3,292. That’s how many disposable diapers the typical baby uses in its first year, and all of them go into a landfill.
80. That’s about how many cloth diapers Dexter used in his first year, and none of them went into a landfill.
Dexter’s parents, Catherine Brozowski and Steve Conner, have been committed to using cloth diapers from the get-go. “We try to have as little impact on this planet as we can, and kids have an unbelievable effect on the environment just in terms of the amount of stuff you have to get and the size of the items and how much of it goes straight to the landfills,” Catherine said. “So when I got pregnant, we were looking for ways to reduce that impact.”
One of the first things Catherine did was commit to using cloth diapers. Disposable diapers are made of a blend of synthetic materials, including polyacrylate, polypropylene, polyester, and polyethylene. In other words, plastic. So, a newborn using disposable diapers puts about 20 pounds of plastic in a landfill in its first month alone. As a vice president of the Orfalea Foundation, one of the primary funders of CEC’s Ditch Plastic campaign, this was a concern for Catherine.
In addition to the plastic waste, there is also the issue of the – ahem – solid waste, which should be removed from the diaper and flushed in the toilet. According to the American Public Health Association, failing to do so can contaminate groundwater and also pose a threat to sanitation workers. Using cloth diapers eliminates both problems: no single-use plastic, and no threat of contamination.
Ditching plastic does not mean you are limited to one style of diaper, either. The days of simple white squares held together with pins are long gone. Now there are multiple styles, shapes and materials available, ranging from “all-in-one” diapers to a leak-proof “pocket” diaper with inserts. They come in cotton, hemp, fleece, and bamboo, and they can be snapped, pinned, or velcroed. They also come in every color and print imaginable: cars, flowers, zebra print, stripes, you name it.
When Dexter was born, Catherine and Steve handled everything about the diapers themselves. They tried out different styles and materials (most of them hand-me-downs from friends) and washed them at home. They would have continued to wash the diapers themselves, but now that Catherine is working full time again, they use Luludew, a diaper service. Each week, Luludew picks up dirty diapers from their doorstep and swaps them with clean ones. The service provides a reusable cloth bag, a diaper pail, reusable cloth pail liners, and a deodorizing disk. Customers can also choose to add cloth wipes, microfiber inserts for extra absorbency, or leak-resistant diaper covers to the service.
Catherine has found that there are other benefits to using cloth diapers in addition to keeping thousands of plastic diapers out of landfills. Kids who wear cloth diapers are potty trained at an earlier age because they notice wetness, while kids in super-absorbent synthetic diapers do not. Dexter, now almost two, is already starting to potty train, ahead of many of his peers. Catherine also notices that Dexter has not suffered from diaper rash the way that other kids his age have, which she also credits to cloth.
Catherine and Steve do acknowledge that cloth diapers have downsides. They make travel challenging, as dirty diapers have to come home with them. Going to the park or out to dinner around town is manageable, Catherine says. It just takes more planning. However, when they go on vacation, they agree to use disposable diapers. “We’re not 100 percent cloth, but we’re 98 percent cloth,” she explained.
Choosing cloth also limited their choices of preschools for Dexter, as many wouldn’t accommodate cloth diapers. However, they found a preschool that was a perfect fit for Dexter: Hope 4 Kids, a nature-based school in Santa Barbara. At first, Dexter was the only student wearing cloth diapers, but there are now other children at Hope 4 Kids wearing cloth, too.
Cloth diapers can also be expensive. Luludew charges Ventura and Santa Barbara county residents $26 a week, while buying a week’s worth of disposables at Costco costs about $12. However, at that rate, many parents would spend nearly $2,000 on disposable diapers by the time their child is potty trained. With cloth, they only need to buy a handful of diapers once, so after a steep initial cost, using and caring for cloth diapers without paying for a monthly service can actually be cheaper than buying disposable diapers every week.
There are also some environmental concerns. The amount of electricity and water that washing cloth diapers requires worries many people, including Catherine. “Water use is something that I’m concerned with in all aspects of my life, especially with this drought. But we have a high-efficiency washing machine for the covers, and using a company helps conserve water,” she said.
Ultimately, Catherine and Steve feel that any downsides to using cloth diapers are worth enduring in order to avoid adding to the growing problem of single-use plastics. “It’s worth it,” Steve said. “Hopefully the trend that we’ve seen at our daycare indicates other people are realizing that we need to work toward reversing the wasteful habits of the 20th century.”