Diapers: Cloth vs. Disposable

Almost everyone, parents and not, has heard horror stories of how disposable diapers languish away in land fills for centuries, miniature time capsules of our children’s digestive processes. For many, these non-disintegrating packages are great cause for concern; certainly the idea that a single child can put ten thousand of these little bombs into a landfill in their young life, leading to literally hundreds of thousands of pounds in diapers waste filling landfills, in the U.S. alone, added to all the “nappies” in Europe and around the world, is a daunting vision. Unfortunately, cloth diapers may not be the amazing environmental answer that some assume they are. There are advantages and disadvantages to both disposable and cloth, making the decision of how to best care for your baby a complicated one.

Disposable Diapers

Disposable diapers have become very effective in the last decade. There seems to be no end to their absorbency, they seldom fall off, and rarely leak. The elastic keeps material in, most of the time, and exploring fingers out. Disposable diapers have also become much more comfortable – they are not the itchy plastic that some people remember them to be. In fact, most disposable diapers today seem even softer than the plastic covers used on modern cloth diapers. When we compare disposable to cloth, there are some interesting findings.

Disposable Diapers – The Advantages

Disposable diapers are extremely absorbent. They can hold hours worth of urine from any baby boy or girl. The elastic around the legs, as well as the super absorbent gel and layers inside, seal wetness in. While you may have an occasional leak overnight, disposable diapers do an amazing job of sealing in baby liquid waste. They do just fine for solids as well, but of course, a baby always needs to be changed immediately after this, so absorbency is not an issue here.

Disposable diapers are also very easy to use. Most are cut to form-fit a little one. Most have reusable velcro straps, with a little adhesive for added strength. That means if you put the diaper on, and it does not look quite right, you can readjust it by unfastening and refastening the straps. Disposable diapers are also made of very soft materials, making them nearly as comfortable as cloth diapers. Disposable diapers are light and thin, making them easy to store and to carry in any bag. They are always decorated to be cute and colorful, and are available everywhere, making them easy to find if you run out or forget to bring one.

Disposable Diapers – The Disadvantages

One main disadvantage is that disposables are costly. One baby can easily use four to six dollars worth of diapers a day. A day! There are also the environmental issues to contend with. While disposable diapers do a great job of keeping babies dry, concerns about the environmental impact of diapers are strong. One concern is over the hygienic of filling our landfill with diapers full of baby poop. In fact, many serious environmentalists suggest that, whether using cloth or disposable, parents drop solid waste down the toilet before taking care of the rest of a diaper. Of course, no one who uses disposable diapers does this. Other concerns arise over the inability of these diapers to decompose; disposable diapers are made largely of synthetic plastics and gels that do not break down well in landfills, thus leading to visions of huge piles of Pampers, sitting in dark lumps beneath our soil.

Other concerns arise about the chemicals used in the diaper manufacturing process. Some concerns about disposable diapers include worries over the dyes, as well as the by-products of the bleaching progress. Finally, of biggest concern is the super absorbent gel, sodium polyacrylate, that helps keep the liquids in. This gel has been known to be associated with allergies and toxic shock syndrome, though these are very rare.

Manufacturers will tell you that this gel is safe, and that it is covered in layers of other absorbent fabrics, and never touches your baby directly. But any parent can tell you that sometimes a baby’s diaper fills faster than you realize, and when you change that soggy thing, sometimes there is a residue of gel clearly visible on baby’s skin, errant gel that escaped all those buffering layers. And sometimes, in such super soggy situations, bits of the top layer can roll off, becoming trapped in the nooks and crannies of baby’s nether regions, causing minor rashes and irritation.

Above was mentioned the reusable straps on the diaper; to be sure, these are great, especially for those just learning the fine art of diapering. But these reusable straps also mean that babies can get these diapers off a bit more easily, so for those with babies who enjoy their nudity, it is important to keep the diaper under cover of a onesie, shorts or pants. Finally, while these diapers profess to keep your baby’s skin dry, this is only true if you change the diaper frequently, before the gel is extremely full. Once the absorbent layers are saturated, additional urine simply sits on the skins surface, with diaper rash waiting in the wings. This problem is probably more parental, as parents tend to assume disposables can hold untold volumes, and thus not change the baby as often as they should.

Cloth Diapers

Cloth diapers have been used for centuries, and the phrase still generates visions of square, quilted sheets, held tight to a baby with giant safety pins. But gone are the days of baby bottom origami and pokes with pointed pins. Today’s cloth diapers are marvels of technology, form fitted and made in various sizes. These diapers are comfortable, washable, and easy for even new parents to use. But these diapers are not necessarily the environments answer to the evil disposable; they have some pros and cons as well.

Cloth Diapers – The Advantages

A cloth diaper’s main advantage is that it is reusable; a single diaper can be used hundreds of times, simply soil, empty, wash, rinse and repeat. This makes them much more economical than disposables. Now, well made, modern cloth diapers are not cheap, to be sure. A baby can use 8-10 diapers in a day, and a parent should keep at least two days worth of diapers on hand. Also, high quality reusable diapers come in different sizes; they are not one size fits all. So, a parent will need about 20 or more diapers in whatever size the child is in now. That means purchasing up to 100 reusable diapers over the early life of a baby – not an inexpensive endeavor, but certainly still a significant savings over disposable.

Cloth diapers today do a pretty good job of absorbing baby pee, without dangerous chemicals leaching out onto baby’s skin. All-in-one diapers, which include absorbent layers, plastic out cover, and attaching straps, all in a single diaper, are great options that make cloth diapering easy. These diapers include elastic at the leg to help stop leaks, as do stand alone diaper covers that are made to go over more simple cloth diapers. The fabric of these diapers is soft, usually 100% cotton, and very comfortable on babies’ skin. Often, these diapers can be purchased in cute designs and pretty colors, enhancing their visual appeal.

Cloth Diapers – The Disadvantages

Cloth diapers do have some disadvantages. First, they are bulky. In an effort to be absorbent, these diapers have more volume, making them more difficult to store, harder to put in your diaper bag, and making your babies back side ample enough to make most clothing tight.

Cloth diapers, despite their bulk, are not nearly as absorbent as their disposable counterparts. Cloth diapers need to be changed more frequently during the day, and will have baby waking up during the night much more often than disposables. Also, cloth diapers, despite their modern design, are not as well sealed as disposable, sometimes allowing less formed solids to leak out the legs, especially if not caught immediately.

Finally, we come to the environment. Everyone knows cloth diapers are environmentally friendly, right? Wrong. Sure, they do not end up in landfills, or at least, not as often as disposables. But this is not the only impact to be had. Cloth diaper manufacturers usually recommend using disposable liners in their diapers, so there is something that ends up in a landfill. But the impact of these diapers is more in the manufacturing and cleaning.

These diapers have to be made, just like disposables, and are often bleached, with plastic used in the velcro and covers. And, these diapers need to be washed after every use, in hot water. That is millions of gallons of water heated and sent into our sewer systems, hundreds of gallons of detergents and phosphates being used and purged into our water treatment facilities, and thousands of kilowatts in electricity to run the washers and dryers. No one has really been able to reliably calculate it, but many people believe these cloth diaper issues increase the carbon footprint so much, that no real environmental difference exists between cloth and disposable.

The Final Word

So, there you have it. Disposables are almost as soft as cloth, but less bulky, perhaps making up for any slightly less softness. Disposables are less likely to leak, keeping parts of your baby other than their privates clean and dry, even through the night. Cloth diapers are endlessly reusable, and thus do not spend eternity buried in landfills, as disposables do. But cloth diapers still require resources and environmentally impactful manufacturing process to make, as well as soap and other environmentally impactful processes to clean and prepare for reuse.

While no one knows for certain, many have estimated that, in the end, the carbon footprint, basically the impact that an item has on the environment, is very similar for both cloth and disposable. Thus, no true champion emerges. It becomes, as in many areas of parenting, a point of personal choice, deciding which of these advantages outweigh which disadvantages, based upon personal priorities and needs.


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