Why cloth diapers are bad choices for some parents | Selecting the right solution for your baby’s bottom

With all the hype about them, I found myself wondering why cloth diapers are bad. What are the downsides? Why don’t more families use them? What does the research say?

What I found was that the real question is more like “why are cloth diapers bad choices for some families?”

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a nerd. So when it came to choosing cloth diapers versus disposable, what was the first thing I did? Make a list of questions and pros and cons.

are cloth diapers a bad choice for your family?

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Which is cheaper? Cloth or disposable? 

When are cloth diapers bad for your wallet? 

Cloth diapers are more expensive if you pay to wash your laundry

cloth diapers are bad for your wallet if you pay to wash your laundry

If I was still living in an apartment, I’d go with disposables! Or a cloth diaper laundry service (more on that in the next section). Cloth mean extra laundry, so paying for extra rinsing and washing would not be attractive to me. Much of the literature I read said I’d need to launder diapers every 3 days. At about $2.00 per wash and $2.00 per dry, even if I didn’t pre-wash the diapers by doing an extra rinse cycle, that would be $4 per load [Source]. Assume 10 loads of diapers a month and that’s $40, which is about the cost of a month’s worth of disposable diapers! 

I don’t know about you, but most of the coin laundry machines I use take 2 dryer cycles. That brings us to $6 per wash or $60 per month.

Throw in a pre-wash cycle, and now we’re looking at $8 per wash, or $80 per month for cloth diapers. With those kinds of prices, you are probably better off buying disposable diapers. If you have $60-80 per month to spend on diapers, consider an environmentally friendly disposable brand, like Dyper or Honest. Or…

Some parents prefer eco-friendly disposable diapers like Honest Company’s diapers, available on Amazon

How much do laundry services for cloth diapers cost?

According to the cloth diaper gurus at Thinking about Cloth, a laundry service will pick up your dirty cloth diapers once a week, launder them, and bring them back to your house, for about $18-24 per week. The exact price depends on where you live, how many children you have in diapers, and what the laundry service provides. So a diaper laundering service will cost about $72-$96 per month. Store brand disposable diapers cost about $40-60 per month, depending on the brand.

Other things to consider: The laundry service limits parent’s choices of cloth diapers- they typically provide fitted or prefold diapers. Some companies provide diaper covers, and others may have parents provide their own. Finally, if you have more than one child in diapers, it’ll likely be cheaper.

Picture of pre-fold cloth diapers from Amazon

Which requires more up-front investment: cloth or disposable? 

Cloth diapers can be expensive to start out. Buying a new set costs $4-800 [Source], depending on the type, style, and quantity you buy.  

Some parents save money by purchasing used cloth diapers, getting hand-me-downs, or receiving them at baby showers.

Overall, cloth tend to be cheaper in the long run, especially when they’re used on multiple children (see source above). 

That being said, if parents don’t have the money to invest up front, disposable diapers can be a more attractive option. 

Will my electricity, water, and gas costs go up if I use cloth diapers?

Yes, but only by a few dollars per month. The New York Times Wirecutter reports your utility costs will be about $60 per year to launder cloth diapers. They used national average prices for water, electricity, and gas. If you have older appliances that are less energy efficient, you may spend closer to $110 per year.

Totalling up all the costs – are cloth diapers cheaper than disposable? 

So we noted up above that a new set of cloth diapers will cost $400-800, and parents will spend about $60 per year on laundry costs. Going with the average potty training age of 2.5 years old, this works out to be

  • Year 1: $400-800 for new cloth diapers plus $60 for laundry = $460-860
  • Costs for year 2: $60 for laundry 
  • Year 2.5: $30 for laundry
  • Total: $550-960 over 2.5 years 
  • Or, an average of $220-384 per year

Looking at disposable diaper costs (Related post: How much do disposable diapers cost per year?) We see that

  • Store brands like Walmart’s Parents Choice cost about $260 per year
  • Name brands like Pampers cost about $695 per year
  • Premium, eco friendly brands like Honest cost about $880 per year
  • On average, disposable diapers cost about $590 per year, but vary drastically depending on brand

Other things to consider: Will your baby be in daycare later?

Some daycares only use disposable diapers. This is important to research! As a parent, you could use cloth at home and disposable at daycare.

Environmental Impact 

How do cloth compare to disposable diapers when you consider their effect on the environment? The short version is, cloth diapers are great for reducing landfill waste. But in terms of lifecycle costs of manufacturing, water, and energy, cloth are not as good for the environment as you might expect. 

=Related Post: How are disposable diapers made? What are they made of?=

How do diapers impact landfills? 

According to the EPA, disposable diapers are 1.4% of municipal waste by weight each year [Source]. That’s about 20 billion disposable diapers! In 2018, disposable diapers accounted for 4.1 million tons of waste. 0.8 million tons (or 20% of the diapers) were combusted and the energy was recovered for reuse. The other 3.3 million tons were landfilled.

But what does that mean for each baby? 

The average baby in the US contributes 683 pounds of disposable diaper waste to landfills each year! 

If you are concerned about landfills, then it’s definitely worth investigating cloth! I’ve searched for information about how much cloth diaper waste ends up in landfills, but couldn’t find any solid statistics. 

At a minimum, cloth diapers will contribute fewer tons of waste to landfills each year than disposable since they can be reused. 

The math

We will assume a few things for a quick back of the envelope calculation. Babies from 0-2.5 are all wearing disposable diapers

  • 3.79 million babies were born in the US in 2018. [Source]
  • 3.85 million babies were born in the US in 2017 [Source]
  • 3.94 million babies were born in the US in 2016. Half of that is 1.97 million babies [Source]
  • That gives us a total of 9.61 million babies wearing disposable diapers in 2018
  • Dividing 4.1 million tons of disposable diaper waste by 9.61 million babies means each baby generates 0.427 tons of disposable diaper waste each year

In plain English, the average baby generates 853 pounds of disposable diaper waste each year.  80% of that is landfilled, so each baby is contributing 683 pounds of disposable diapers to landfills each year! 

How do diapers affect global warming? 

A 2008 study done by UK Environmental Agency (available here) shows that on average, in the 2.5 years a child uses diapers, cloth diapers are actually worse from a lifecycle standpoint. Growing and turning the cotton into cloth is very resource intensive. And once you factor in all the water and energy used to launder cloth diapers, they aren’t great in terms of global warming. Let’s look at the statistics 

  • The average disposable diaper produces a global warming equivalent of 550kg of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent of driving a car 1375 miles
  • The average cloth diaper produces a global warming equivalent of 570kg of carbon dioxide! That is, assuming parents dry their diapers on a clothesline 75% of the time. That’s the equivalent of driving a car 1425 miles 
  • If parents wash them in full washer loads, dries them on a clothesline, and reuses them on a second child, it reduces their environmental impact to only 370kg of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent of driving a car 925 miles. 

What about advancements after this study from 2008?

I’ve dug into what’s changed since this study was completed in 2008, and the good news is that both disposable and cloth diapers are making strides to be even more eco-friendly.

The not-so-good news is that it’s difficult to quantify.

In the disposable diaper world, manufacturers are focusing on making diapers lighter weight. That means less material, less processing and energy, and overall, less plastic waste in the dump. There are also dozens of brands of disposable diapers sourced from eco-friendly materials. Even some big box stores have their own brand of environmentally friendly diapers, like Target’s Cloud Island brand, and Amazon’s Earth + Eden Brand.

Click the image to see more details about Earth+Eden diapers on Amazon

As for cloth diapers, many used to be made of cotton, which requires a lot of water, land, and pesticides to grow, harvest, and process. Now, more and more cloth diapers are made of bamboo instead. Bamboo grows much more quickly, does well in low-quality soil, and requires little to no pesticides for weed control. However, bamboo requires a lot more processing once it’s harvested, compared to cotton. A lot of steps and chemicals are needed to turn bamboo into fabric or diaper inserts. Plus, much of the world’s bamboo is grown in China, so it’s difficult to get specific information on the actual resources needed to grow and process it.

=Related post: Quickly compare the environmental friendliness of the top eco-friendly disposable diaper brands here!=

Health and diaper rash 

Cloth diapers are usually made of cotton, bamboo, or other natural materials. This typically makes them a great choice for babies with sensitive skin. Cloth diapers don’t contain rubber, adhesives, or dyes, which may irritate the baby’s skin.

However, cloth diapers are bad at absorbing pee compared to disposable. That means they need to be changed more frequently to prevent diaper rash caused by moisture. 

Cloth diapers take a lot of time

With disposable diapers, parents simply buy the diapers, use them, and throw them away. Cloth diapers require parents to do extra laundry two to three times per week, and depending on the type of diaper, extra folding, sorting, and removing liners. Not every family has time for this extra work, especially with brand new babies who can have as many as 8-12 diaper changes per day!

If a family is taking all the steps possible to help the environment, they’ll need even more time to line-dry their cloth diapers. 

Start slow by using some disposable and some cloth diapers

Cloth diapers may be overwhelming when new parents use them full time. Newborns need 8-12 (or more!) diaper changes per day. That means a lot of time, a lot of laundry, and a lot of figuring out how to use your particular type. While you’re sleep deprived and short on time and patience. 

New parents may have an easier time mixing cloth and disposable. For example, maybe you use cloth during the day and disposable at night. Or use your set of cloth diapers, and switch to disposable until you have time to wash them. Other parents also recommend getting through the first month or three using disposables, and then switching to cloth.

Conclusions- Why cloth diapers are bad

Cloth diapers are bad for families in the following situations:

  • Cloth diapers are more expensive than disposable if you use a laundry service or don’t own your own washer and dryer 
  • They have a larger up-front cost, but a lower monthly cost compared to disposable. For some parents, that isn’t an option. Other parents may wish to look into pre-owned options.
  • As for the environment, cloth diapers are not as eco friendly as they may sound! If parents use high efficiency appliances, dry them on a clothesline, and use them on a second child, then they have a lower contribution to global warming than disposable diapers. However, parents will reduce their impact on landfills with cloth diapers.
  • Parents need to be prepared to change cloth diapers more frequently to prevent diaper rash. But for babies with sensitive skin, cloth diapers are great since they don’t contain rubber, perfumes or dyes. 
  • Finally, not all families have the time for the extra laundry and work involved with cloth diapering.

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