I decided to use cloth diapers a long time before diarrhea appeared on the scene, before Quinn even showed up. My mother used them because that’s just what you do in a hippie commune, and she didn’t even have a washing machine. My sister and I would stomp our own diapers in the bathtub when we were old enough, and wear the clean ones underneath crocheted diaper covers. My Dad was quick to get me out of those things, and I can see why. I have a washer and dryer in my basement (even though I usually hang them dry), and a plentiful supply of water and detergent that does all the dirty work. I think Quinn would have been out of diapers a year ago if I’d had to go through what my parents did.
But it wasn’t just my parent’s example that got me hooked on cloth diapers. Other cloth diapering parents cite many reasons beyond care for the earth and the cost, but these two are my main rationale. Not only have I have saved thousands of dollars this way, but I just couldn’t imagine throwing all that waste right into our landfills – especially the kind that belongs in the sewer system.
I spent less than $300 on my cloth diapers (bumgenius for those that are interested) plus energy and detergent costs of around $125 for a 2 ½ years worth of diapering, in comparison to about $2500 for disposables (see this site for a cost breakdown). I love them, which is great, since I’ll be using them for my second, too – for virtually nothing. Despite popular belief, they are so convenient and easy, and the only real difference between these and disposables (we use seventh generation throw-aways for nighttime and trips) is Quinn’s big cloth diaper bum – which, really, is kind of cute.
If all of this has sparked your interested and you’re interested in knowing some more facts on why I made this decision, you can find them at this site (and below). Most of it has to do with the waste of resources and long trail of pollution at every stage of production and disposal. This information comes from Donella H. Meadows, an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, who takes a look at the claim (based, she says, on sound research) that cloth diapers may be just as environmentally taxing as disposables. Despite these studies, she believes that disposable diapers have a greater environmental impact than cloth. All the same, her final conclusion says that it’s almost beside the point. It’s worth quoting in its entirety:
"It's great to try to move our lives in the direction of ecological righteousness, but it's also true that every human activity has environmental impact -- especially the activities of that fraction of the human population rich enough to have diapers of any kind. From the earth's point of view it's not all that important which kind of diapers you use. The important decision was having the baby."
I couldn’t agree more. And I still believe that cloth diapering is a better choice for my family and the environment. Here’s why:
• Diapers account for nearly 3 percent of municipal landfills.
• Eighty percent of the diaperings in this nation are done with disposables. That comes to 18 BILLION diapers a year.
• Those 18 billion diapers add up to 82,000 tons of plastic a year and 1.3 million tons of wood pulp -- 250,000 trees. After a few hours of active service these materials are trucked away, primarily to landfills, where they sit, neatly wrapped packages of excrement, entombed undegraded for several hundred years.
• It is illegal in most states to dump human waste in landfills. That law is simply unenforced when it comes to diapers. Theoretically they could infest the water leaching out of the dump with bacteria and viruses (polio, hepatitis, dysentery), though that has never been known to happen. Perhaps the other ingredients in leachate are toxic enough to kill human pathogens. Perhaps the diapers are so nondegradable that they don't leak their contents. Perhaps we just haven't waited long enough.
• Hershkowitz's data (the study referenced above) show that disposables use 10 times more resources (measured by weight and including fuels) than cloth diapers and produce 50 times more solid waste. But disposables use only half as much energy and two-thirds as much water. Cloth diapers save landfills but load washing machines and sewage systems (by putting sewage where it belongs).
• We are comparing apples and oranges here -- and cotton pesticides, eroded soil from cotton fields, emissions from logging trucks, oil spills, hazardous wastes from refineries and petrochemical and plastics plants. None of the analyses so far comes close to including all these environmental impacts, much less properly comparing their dangers. (Bulleted information provided by Donella Meadows)
That’s enough to convince me and I hope – if it doesn’t convince you – that it gets you thinking about this, and other costs of the lifestyle we lead in the Western world. Please post any thoughts or comments you have.