Part of the Solution: How I Wrap My Baby's Bum

If you’re like me there’s something that you do at least four times a day that you’d rather avoid. It’s not brushing my teeth (I’m not that neurotic), eating my vegetables, or checking my email. All you moms (and savvy title readers) out there guessed it - it’s changing diapers. When my daughter was really small it was often amazing and sweet and sometimes even delightful because we’d just Italicstare into each other’s eyes while we oohed and gooed. But now she’s almost two and she runs away from me and says, “no!” and “naked!” and it’s all I can do to wrestle her to the ground and get that thing on. But this dance is all just a part of having a kid – it’s amazing, frustrating, fun fun fun, and sometimes downright nasty. Like when I have to get diarrhea from her diaper into the toilet. Yuck. No, I don’t like to torture myself, it’s just part of what using cloth diapers is all about (and thankfully, it happens very seldom).

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.


  1. Penny,

    Great post. We use bumgenius and love them. You're right that getting the solid waste (i.e., crap) into the toilet can be a gross affair, but it's better than the alternative. Plus, there is something to be said for interacting so intimately with waste products. (I'm reading a lot of Wendell Berry right now.) We think bumgenius also saved us money in the long run.

    Someday I'm going to write an essay on the word "disposable."

  2. Penny - Excellent work. I know at least 1/2 dozen women right now who are expecting (my niece us due in 2 weeks!). It seems that everyone is talking about going back to cloth. Just 8 years ago my other sister tried to do cloth, figuring it would be cheaper and easier in Kenya. She couldn't make it work. It's amazing how much has changed in such a short amount of time.

    John - I'm currently writing a piece about "convenience" and the idea of "disposable" is in there...as well as the uninformed idea of "one-time-use"...don't get me started.

    OH! And Penny, I read this during my lunch break - maybe next time put a warning in the title (reading about diaherra during lunch - ewww)

  3. apparently i can't spell. sorry.

  4. So I have a simple question:

    Doesn't using cloth make for very messy changings, and how does the cloth actually stay...well...clean?

    I ask this without ever having kids, but also knowing that someday I probably will. I also ask out of a fear of diapers, no matter what kind.

  5. Thanks so much for talking about this! I don't have kids but if I ever do, I totally plan on using cloth diapers. One concern I have is about the washing process. Do you use bleach when you wash them? I know it's potentially carcinogenic and really bad for the environment but is there any other way to disinfect the diapers and keep the washing machine clean for other clothes?

  6. Oh, and most comparisons are for one kid. This is totally biased in favor of disposables, as cloth diapers can be re-used for every kid you have. For those planning big families, the hand-me-down factor is ENORMOUS.

    Also, we find other non-bum-wrapping uses for these things. They are a great for all sorts of cleaning and padding jobs. Disposable diapers are completely unreusable.

    Also, i've never heard the studies talk about how cloth tends to motivate parents to potty train earlier.

    Finally, there is the simple fact that the extra energy and water used by cloth are resources that are much easier to renew and clean up than the resources going into disposables.

    Simply put, the studies i've read that compare the two are terribly incomplete.

  7. @rob

    It is a bit messier, but it gets better and cleaner as you get the hang of it.


    If you really want, you can keep separate buckets: poo and pee. The pee ones don't really need bleaching. A bit of vinegar is usually sufficient. Then you can use less bleach for the poo ones. Or, if you prefer, i've heard that tea tree oil can be a decent antibacterial for poo diapers, but we just used minimal bleach and vinegar, so i can't say for sure.

  8. Thanks for the great comments!

    As for the questions on how it all works, It's actually all quite simple and hassle-free. It's rare that I have a "this is disgusting!" moment. I bleach, when I do which isn't often (my good for the earth detergent has good anti-bacterial properties), with chlorine-free bleach, which is much better for the environment. Vinegar is great, too.

    Here's a good site for more info: http://www.diaperjungle.com/washing-cloth-diapers.html

  9. this bum genius must be really good, then . . . my friend couldn't go two weeks with her newborn ten years ago. the volume of pee was too much and she couldn't keep up with it.

  10. Rob,
    As a guy who recently had his first child, I want to encourage you to keep that fear of diapers as long as you can. It's a healthy fear that protects you from changing other people's kid's diapers, a task no man should have to do. I was chastised countless times by women who opined that I needed to learn how to change a diaper in case I had kids, but you know what? That's BS. I learned just fine on-the-job when Olivia was born, thank you very much. I think they were simply so sick of changing their own kid's diaper that they wanted to sucker me into doing it for them.

    Anyway, we use Bumgenius and they are far and away the best cloth diapering option we found. And echoing what others have already said, the hand-me-down factor is huge. We will be faced with practically a zero start-up cost for diapering our second kid.

  11. Anonymous, you make a good point. I had a diaper service for the first several months of Quinn's life because, honestly, you're doing so much laundry as it is, not to mention getting no sleep....it's just not gonna happen. Why torture yourself? I think I bought the bumgenius when she was 4 months old, and enjoyed the fact that someone else was doing my 70 diapers a week when I had a newborn. Seriously....now I do about 20 - 30 a week, and that's very tolerable.

  12. I used cloth diapers with my first daughter, until she started eating a lot of solid food, probably when she was 10 or 11 months old. But then it just got too gross. I could not cope with the thought of THAT STUFF being washed away in the same washing machine I wash my own clothes in. I didn't wash them altogether, of course, but still....
    I planned to use the diapers with my 2nd and 3rd children, but I couldn't keep up with our regular laundry, so cloth diapers just weren't an option.
    If I lived near family or had household help, it would work...but otherwise reusing the diapers with siblings was not practical for us.