I used to consider myself someone who cared about the environment. In London, I rode my bike or took the train to work each day, while my weekly (mostly) organic food shop was delivered direct to my house.
Then, two significant things happened: I got pregnant, and my husband got a job transfer to Middle America. According to Oregon State University, our new American baby just added an extra 9,441 metric tons of emissions to my carbon footprint. If our kid was the problem, he was going to be a part of the solution. Starting with his poop. Reassured of the superior environmental impact of reusable cloth over disposable diapers from the Real Diaper Association and Natural Life, we embarked on our cloth diaper journey. It’s a small action, but over a lifetime it could add up to a big difference (the EPA estimates one child will use 8,000 diapers from birth to potty training).
Here’s what I’ve learnt as I air my dirty laundry and count the cost of my cloth diaper experiment.
At first it was easy thanks to the aptly named Itsy Bitsy Bums. This online store (and retail space in Kansas City) offers a Pre-Loved 12 week Itsy Bitsy Bums for $159, redeemable for store credit at the end minus a $40 deposit including free delivery. Worked brilliantly, and even skeptical grandmothers became converts.
Then when it was time to graduate to buying our own diapers, we signed up for Itsy Bitsy’s Economy & Convenience Trial. For $263.38, redeemable for store credit plus a 10% discount at the end of the trial, minus a $15 trial fee, the package gave us a mix of Economy (aka more traditional) pre-fold, flat and fitted with covers styles and Convenience (all in one and pocket styles). This trial was invaluable. Turns out, we are more convenience people and bought almost exclusively 22 all in one and pocket diapers, a mix of Bum Genius Free Time, Bum Genius 5.0, Blueberry Simplex and Blueberry Basix. We were in the routine, bonafide cloth diaper evangelists.
But then it got hard. I was waking every two hours and still changing at least one diaper during the night. At six months, we started using a disposable diaper for night time only. We still weren’t sleeping through the night. Then at nine months, during a particularly bad bout of teething, topped off by a yeast infection, I took a cloth diaper sabbatical. We used disposable diapers for 10 days and, well, after that I discovered my “Convenience Cloth Diapers” weren’t as easy and convenient as disposable. Now I understood why 95% of the population used them. The environment was on the back burner. And, we still weren’t sleeping through the night.
So what did it all cost? Was it worth it compared to disposable?
Ashamed that we dropped out at nine months, I’ve been scared to reconcile this, but here are the numbers:
Reusable Cloth Diaper Use
- 22 Diapers: $418.50
- Newborn Diaper Trial Fee: $40.00
- Economy & Convenience Trial Fee: $15.00
- Planet Wise Medium Travel Bag: $21.00
- 2 x Planet Wise Diaper Pail Liner: $33.00
- Target Pail: $10.00
- Laundry Cost* for 9 months: $83.70
- 3 months’ worth of disposables at night: $34.99**
Disposable Diaper (Estimated Cost)
- Pampers Newborn Swaddlers, up to 10 lbs/4.5 kgs (4 x 84 size @ $24.99) 99.96
- Pampers Size One, 8-14 lbs/4-6 kgs (3 x 120 size @ $24.99) 74.97
- Pampers Size Two, 12-18 lbs/5-8 kgs (4 x 120 size @ $24.99) 99.96
- Pampers Size Three, 16-28 lbs/7-13 kgs (4 x 124 size @ 34.99) 139.96
- Munchkin Diaper Pail: $27.99
- Refill bags ($18.99 for 20, 600 per box): $72.00
After 24 months of this motherhood thing, there’s a theme emerging – my ideals crushed by the reality of the job. I got my hands dirty saving 3280 diapers from the landfill, and it saved me $107 – if I’d made it to a year. And here’s what I’ve really learnt: sometimes when life squeezes you, your world shrinks. Days seem like years when you’re awake for most of them. Imagining a better future for your child is not a priority, when you’re living for today. You need other reasons.
Fundamentally, cloth diapering is a habit – and like any habit, I needed reminding and reinforcing of why I’m doing this in the first place. I also needed some kind of reward – maybe if I’d done this spreadsheet of sums earlier, I would have ‘gamified’ the challenge and conned myself into sticking at this longer. Because if there’s one thing I hate more than landfill waste, it’s wasting money.
But if I’m honest, that would have been another rational reason to keep going, and after 9 months of sleep deprivation, I was beyond rational. It was hard to keep caring about THE world, when MY world was totally unvraveling. And I wasn’t alone; other friends of mine who began with cloth started phasing out at 9 months due to illness or extended travel. Maybe being part of an online community of cloth diaper users would have helped us to push through our obstacles.
So was it worth it? Well, it’s not over yet. These diapers can be used again for another child, either our own or someone else’s – or hopefully both. What’s more, a UK study estimates that passing cloth diapers onto a second child can save 40% of the climate impact. So here’s hoping!
Key Environmental Facts
- The EPA estimates that diaper waste is 1.4% of solid waste in America and rising. It’s estimated to take 200-300 years to decompose a diaper.
- The superior environmental impact of Cloth over Disposable depends how you wash and care for them such as:
- Use Energy Star rated washing machines.
- Wash diapers at 140 degrees (a warm cycle rather than hot).
- Air dry.
- Use washable wipes and liners.
- Use low-impact detergent.
- Reuse diapers for the next child, then give them away or sell them to another.
* Laundry estimates based on Front Loader machine, washing warm –3 loads per week, electricity cost 10 cents per KWH and water $5.00 per 1000 gallons, plus drying using a front loader dryer and this handy Laundry Cost Calculator.
** 3 months of disposable at night, 120 Size 3