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Andrea Traynor Headshot

Is it Better to Use Cloth or Disposable Diapers?

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I used disposable diapers for four years between my two kids.

It's not that I didn't consider cloth diapers with my first baby. But as I wandered up and down the aisles of a baby show back in 2008, pregnant and inching closer to bankruptcy because of all of the things I "needed," there were two mental roadblocks I just couldn't skirt:

  1. Cloth diapers seemed like a lot of work. I knew I wasn't a diaper service kind of gal -- the idea of sharing diapers with strangers was just ew -- and when the diaper reps told me I'd probably need to do a wash every three days to stay on top of them, I thought "My gosh, I don't want to do that much laundry!" Remember, this is pre-mom days, before laundry took over my life.
  2. The upfront cost gave me total sticker shock. Between the three or four companies with whom I chatted at that show, they gave me an estimated start-up cost of anywhere from $300 to $600. Until I started buying package upon package of disposables, and learned that the average baby goes through at least 4,000 diapers in his lifetime, that investment sounded outrageous.

I also didn't know anyone using cloth diapers, and I had a lot of questions I wanted answered by a real mom -- not a sales rep. I was primarily concerned about how convenient cloth diapers would be while I was a mom-about-town, and with few mainstream websites offering reviews and advice about cloth diapering with which I felt I could connect, I passed and went for disposables.

They served me well. And because we lived in Toronto at the time and could put every dirty diaper in our green bin, I felt like it was an acceptable choice.

And then we moved to rural suburbia and it all changed. We had to throw our disposable diapers in the trash, which is only collected biweekly. With two small children in diapers, they created little white mountains of shame in our garbage bins. I also started reading about dioxin (a.k.a. 1,4-dioxane), a cancer-causing chemical that's in many major disposable diaper brands -- or so urban legend would have it. More on that shortly.

I started rethinking my diaper choice.

Serendipitously, a company called Charlie Banana offered to let me test out its cloth diapering system for Mommy Gearest. After one week, I was hooked, and I eagerly ordered more. (And tested more, too, resulting in a comparison of my favourite cloth diapers alongside a few tips and tricks.)

I admit it: I was proud to announce to anyone who listened that I'd joined the cloth diapering community. My feet firmly entrenched in granola.

I love the cost-savings, and I don't find it onerous to launder cloth diapers. I already do a load a night anyway, so an extra load or two in a week is barely noticeable. Using a wet bag, cloth diapers are just as convenient as disposables. I've said on several occasions that I wish I'd given cloth a try years ago. It works for us, and like anything in Parentville, you need to do what works for you and keeps you sane and happy. But mostly sane.

When I was recently invited to be a P&G Mom -- as in product giant Procter & Gamble -- my first thought was: do they know who they're inviting? I've written openly about my love affair with organic, non-chemical products; I've tweeted my fair share of pro-cloth diaper propaganda. But I love Crest, I should have stocks in Bounty, and I had some tough questions about Pampers. So I went.

At my first opportunity, I visited the Pampers team and asked about dioxin, expecting a carefully crafted key message. What I got instead? "We haven't used dioxin in Pampers for 10 years."

Huh?

The dioxin myth persists, even 10 years after one of the world's most recognizable diaper brands has ceased to use it. I was floored.

The team was upfront about the fact that Pampers aren't very biodegradable, but -- let's face it -- neither are cloth diapers as far as I can tell. Obviously, one typically uses far fewer cloth diapers because you only have about 20 to 30 in rotation and they can be used with more than one child.

And while producing the cotton used in many disposable diapers raises some real environmental concerns, there are also not-so-enviro-friendly aspects of most cloth diapers: I haven't personally met a cloth diaper yet that doesn't have polyester on its care tag, either as the wicking fleece layer to prevent your baby from feeling perpetually wet or as the outer waterproof shell. Polyester is made from petrochemicals and petroleum is a non-renewable material.

Unless the rest of your cloth diaper is 100 per cent organic, it was also probably made with oodles of water-sucking, pesticide-heavy cotton.

Cleaning cloth diapers is also an exercise in heavy energy use in my house. With their exception, I launder everything in cold on the fastest cycle my machine offers. But if you've ever faced a poo-smeared cloth diaper, you know you're not attacking that bad boy with anything less than piping hot water. You also have to do a pre-wash (so you don't wash the diapers in their own filth) and at least one extra rinse. All said and done, the hot cloth diaper wash cycle is three times as long as my normal quick-wash cold cycle. Most cloth diaper companies also recommend that you wash your diapers and liners at least five times first to properly "prep" them for maximum absorbency.

So, ultimately, you have to decide why one diapering method works better for your family, your child and your wallet. There are pros and cons to each, and whatever your reason for using cloth (saving money over the course of your baby's diaper career, fewer diapers in landfills) or disposables (far less interaction with poo, never worrying about having enough diapers washed and ready to go) -- you shouldn't feel guilty about a choice that works for you.

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