‘’Do or do not, there is no try.’’ These were my sister’s, my Yoda of Motherhood’s, words of advice to me as I was deciding while pregnant to go cloth or disposable. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer to the question, there’s the intersection of what’s possible given finances, lifestyle, time and tolerance for intimately handling urine and feces.
For this particular household, circumstances and ideology converged in favour of cloth. As my sibling’s statement intimated however, that decision is a commitment in a number of senses. First consider finances. Although over the long run cloth diapering is more economical than doing the disposable dance (as long as your washing machine survives – you can see more about that later on), it does involve a higher up-start cost.
In order to help off-set some of the cost for families, some municipalities have incentive programs as part of either their family or waste reduction policies. Most will pay up to 50% of the purchasing cost or up to a maximum of 150$ per family. Another way to get around it is to buy used – although I searched far and wide and if you live in the boonies, you’re usually out of luck finding a set to buy within driving distance.
If you think your friends and family will listen, you could always have a diaper-themed baby shower to cover the up-start cost. Not only would this supply the necessary items to get you going, but it would also avoid receiving yet another useless PJ or toy that will gather dust in the back of a closet because you can’t bring yourself to put it on or near your child. Furthermore, you go through WAY more diapers than onesies, contrary to what most people shopping for a newborn seem to think.
Another alternative for city-folk is to sign up with a diapering service through which one’s eco-conscience will be settled without even having to wash a single nappy. These usually end up costing pretty much the same as, or a little more than, disposable diapers depending on the service level and how many diapers you go through on average. Most of the services charge an initial set-up fee between 50$-200$ and then a weekly fee that’s usually 20$-50$. If you’re rural, no such service exists and learning to love laundry is the best alternative.
So armed with that knowledge I took to the Internet. When I first began shopping around on-line, the granola enviro-chick in me wanted to go for one-size-fits-all, organic and locally (or Canadian) made. When I did the math on that, the maintenance planner in me had a seizure, took over, and promptly replaced the vision with a made-in-China-but-distributed-in-Canada-mostly-bamboo-compromise.
If you’re curious about the mathematical details, here’s the low-down:
Granola Enviro-Chick Dream Vision:
AMP Pocket Diapers x 24 = $478.80
Canada Post Expedited or UPS Standard (Free Shipping): $0.00 GST 5%: $23.94
Maintenance Planner’s Reality Check:
(Bamboo Cloth Diapers x 24) + (Bamboo Inserts x 48) = $259.98
Canada Post Expedited or UPS Standard (Free Shipping): $0.00 GST 5%: $13.00
Now someone out there is going to object, ‘’But there are starter kits for AMP pocket diapers that retail at about 180$!’’ While I agree that’s true, I also declare that if you think you’re gonna make it through your diapering needs with one of those starter kits, you’re dreaming in Technicolor. One of the kits supposedly covers ten diaper changes (and looking at what’s in the kit, I seriously have my doubts on that). Here’s the catch – while you’re working on those ten diaper changes, the next ten had better be in the wash. Cloth diapering my little one for over three months now, I can tell you that I do between one and two loads of ten to twelve diapers each. Daily.
Another voice is piping up, ‘’But isn’t a baby only suppose to pee seven or eight times a day?’’ Perhaps that’s true, perhaps that’s the minimum, or perhaps it’s that disposable diapers wick away moisture quite effectively and so you only change baby’s diaper seven or eight times a day, when you remember to check it and see that the yellow indicator band turned blue. With cloth your little darling feels when he’s wet. Apparently that’s not a cool feeling. You therefore are very aware of when it’s time to change the liners. On the upside I’ve been told, that’s also a big part of why cloth diapered babies are toilet trained faster than their disposable diapered counter-parts. I’ll get back to you on that one.
The second consideration is the strength and durability of your washing machine. You don’t tend to think of things like that when you’re doing a few loads of laundry a week rather than supplying that volume to the washer every day. Relatively speaking that’s the difference between residential and institutional use. Realistically speaking, it means that you’re in luck if you’ve got an old-school top-loading machine that flamencos across the floor during the spin cycle – those old bastards are indestructible. If you’ve gone all energy-efficient and have a typical front loader, particularly one of the earlier models, then I feel your pain (being in that situation myself). You may well have to factor in the cost of a new machine along with your diapers – although as with the toilet training discussed above – I’ll get back to you on that one.
There are however some dos and don’ts that I’ve figured out along the way, particularly when dealing with less than ideal, old and getting-tired front-loaders. Don’t make the mistake I did of leaving pooh on diapers. Do use flushable liners if you want to avoid the worst of the whole pre-pooh-cleaning because scraping it off is not good enough. Most of those first generation EnergyStar™ washers don’t have a self-cleaning cycle. This means that any residue that comes off what you wash stays behind the drum and that when there’s enough of it in there it will stain your laundry with a smattering of black circles through the water drainage holes during the spin-dry. It may be thoroughly clean stain, but it’s still black and disfiguring to any clothes that were actually meaningful in your wardrobe, or that you want to wear in public – and the stain strikes indiscriminately and without warning.
Also don’t leave items in pockets to be laundered that are small enough to make it into the washing machine’s pump and block it up. You’ll know this has happened when the machine vainly tries to go through the spin cycle while sounding like a broken accordion and smelling a little burnt. At this point, do stop the cycle and put the poor appliance out of its misery. Do call a repair man or fix it yourself if you’re mechanically inclined. But first, do wring out a full load of diapers by hand and remove the excess water with pruned and blistered fingers. Again, this is experience speaking.
All this laundry does bring up the issue that although washable diapers reduce on garbage, they do represent a degree of water consumption that is not negligible. For those using bleach and/or traditional laundry detergents (even if they aren’t suggested for diapers, there are lots who use them nonetheless), it also adds up to lots of grey waters rife with chemicals that don’t help any aquatic environment that I know. Although many city systems will treat those waters to a greater or lesser extent, for those that run on a septic system it’s bad news for the surrounding area.
Furthermore, the ‘’basic laundry routine’’ suggested by many cloth diapering sites is not only labour intensive but is also water-intense. One site suggests using your washer at the highest water setting, and running a cold pre-wash or 2 hour hot soak followed with a regular hot wash and cold rinse along with an optional extra cold rinse. Another site foregoes the pre-wash but does specify a double rinse at the highest water setting.
I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea to go washable; I’m just saying that the cleaning needs to be thought through ahead of time if one desires to truly be ecologically-minded. Ways to do that (which are usually no-go if you follow the instructions provided by the diaper suppliers) include:
- Doing full loads at the minimum water setting which provides a good cleaning;
- Wash with warm or cold rather than hot water;
- Use a combination of baking soda and vinegar rather than bleach as laundry boosters;
- If you must go alkaline, consider Borax as a laundry booster rather than bleach;
- Make your own laundry detergent; it’s less expensive than buying and it allows you control on the composition and pH level;
- When buying detergent look for neutral pH, phosphate-free and biodegradable alternatives.
It’s also quite important to remember that biodegradable does not mean environmentally nor medically safe. Lots of really nasty chemicals are biodegradable, that doesn’t make them friends to your skin, your pets or your plants.
Next, let’s get to the down to the dirty details of pre-pooh-cleaning because that’s where the truly epic stories that you’ll tell for years all seem to occur. Murphy’s Law also makes sure that it’s when both hands are in the sink scrubbing shit that your nose gets itchy.
So a bit of background, I have a pee diaper bin (dry) and then I deal with the pooh diapers on an individual basis as required. I can do this thanks to the mixed feeding arrangement for the baby. The formula component of his diet results in a total of one or two bowel movements every one or two days: but oh, what a shit storm that diaper is.
Dealing with that pooh diaper includes gloving up, scraping the solids off the diaper and into the garbage with a butter knife, placing everything in the sink and scrubbing the remaining soil off by the power of the least amount of hot water possible, wringing everything out and then cleaning sink and counter to return them to a state fit for their usual activities. Total time elapsed: usually about five or six minutes.
Five or six minutes can be a very long time with a baby howling in the back-ground.
Upon assessing my modus operandi, my mother declared that the far simpler ‘’old-fashioned’’ method of dealing with the soils would be to flush the washable liner, while holding it, and let the centrifugal force of the toilet do the cleaning for me. This of course uses yet more water in the total tally, much the same way that using flushable liners does, hence my reticence to try it.
For argument’s sake I did do the experiment however. Turns out that the same mixed feeding arrangement which limits the total number of massive diaper messes I manage also makes for a far stickier and more solid mass. That mass was still staring me in the face bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after three flushes. Defeated I returned to the kitchen sink with the sopping wet liner.
There are other ways of dealing with the soiled diapers if one is so inclined. A sprayer hooked up by the toilet is a popular choice. Having a devoted soaking bin is another possibility. The main thing is having a system that will work and won’t result in dirties drying out or festering in a dark corner until they grow into a new form of life and start fighting back.
After all this, it may seem a mere insignificant after-thought to mention it, but cloth diapers also affect wardrobe choices. Anything baby wears will have to factor in the size of a massively padded ass. On a newborn, the diaper can look bigger than the baby and during tummy time at that age, the diaper will be movement limiting. Thankfully, the humungous size of ass varies inversely with the baby’s age if you’re using one-size-fits-all cloth covers, and things start looking less ridiculous as of about four months of age. But cutesy little pants suits are probably still out.
Where are the advantages to all this laundry and labour? Besides developing a tolerance to all things bodily discharge and pee & pooh occupying a large part of your day? And an intimate understanding and respect of how much work women of bygone days tackled in a day? No diaper rash as of yet would rank high on the list followed by the assuaging of my environmental conscience. But is it really better for the planet or is that more a matter of marketing and perceived reality than actual fact.
Here’s the kicker and conclusion: independent life cycle analyses of cloth and disposable alternatives actually shows that there isn’t much difference between the two when all things are said and done at the end of the day. While disposables create more landfill waste, a bit more resource use and slightly higher green-house gas emissions, washables generate a greater potential for water contamination and consume much more energy (electricity) and water than do their chuckable cousins.
Therefore, whichever method a parent chooses to use is ‘’The Right Way’’.