The choice of cloth diapering is a new one. Disposables were only introduced in the last 25 years or so and before that cloth was how it was done. The many reasons to consider cloth in your choice include the health of your baby, the impact on the environment, and the financial cost of throw away diapering.
Disposable diapers contain traces of Dioxin, an extremely toxic by-product of the paper-bleaching process. It is a carcinogenic chemical, listed by the EPA as the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals. It is banned in most countries, but not the U.S..1
Disposable diapers contain Tributyl-tin (TBT) – a toxic pollutant known to cause hormonal problems in humans and animals.2
Disposable diapers contain sodium polyacrylate, a type of super absorbent polymer (SAP), which becomes a gel-like substance when wet. A similar substance had been used in super-absorbency tampons until the early 1980s when it was revealed that the material increased the risk of toxic shock syndrome by increasing absorbency and improving the environment for the growth of toxin-producing bacteria.3
In May 2000, the Archives of Disease in Childhood published research showing that scrotal temperature is increased in boys wearing disposable diapers, and that prolonged use of disposable diapers will blunt or completely abolish the physiological testicular cooling mechanism important for normal spermatogenesis.18
In 1988, over 18 billion diapers were sold and consumed in the United States alone.4
Based on calculations (listed below under “Cost: National Costs”), it is estimated that 27.4 billion disposable diapers are consumed every year in the U.S.13 The instructions on a disposable diaper package advice that all fecal matter should be deposited in the toilet before discarding, yet less than one half of one percent of all waste from single-use diapers goes into the sewage system.4
Over 92% of all single-use diapers end up in a landfill. In 1988, nearly $300 million dollars were spent annually just to discard disposable diapers, whereas cotton diapers are reused 50 to 200 times before being turned into rags.4
No one knows how long it takes for a disposable diaper to decompose, but it is estimated to be about 250-500 years, long after your children, grandchildren and great, great, great grandchildren will be gone.5
Disposable diapers are the third largest single consumer item in landfills, and represent about 4% of solid waste. In a house with a child in diapers, disposables make up 50% of household waste.5
Disposable diapers generate sixty times more solid waste and use twenty times more raw materials, like crude oil and wood pulp.3
The manufacture and use of disposable diapers amounts to 2.3 times more water wasted than cloth.3
Over 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce disposable diapers for one baby EACH YEAR.6
In 1991, an attempt towards recycling disposable diapers was made in the city of Seattle, involving 800 families, 30 day care centers, a hospital and a Seattle-based recycler for a period of one year. The conclusion made by Procter & Gamble was that recycling disposable diapers was not an economically feasible task on any scale.17
It is estimated that each baby will need about 6,000 diapers7 during the first two8 years of life. The following estimates are based on prices in San Francisco, California.
Disposables. For these calculations, let’s assume that a family needs about 60 diapers a week. In the San Francisco Bay area, disposable diapers cost roughly 23¢ per store-brand diaper and 28¢ for name-brand. This averages to 25.5¢ per diaper. Thus the average child will cost about $1,600 to diaper for two years in disposable diapers, or about $66 a month.9
Diaper Services. Subscribing to a diaper services costs between $13 and $17 each week depending on how many diapers a family decides to order. Let’s assume the family spends roughly $15 a week for 60 diapers a week. This equals $780 annually and averages to $65 a month. Over the course of two years, the family will spend about $1500 per baby, roughly the same cost as disposables, depending on what type of covers are purchased and what type of wipes are used. If one adds in the cost of disposable wipes for either diapering system, the costs increase.
Cloth Diapers. For cloth diapering, each family will probably need about 6 dozen diapers.10 The cost of cloth diapering can vary considerably, from as low as $300 for a basic set-up of prefolds and covers11, to $1000 or more for organic cotton fitted diapers and wool covers. Despite this large price range, it should be possible to buy a generous mix of prefolds and diaper covers for about $300, most of which will probably last for two children. This means the cost of cloth diapering is about one tenth the cost of disposables12, and you can spend even less by using found objects (old towels & T-shirts).
National Costs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were about 19 million children under four in 2000. We could probably assume that there are about 9.5 million children under two and therefore in diapers at any one time. Based on previous studies, we estimate that 5-10% of babies wear cloth diapers at least part time. We will average these figures to 7.5% of babies in cloth diapers and 92.5% in disposables. This means that about 8.8 million babies in the U.S. are using 27.4 billion disposable diapers every year13.
Based on these calculations, if we multiply the 8.8 million babies in disposable diapers by an average cost of $800 a year, we find that Americans spend about 7 billion dollars on disposable diapers every year. If every one of those families switched to home-laundered cloth prefold diapers, they would save more than $6 billion14, enough to feed about 2.5 million American children for an entire year15. Coincidentally, the 2002 U.S. Census reveals that 2.3 million children under 6 live in poverty16.
Tax Savings. In some specific circumstances, when cloth diapers have been prescribed for the treatment of a disease, tax savings may be available through the use of flexible spending accounts and medical expense deductions. This could represent a 10% – 35% savings on the cost of diapers depending on the family’s tax rate.23
Disposable diapers try to have “dryness” as a key feature. I believe this feature is the reason why some children can take forever to potty train. Cloth allows your child to feel the discomfort of being wet. For younger infants, there are fabrics that you can use in cloth diapers that give them a dryer feeling if you wish. In general, cloth diapered toddlers will train sooner.
- Less stink with cloth! Yes its true. Disposable diaper pails have incredible stink.
- The trash can does not fill so quickly.
- They are so much cuter! Cloth diapers are available in wonderful colors, patterns, and fabrics.
1 Allsopp, Michelle. Achieving Zero Dioxin: An emergency strategy for dioxin elimination. September 1994. Greenpeace.
2 Greenpeace. New Tests Confirm TBT Poison in Procter & Gamble’s Pampers: Greenpeace Demands World-Wide Ban of Organotins in All Products. 15 May 2000.
3 Armstrong, Liz and Adrienne Scott Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women’s Sanitary Products and Disposable Diapers, What You Can Do About It. 1993. HarperCollins.
4 Lehrburger, Carl. 1988. Diapers in the Waste Stream: A review of waste management and public policy issues. 1988. Sheffield, MA: self-published.
5 Link, Ann. Disposable nappies: a case study in waste prevention. April 2003. Women’s Environmental Network.
6 Lehrburger, C., J. Mullen and C.V. Jones. 1991. Diapers: Environmental Impacts and Lifecycle Analysis. Philadelphia, PA: Report to The National Association of Diaper Services (NADS).
7 Average of 8 changes per day over 2 years (8x365x2=5,840)
8 We are using 2 as the average age of transition from diapers to toilet use.
9 60x52x$0.255=$795.60, or $800. $800x2years=$1,600. $1,600÷24=$66 per month.
10 3 dozen each in two sizes accommodates most babies
11 6 dozen prefolds at an average of $2.16 each and 16 covers at $8.50 each ((72x$2.16)+(12x$8.50)=$292)
12 $300÷2 children = $150 per child. Compare to $1,600 per child for disposables
13 8.8 million x 60 x 52 = 27.4 billion
14 Cloth diapering is 90% cheaper. 90% of $7 billion is $6.3 billion.
15 Food costs calculated at $2,475 per child per year or $6.78 per child per day for 3 meals and 2 snacks. Costs based on U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, Child and Adult Care Food Program. Figures current as of July 2003. http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/Care/CACFP/cacfpfaqs.html
16 Percent of People in Poverty by Definition of Income and Selected Characteristics: 2002 (Revised). Census Reports (2010)
17 Stone, Janis and Sternweis, Laura. Consumer Choice — Diaper Dilemma. Iowa Sate University – University Extension. ID.# 1401. 1994. http://www.rockwellcollins.com/daycare/pdf/pm1401.pdf
18 C-J Partsch, M Aukamp, W G Sippell Scrotal temperature is increased in disposable plastic lined nappies. Division of Paediatric Endocrinology, Department of Paediatrics, Christian-Albrechts- University of Kiel, Schwanenweg 20, D-24105 Kiel, Germany. Arch Dis Child 2000;83:364-368. Click here or go to http://adc.bmjjournals.com and search by the title of the study.
19 Boiko, S. 1997. Diapers and diaper rashes. February 1, 1997. Dermatology Nursing.
20 Shin, H.T. 2005. Diaper dermatitis that does not quit. Dermatologic Therapy, 18: 124-135.
21 Weiner, F. 1979. The relationship of diapers to diaper rashes in the one-month-old infant. The Journal of Pediatrics, 95: 422-424.
22 Stein, H. 1982. Incidence of diaper rash when using cloth and disposable diapers. The Journal of Pediatrics, 101: 721-723.
23 Internal Revenue Service. December 9, 2008. Publication 502, Medical and Dental Expenses