Consumerism and Diapers

I had an interesting discussion with my brother about diapers on the golf course yesterday that lead to a more heated discussion between my spouse and I because she thought I was being unreasonable in my expectations of ‘other people.’  This happens fairly frequently as I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t look at things like I do.  😉

I had asked my brother what kind of diaper he was going to use with his new baby on the way.  He didn’t even think and answered disposables.

I questioned why he made this decision, to which I received the answer “because it’s easier”.

I asked him if he had looked into the cost of cloth diapers vs. disposables or any sort of analysis beyond the simplicity factor, to which I received a negative response.

At this point, because we were at a golf course on father’s day I left the point alone – until the car ride home when I went over the conversation with my wife and noted (even though we don’t plan on having children) I couldn’t see any reason beyond the pain of cleaning the diapers to buy plastic that had to be thrown out after 1 use vs. cloth that would last for a significant period of time.  I was told that most parents don’t think like that, they don’t want to deal with the messiness and inconvenience of cleaning diapers when there is a simple alternative available.  These are arguments that I really dislike – I’m as lazy as the next person but like to look at the big picture on subjects like this.  My arguments for diapers can be applied over many consumer products in use today, such as ziploc bags vs. reusable containers; paper towels vs. rags etc.

Tim had previously discussed his switch from cloth to disposable diapers here – rather than look at it from a quality of life stance, I’m going to look at the impact of using something disposable (in this case a diaper) to something re-usable (cloths).  Most of the information I got came from here, which admittedly is a pro-cloth diaper site, however I don’t think the pro-disposable diaper conglomerate has much in the way of an argument given the following:

  • Over 92% of all single-use diapers end up in the landfill.
  • It’s estimated that a disposable diaper would take 250-500 years to decompose.
  • Disposable diapers are the third largest consumer item in landfills, and represent approximately 4% of solid waste.
  • Disposable diapers contain traces of dioxin as a by-product of the paper bleaching process, along with several other nasty toxic pollutants, which besides probably not being good for a baby’s skin is definitely not good for the land and soil during the 250-500 years this product takes to decompose.

So, rather than having to deal with some baby messes most people buy something that will have to be dealt with for maybe the next FIVE CENTURIES?  Does this make sense?  I’m not really sure why there’s even a product like this out there – I would have to say that in this circumstance the environmental impact isn’t being looked at, rather most people are looking at the easier choice right now, rather than the total impact that the purchase will have in the future (hundreds of years down the road).

From what I have read cost of cloth to disposable varies, but let’s say they are approximately the same on average.  At the end of 2 years, approximately 6,000 diapers have been put into a landfill if you’ve been using disposable diapers.  While if you had chosen cloth, you’d have some tattered rags that could be used around the house, or alternatively (because it’s made of a decomposable material) will disappear (in optimal conditions in about 2 weeks).

As a culture we have created products whose main purpose is to be thrown out in order to make things more simple for us.  From a personal finance perspective longer-lasting reusable purchases tend to have a lot of up-front costs that make them undesirable to many people.  What is created by the easy choice is a lot of garbage.  I’m sure more trash has been created in the last 100 years than there ever has been in the past due to the invention of plastic.  From an environmental perspective these products are a nightmare, but most people are not looking at the big picture.

For myself, I attempt to purchase as little as possible and when I do I tend to buy longer-lasting durable products rather than disposable goods.  I will freely admit that I do own disposable products (ziploc bags, paper towels etc.) but try to limit my use of them.

I’m wondering:

  1. Do you think about the purchasing decisions you make beyond the initial outlay?
  2. If you have your child in disposable diapers did you ever think about cloth?  If you chose disposable diapers, how did you come to this conclusion?

20 thoughts on “Consumerism and Diapers”

  1. Ok, since I’m already linked to in the post I’ll go first here.

    1) Yes, I tend to think in terms of lifetime costs about most things, but I freely admit I don’t do it all the time. I get lazy like other people some times.

    2) I will perhaps expand a little on the reason why we switched. Ironically we bought a new front load washer to save money on water (which it did), but it did have an unintended problem. The opening was a bit too small for the diaper pail to pour in the diapers so my wife would have to transfer them by hand and pour out the pail water in the toilet (ick). We tried to find a pail that would hold enough diapers and have have a narrow enough opening to fix the issue. We couldn’t find one and with the diapers falling apart we just gave up and switched. So when you buy a front load washer make sure it has a bigger opening if you plan to do cloth diapers.


  2. Deciding between cloth vs. disposable really depends on where you live. Here in Toronto, you can put diapers in the green waste bin so they’ll be composted, thus keeping them out of the landfill. On the other hand, you can opt for cloth diapers, but then deal with the added environmental cost of all that extra water use for washing them. Plus, if you use a service, then there’s the fact that some guy drives across town to bring them to you. All things you have to weigh in the equation.

    I’m having my first baby soon and still not sure what seems best to me – from a cost, convenience or environmental perspective. I know I’m lucky to have these options – especially the green waste collection, which I’m sure many Canadians don’t have.

    I’m just saying it’s not so cut-and-dry.

  3. I don’t think it’s lazy. I think it’s a careful balancing act between cost, ecology and quality of life. Since you can’t attach numbers to quality of life issues, it’s not as simple as $0.25 per diaper initial cost + five centuries decomposition time < 108 convenience points. Having three kids, I know why we chose disposable. I also know why my sister chose cloth. I wouldn't change and I wouldn't try to convince her to change.

    If you don't think your brother is right, why don't you provide a volunteer diaper service? Better yet, wait until your grandparents are in diapers, and offer to use cloth.

  4. Ever noticed that the best parents in the world are people who don’t have kids? Until you have walked a mile in a new parent’s shoes – DON’T JUDGE

    Diapers are an example of one of the hundreds of decisions that new parents have to make when planning for their new baby. It’s an overwhelming time for most people.

    Another disadvantage to cloth diapers is that the baby has to be changed more often because the dampness is not drawn away from their skin like it is with disposable diapers. So, while you may be able to wait 3 hours (and probably 3 pees) to change a disposable diaper if you are out or baby is asleep, cloth diapers create a more urgent need for changing.

    My oldest had very sensitive skin. So sensitive that we were unable to use baby wipes – so cloth diapers were definitely out since she needed the stay-dry technology of disposables.

    Most of my friends who use cloth diapers use them at home. When they are out they use disposables and some of them use disposables overnight as well. They found a happy medium between convenience and enviromental concern.

  5. @ Meredith: From the Toronto website “The organic material will be made into high-quality compost for farmlands and parklands. The Green Bin Program will increase our waste diversion and greatly reduce the amount of garbage we send to landfill”

    – I think the main note here is that the “organic” material will be made into high-quality compost – the city sorts this stuff – diapers are still and other non-organic materials are still going to the landfill.

    My main point is that sometimes the convenient option for you is going to be significantly inconvenient down the road for others.

    @ Robert – I know why everyone chooses disposables – baby waste is gross. I also know that underlying all this is a general sense that someone else will deal with our messes. I brought my brother up specifically as an example, but I could have used anyone with children or anyone who decided to go through rolls of paper towel rather than using rags etc.

    @ Dana: From what I’ve read, from the site I noted in my post, which was sourced to an article on reducing diaper dermatitis, newborns should be changed every hour and older babies every 3-4 hours regardless of the type of diaper.

    Most of the world uses cloth diapers, and historically, until the invention of plastic and other synthetic materials everyone used cloth diapers, it’s only within the last 50 years or so that these products existed – I’m sure parents dealt with sensitive skin on toddlers in the 1800’s just fine using something other than a plastic diaper.

    I understand the downside of cloth diapers, I’m using them as an indication of consumerism – we as a society have decided that rather than going through the inconvenience of cleaning and messes etc. we’re going to create this massive quantity of garbage.

    If I didn’t judge or have opinions, it would make for a pretty boring post, wouldn’t it?

  6. Dave, since you are so environmentally sensitive – why are you out on a golf course? Those things are terrible for the environment.

    And did you carpool with your bro-in-law? Did you use organic golf balls? 😉

    We used disposables and never considered cloth.

  7. @ Dana: For someone who does not want to be judged you seem quick to judge those without kids. I also don’t think it is judging to have an opinion on the choices people make that will affect future generations for the next 500 years. Non-smokers constantly have opinions on the choices of smokers as it has an effect on their environment and potentially their health. I think it is great that these environmental issues are finally being addressed whether it is by parents or the judgemental childless people out there. Diapers are great example of the wasteful habits that we have become accustomed to due to them being disposed of in such large quantities but they are just that, an example.

    I personally am guilty of using disposable items when there are alternatives; I am a fan of Ziploc baggies and of paper towels. I have tried to limit my use but I am not perfect as of yet. To do “my part” I have starting using a Diva Cup, a silicone reusable cup for menstrual cycles. It, like cloth diapers, has a down side since you do have to wash them out, boil them etc but they are better for the environment since they limit the waste caused by feminine hygiene products. They are also much better for women as they do not contain toxic products (such as bleach) and in such a sensitive area that is definitely a health benefit. A lot of women would not be open to the idea of a cup, at least not the ones I have discussed it with, but if a man gave his opinion on this issue I would not see it as judging since my waste has an effect on his environment as well. Even if you don’t use the product you should be able to express an opinion.

    Sparking a conversation on this issue is a great thing, even though some people are very defensive, if it gets even just one person thinking about diapers, baggies, paper towels, swiffers or other disposable products it can have a great impact on the environment and the wallet in most cases.

  8. @ Dave: I understand that a newborn should be changed every hour and older babies every 3 hours (been there, done that) but life happens and sometimes you’re stuck in a car, hesitant to wake a sleeping baby that took hours to finally fall asleep, etc. The sensitive skin we dealt with was not on a toddler, but on a newborn who was a few days old. Her sensitivity was noticed while in the hospital and only got worse when she came home. Any kind of moisture at all was a problem. For us, disposables were our only option. However since we could not use baby wipes, we really helped the environment that way. We had mountains of organic cotton washcloths instead.

    People coped without convenience items 50 years ago, they coped without lots of modern amenities. Traditionally, one parent (usually the Mom) stayed home and had time to wash and tend to diapers.

    @Nicole: I am all for generating discussion on consumerism, environmental issues and waste, but discussion can be generated without pointing fingers and judging. It’s all in the delivery and tone of the discussion and I guess the tone of this post offends me/ rubs me the wrong way.

    BTW – the Diva cup rawks. I have converted a few friends by handing them out as gifts.

  9. Here’s an entire different take on today’s posting …. there are just too many people in the world (Canada included). Reducing the number of people reduces the amount of garbage, reduces the impact on the environment, etc. Not too palatable a subject, but at some point the out of control human population will be controlled. It might come through man made policies, but I don’t think so, given the human condition of thinking most growth is good (especially econonic growth) and given that politicians are unwilling to tackle it. The reductions, if todays predictions hold out, will occur through a sickening environment, though there is still a chance of some kind of catastrophic pestilence, disease or war. I see population as a root cause to many problems. But enough of my rant and getting back to the topic of the post, my family used cloth diapers for 10 years. We saved a few thousand as well as reducing our environmental impact.

  10. We’ll be starting off with cloth diapers in a few months….if you’re in the Toronto area, there is a Kushies outlet in Stoney Creek where you can buy their cloth diapers for half off (or more) from what it is in stores!

  11. gDiapers [not a Google product] are a good compromise. The soiled part is removable and can be flushed down the toilet. The inner core is biodegradable and can be put into compost. The outer shell is machine washable. When [if] I have kids, I’m going the gDipes route. It’s much more earth-friendly and, over the long term, cost-effective.

    Almost everybody I know uses disposables, but I hate the smell that diapers emanate. gDipe houses don’t have that smell. And unlike cloth, you don’t actually have to wash the soiled diapers [unless the little angel has an explosion]. And gDiapers are available in stores in Canada [something I just found out].

  12. We’ve been using cloth diapers for 5 months now and absolutely love them.

    Cloth diapers nowadays are incredibly absorbent and do not leave wetness next to baby’s bottom. Modern textiles are amazing!

    They do take time to wash and put back together tho. I can understand that some parents don’t have that time, and so will choose to pay out the nose for disposables or a service. I estimated we would save over a thousand dollars easily.

    Society today doesn’t support new parents like they need to be supported, so I don’t judge parents that don’t have the time to deal with cloth! It really does take a village to raise a child. Maybe one day we will place the correct importance on children.

  13. @ Dana – So, I’m wondering how people dealt with these issues around “life happening” prior to the invention of a disposable product that is just easier to use?

    I understand what you’re saying around the convenience and usefulness of this particular product, but what I’m saying is that there is a significant downside to using something that is created using tons of energy and resources just to throw out simply for conveniences sake.

    It just seems environmentally irresponsible when looking at the total impact that products like these are having on landfills and the environment, especially when there are alternatives which are generally disregarded because they involve work. So instead, we end up with massive amounts of unnecessary garbage to support these and other similar one-use products.

    @ HGM – I completely agree, stay tuned for a few weeks from now I was writing on a similar subject.

    @ Valerie – This sounds like a very good alternative – at least the “business end” can do something other than sitting in a dump for a few centuries.

    @ Cielia – I guess my thing is that if you’re going to have a child, perhaps the time commitment around cleaning up its messes should be examined, rather than having the attitude of “let’s have a baby, who cares if I throw out 6,000 dirty diapers over the next 2 years?” – you multiply that by however many millions of babies born in a year and we have a problem. I’m asking where the uproar is? This is a practice that is accepted that probably shouldn’t be.

  14. It is kind of amazing that Mathusians are still around crying about over population. You would have thought after all these years of being proven wrong, they would quit. Guess not, eh ?

    As far as what people throw away in the garbage, like disposables, or any garbage — it could be priced in. In other words, if the cost of the diaper reflected disposal, people could make a fully informed choice reflecting your concerns about 300 year decomposition times.

    Of course, to be fair, we would have to do that for everything everyone throws out. Which would mean that half of us would be employed weighing the s**t in our neighbors diapers. But at least we would have solved the ‘problem’ of disposable diapers.

  15. When our first was born we attempted to go cloth. We arranged for a service thinking we’d found a good compromise – no diapers in the landfill and someone else does the nasty laundry. Turned out that because we live 15+ minutes out of town they would only do a pick up and divery run to our area once a month…ick. About the same time we determined that no amount of frequent changing and zinc cream could resolve our son’sconstant diaper rash (severe with peeling skin and bleeding open wounds). We decided to try disposables for a week to see if there was any imporovement. Two days into the experiment and he was healing nicely. We cancelled the diaper contract and eventually the last load of dirty diapers was picked up. When our second child was born I admit we didn’t even try cloth and went straight to disposables. I did consciously potty train them as early as I possibly could to reduce the number of diapers, but they were each in diapers for 18mths.

    In general I do consider the long term costs of purchases I make. I don’t normally buy overly packaged goods, even if they are all recyclable. I buy lunch items in large sizes and repackage in individual reusable containers. I never buy clothing that will require dry cleaning. We always consider the fuel efficiency and recommended mainenance schedule of a vehicle – an great deal up front is no deal if it is a gas guzzler and requires premium fluids, or expensive replacement parts.

  16. @Dana: my first daughter has the same problem, but we dealt with it in another way. Best way to stay dry is to wear no diaper as much as possible 😉 so when she was sleeping we lay her down in a open diaper. We were able to change her very easily, even when she was sleeping (and she wasn’t exacly a SLEEPING baby…) But I don’t think this technique would have been possible with a baby boy… 😉

    We used cloth diapers as long as she went to the daycare that didn’t accept cloth diapers, so we had to buy disposables. Same with our second daughter.

    Today I still don’t understand why daycare do not respect parents’ choice to use cloth diapers.

  17. I have a 14.5 month old son, and have cloth diapering him since he was 2 months old. I’ve probably spent a bit more on my diaper stash than most people, so the numbers posted on the blog isn’t really correct for me. After a year of cloth diapering, here are my thoughts:

    – Sometimes it is more trouble than it’s worth: I wash all my diapers myself in my front loader, and there are days when I’m wondering why the heck I’m doing this
    – You do get skin problems because of the dampness, so you should be changing more often. But you should be changing more often with disposables anyways.
    – There are odd occasions where I’ve had to disposables, and yes, they are much, much easier to use.
    – My water and energy consumption have increased four-fold. Thank goodness I live in a part of Canada where I pay a flat fee for water usage. But I figure, if I’m doing that many more loads already with a new baby, what’s a couple more for diapers?
    – cloth diapers, like clothing, does require some maintenance beyond the routine washing, like elastics or snaps that need to be replaced.

    I actually want to make some other points that other people haven’t mentioned or to just to offer a different perspective:
    – you are reducing the number of items going into the landfill when you use cloth diapers. There is a myriad different types of cloth diapers out there on the market, and most of them don’t need pins. Cloth diapering is actually easier than you think in a lot of cases (but is still more work than disposables)
    – your baby actually needs to have diaper-free time on a regular basis, regardless of cloth or disposable use. That’s the healthiest thing for their skin, it needs to breathe. Putting their bums in diapers actually suffocates the skin. The next best thing is to change the diaper as soon as it gets wet or soiled.
    – did you know that you’re actually not supposed to throw biohazardous material into the landfill? Yes, I’m talking about poop, that should be flushed down the toilet, whether you use cloth or disposables, where it goes to the waste treatment plants for processing.
    – Diapering services, from a cost perspective, actually doesn’t cost any less than buying disposables.
    – There are actually another way to reduce the amount of diapers that you use, a technique called Elimination Communication. It’s a lot of work, but I have a couple of colleague who have successful potty trained their children before the age of one.
    – There is actually a big market out there for reselling cloth diapers, so you can recoup some of your initial cost. Even if you don’t sell them, you can certainly give them away to others to use
    – You can use the same set of cloth diapers for 2 or more children (there are a ton of stay at home moms who actually make their own cloth diapers! for even more cost savings)

    I once went on a two week vacation when my son was 6 months old, and I couldn’t bring my cloth diapers on the trip because of logistical reasons, so I had to figure out how many disposable diapers I had to bring with me. 150 for two weeks. That just blew me away, both the cost and the waste. As much as I have second thoughts about cloth diapering (and trust me, I’ve had plenty over the course of the year), I find that it’s a much better alternative for our family than disposables.

  18. @Irene: I had a couple of friends who also did the Elimination Communication. It’s a very interesting technique, but forget it if you can’t be at home full time with your baby for at least 12 to 18 months… daycare will not give any help with EC.

    @Nicole+Dana: Diva Cup is the greatest invention ever. Period ;-). I think I should start selling’em lol, I converted so much friends already lol!

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