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Diaper Debate Photo Kevin Phillips

The diaper debate: Disposable? Cloth? Hybrid? What’s best?

The environmental ramifications of diapering are many. So it seems that new parents have yet another choice in the diaper dilemma: disposable, cloth or no diaper at all.

I would not have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself. But there was Violet, a sweet little 9-week-old, just up from a nap and straddling the smallest potty I’d ever seen. Her mother was holding Violet’s chubby thighs to steady her and making small “psss, psss, psss” sounds. And sure enough, within a couple of minutes, the newborn peed into her toilet. So it seems that new moms and dads have yet another choice in the diaper dilemma: disposable, cloth or no diaper at all.

For enviro-savvy Northwesterners trying to do right by Mother Earth as well as by their baby, it’s a lot to consider.

The environmental ramifications of diapering are many: the trash sent to landfills, the chemicals and resources used to make the diapers, the water and energy used to wash and dry cloth diapers, and the gas used to transport them. And then there are the costs, convenience and health effects that go along with the different options.

Situational ethics

Numerous studies have tried to resolve whether cloth or disposable is greener, but generally there’s little difference found, or cloth wins sometimes and disposable other times — usually according to who paid for the research.

So I put the disposable vs. cloth question to Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day, president and CEO of Seattle’s sustainability-focused Bullitt Foundation, and a very wise guy.

“Diapers are an example of situational ethics,” answered Hayes by e-mail. Do you live in a place where water is scarce? Do you live in a place where landfill is scarce and distant? Have you got access to a good diaper service with efficient laundry equipment and efficient pick-up routes? If you wash cloth diapers yourself, can you dry them on a clothesline?

For people living in the Puget Sound area, which has lots of water and clean energy, no nearby landfill and a longtime diaper service, the choice for Hayes was clear: Go with cloth.

Seattle-based Diaper Stork offers diaper service in the greater Seattle Metro area for a reason:

“Seattleites consider sustainability one of their core values” says Seattle-based Diaper Stork‘s website. The Diaper Stork goal “is for parents to know they have options that are both good for the environment, good for their families and to help make that choice as convenient as possible,” according to a website statement. Diaper Stork’s Ditch the Diapers Zero Waste Initiative, funded by the Waste-Free Communities Matching Grant program, offers free diapering, elimination communication and potty training classes and resources to parents and care providers.

Dana Chavez, formerly of Seattle-based Baby Diaper Service  (BDS) and now operations manager at Diaper Stork, used cloth on his own baby and said cloth diapers allow for the flow of critical elimination information — for babies and parents.

“The No. 1 important thing is that children nowadays don’t get changed frequently enough,” he said. Some disposables contain chemicals that are so absorbent that a child can pee three or four times before anyone — the child included — notices that they need changing.

“We want our children to recognize when they’re wet,” he said. He adds that such awareness can cut back on diaper rash and potentially motivate a child while going through potty training.

Plant-based disposable option

In fact, BDS, the company that pioneered diaper delivery to local Seattle families back in 1946, pivoted 180 degrees in 2022. Instead of cloth diapers, BDS now deliver plant-based disposable, recyclable diapers. Diapers are collected in biodegradable bags by BDS and sent on to a “waste to energy” recycling center. Company owners say the move is a reflection of parents’ demand for disposables and BDS’ commitment to environmental stewardship.

 “We have been helping families with all their diapering needs for over 76 years and have diverted millions of diapers from traditional landfills,” says BDS co-owner Carolyn Janisch. “Our mission has always been to provide the healthiest diaper for babies and the best option for our environment. With 95 percent of families choosing disposable diapers, our goal was to find a way to partner with families to have an even larger impact.” 

Janisch says she believes cloth and plant-based diapers are both sound environmental choices for diapering and is glad that delivery of either option is available in Seattle.

Cost

And then there’s making or buying and then washing your own diapers — a decision that may be healthier for your pocketbook. One local diaper supply retailer crunched the numbers: It costs about $2,500 to use disposables from birth to potty training (at about 2½ years). Diaper service for that same time period could run as high as $3,000. But it costs only $500 to $700 to buy your own cloth diaper supplies, and about $5 more per month on your power bill.

Another diapering option is a product known as a hybrid. These diapers use a disposable, usually flushable, insert that’s put inside of a waterproof cover similar to what’s used with cloth diapers. The environmental benefit is there’s less waste than a regular disposable diaper, with the benefit of potentially less hassle than cloth.

The hybrid market has been growing in recent years and there are multiple brands available, including gDiapers, Flip, GroVia, SoftBums and Charlie Banana.

Ease of use

We opted for cloth with our daughter. Outside of the diaper, we used a machine-washable cover.

Cloth is not as easy to use as disposables — you wind up toting around dirty diapers when you’re on the go, and it’s more challenging and important to shake the poop into the toilet when the diapers are dirty (although disposable-diaper users are supposed to toss their poop, too, to spare the landfills). But our daughter had little incidence of diaper rash and rarely had leaks. So we were happy with cloth.

That was until I met Violet. I’d heard of diaper-free babies, but the notion sounded insane.

But after spending part of an afternoon with Violet and her mom, Kerste Conner, the diaper-free approach almost seemed doable, maybe even rational. The idea is that people — and perhaps all mammals — don’t want to be soiled and prefer to pee or poop away from themselves. Following that logic, most babies will signal with a specific cry or fussing when they need a bathroom break.

Elimination communication

The job of the caregiver is to learn to recognize that signal and put the baby on a toilet. Parents also give cues — in Conner’s case, the “psss” sound — to help condition the child to associate the act with the sound. The practice also is called “elimination communication” because both the caregiver and the child are communicating.

The best time to start elimination communication (or “EC”) is between zero and three months of age, though later is possible. It’s not necessary to try to use it every time a child pees — part-time EC works. For parents unsure about the approach, practitioners suggest giving the baby the opportunity to use the potty after their longest nap of the day, a time at which they’ll be most inclined to pee, and when they have a bowel movement, the approach of which can be easier to identify with grunts and gas.

It’s best not to view EC as strictly diaperless, Conner said, but rather as an approach that uses fewer diapers — which can be significant, considering that conventionally diapered babies use between 3,000 and 7,000 diapers in their first few years.

Conner is now a mentor with Diaper Free Baby, an international nonprofit promoting the practice. She says there are several hundred families who belong to the group locally. But most people still think the approach is nuts.

“It can be a lonely thing to do in our culture,” she said. But for her family, “it felt like the right thing.”


Diaper stats

There are more diaper options than ever for your newborn baby, and it might take a little experimenting to figure out which choice matches your needs in terms of cost and convenience, as well as what best fits your baby’s bum. New babies are expected to use roughly 10 diapers a day, and hybrid and cloth diapers require the purchase of reusable covers. Here are some price estimates for newborn diapers based on products from big-name brands.

Disposables: .29 cents per diaper or around $85 a month

  • Huggies regular, 198-count pack is about $53, Huggies plant-based 198-count pack is $61 

Hybrids: .31 cents per diaper or $93 a month

  • SmartNappy 28-insert pack is about $16
  • Grovia 6 reusable diaper covers and 12 soaker inserts $210 

Cloth (with a diaper service): .33 cents per diaper or $97.50 a month

  • Seattle’s Diaper Stork cloth diaper service is $133 per month to provide 90 diapers, plus a one-time signup fee of $39
  • Six reusable covers cost about $50

Plant-based diaper delivery service:

  • Seattle’s Baby Diaper Service plant-based disposable diaper costs about $90 per month for a newborn ($51 for delivery, pick-up and bio waste bags, $39 for diapers), plus $15 account set-up fee
Diapering, elimination communication and potty training classes

Need information about cloth diapering or potty training? Diaper Stork offers free classes and videos to help parents understand options, elimination cues and training. Classes include Intro to Cloth Diapering, Infant Potty Training or Elimination Communication (for babies up to 6 months of age), and Toddler Potty Training (for little ones 18 to 30 months old) The company also offers potty training resources to day care providers through its “Ditch the Diapers Project,” funded by the Waste-Free Communities Matching Grant program,


Editor’s note: This article was written by Lisa Stiffler, a Seattle-based environmental writer and mother, and first ran in 2011. But just as babies continue to be born, so does the dilemma around how to handle their waste and what to do when diapering causes skin problems. Let the debate and diapering continue.

Read more Seattle’s Child:

Stuck at home during coronavirus: It could be the perfect time for potty training