If one were to consider just the debates happening online on this issue, one would be mistaken into thinking that this is a contentious issue with most parents. Sadly less than 10% of parents are opting for cloth diapers and most parents are not even doing the due diligence on cloth diapers and evaluating the pros and cons before making the decision. An overwhelming number of parents are just taking into consideration the convenience aspect of disposable diapers and ignoring potential problems.
While I will lay out the pros and cons of both kinds of diapers, ultimately this is a very personal choices dictated by your convictions, your peculiar situation and your availability of time. Let us look at how cloth and disposable diapers stack up on the criteria that matters most to parents.
- Cost – There is a single formula for saving money on diapers especially when you are expecting more kids in the future – use cloth diapers and then launder them at home. Reusing them for future kids results in further savings down the road. If you use a professional laundry service then the cost would be comparable and in fact more than the cost of using disposable diapers. So if cost is the single most important factor – please follow the advice mentioned above.
- Comfort – It is difficult to take sides on this issue. It is true that cloth diapers are softer on the babies’ skin but their absorbent capabilities may not be as good as disposables leaving the babies’ skin exposed to waste materials for a longer period. On the other hand the chemicals in disposable diapers may cause adverse reaction on the babies’ skin leading to diaper rashes. Diaper rashes have been more common ever since disposable diapers were introduced. One of the reasons for this could be that parents tend to change disposables less often and this leads to the accumulation of ammonia, urine and bacteria, which coupled with the lack of air circulation is the ideal ingredient for rashes.
- Convenience – This again depends on the type of cloth diapers that are being used. Disposables definitely score better in the convenience aspect but not by much if you consider the latest innovations in cloth diapers. Some of the latest cloth diapers are very similar to disposable ones with snaps or Velcro and removable linings, making the diaper changes pretty convenient. The washing is another thing altogether but if you use diaper cleaning services, you will not have to bother about this one.
- Environmental Factors – There is no doubt that there are some damning statistics in connection with the environmental impact of disposables. More than 200,000 trees are cut every year for the manufacture of disposable diapers. At least 20 times the raw material and energy needed for cloth diapers is consumed in making disposables. Further disposable diapers (18B of which are disposed every year) are the 3rd largest consumer items in landfills and represent 30% of all non-biodegradable wastes, sometimes taking as much as 500 years to degenerate completely. In addition disposable diapers end up adding 84 million pounds of faecal matter into these landfills which may seep into the water table and contaminate water.
But in spite of all these statistics, the jury is still out. There are hidden environmental impacts in cloth diapers as well – mostly in terms of the energy expenditure in washing these diapers. The energy expenditure can no doubt be minimized by using energy efficient machines and avoiding high temperature settings, but most parents do not adhere to these measures. Even though there are arguments against cloth diapers, common sense suggests that the impact of cloth diapers is something that the earth is capable of absorbing and processing by itself. Not so in the case of man-made disposables.
- Health Impact – This is one area where cloth diapers trump disposables hands down. Let us look at the potential problems that can be attributed to disposables
- Most disposables contain Dioxins – a chemical by-product of paper bleaching which is used in most diapers – dioxin is the most toxic of all cancer-linked chemicals.
- The plastics in disposables contain pthalates – which are known endocrine disruptors, that is they send false signals to the body that might lead to secretion of undesirable hormones.
- Some of these diapers contain tributyl tin and other heavy metals – which can spread through the skin and has hormone like effect.
- All disposable diapers contain a chemical called “Sodium Polyacrylate” which is a chemical added to the inner pad to make it super absorbent. The jury is still out on the effect of these chemicals.
- A German study a decade ago concluded that disposables have an adverse impact on scrotal temperature which may cause fertility issues later in life.
- Another study suggested that childhood respiratory problems might have their origin in chemicals emitted from disposables.
To summarize I would say that if as parent you are motivated purely by health and environmental reasons, you should definitely opt for cloth diapers and probably get them laundered through laundry service. If your finances are stretched but you have some time available, you should use cloth diapers and launder them yourselves. If time and money are issues then there are cheaper effective disposables that should do the trick for you. As I mentioned earlier, the choice has to be yours, there is no formula and no right decision.