper Genie, which seals each diaper individually in plastic to avoid the smell.  (See this article.)

3.              They don’t smell!  Since the waste gets flushed and the pail has an air filter, you’ll only catch a bad whiff when dumping the load in the washer.

4.              They’re cheaper.  Our upfront cost for cloth was around $350 (and that’s for 2 kids so far).  Of course there is the additional cost of hot water and electricity for washing, but disposables are expensive, especially if you opt for greener ones.  When I buy them for travel and nighttime use, I buy Seventh Generation, which are free from petroleum-based lotions, latex, fragrances, and chlorine processing.  These cost $14 for a package of 22 diapers for my toddler.  On an average day, he goes through 6 or 7, so that would be $22 every 3 or 4 days!  Obviously, the usual diaper brands are considerably cheaper, but more dangerous for health, as cited above.

5.              They make it easier to potty train because they are less absorbent and the child is able to notice what’s going on more easily.  Seeing their mess get flushed down the toilet, rather than thrown in the garbage, helps them to learn where it’s meant to go in the first place.

6.              My kid can’t take them off!  The snaps are too tight for him to undo, so I’ve never had problems with him undressing himself.  The only time it happened was when he was wearing a disposable – and it wasn’t pleasant!

Any drawbacks?  Honestly, the most annoying feature was having a baby with a gigantic bum, because it meant that many of the adorable baby clothes given as gifts wouldn’t fit.  Outfits had to be several sizes larger than they would’ve been, in order to accommodate the diaper.  But, in my opinion, that’s a small price to pay to reduce one’s waste output so significantly.


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