Choosing the Best Diapers

When did diapers become so complicated? When my first child was in diapers, more than twenty years ago, there were two options. You could choose basic rectangular cotton cloth diapers, which required either sending out to a service or hours of laundry duty. Or, you could go with disposables– more expensive, but much easier and available in any color you wanted as long as it was white. I recall some discussion of the environmental destruction caused by throwing all those single-use diapers into a landfill, but washing cotton diapers used up water and electricity so the convenience and better absorbency of disposables was compelling.

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Disposables dominate the global market today with 66% of sales worldwide. In the US, more than 90% of babies use disposables but the number has declined in recent years, due to a drop in the birth rate and an uptick in use of reusable diapers. The average baby will go through 8,000 diapers before being completely potty trained; in the US, parents toss more than 28 million per year. They don’t take up as much space in landfills as you might think– only about 1.5% of total garbage– but they’ll be there a long, long time because each disposable diaper takes centuries to decompose. The global market for disposals is expected to grow nearly 50% to more than $52 billion in 2017. At $.20 per diaper, that means we will be throwing away 260 billion diapers per year. The majority of this growth is expected to occur in countries like India and China, where traditional methods are still quite popular today. In tropical areas babies often wear nothing at all and eliminations are cleaned up as needed, or pieces of cloth are used, dried and reused. In China many babies and toddlers wear split pants and can be held over a toilet (or sometimes a storm drain) as needed. You can now buy disposable diapers with a print designed by Heidi Klum at Babies ‘R’ Us, or with a cartoon character like these Huggies. But if you really want your baby’s butt to be fashionable, the small but growing category of reusable diapers offers many choices from fun solid colors and army camouflage to multi-color florals and animal prints.

Reusable brands have cute names like BumgeniusRumparoozEconobumFuzzibunz, and LoveandStuff and offer a wide array of styles, materials, and accessories. Reusable cloth diapers now come in Pocket Style, Pre-Fold, All-in-One, One-Size Fits All, and Fitted. The Pocket Style allows for inserts in different materials, including cotton, microfiber, hemp, and bamboo with different thickness and absorbency depending on the situation. Pre-Folds are the old-fashioned cloth diapers which have extra layers sewn in and are used in combination with an outer water-proof cover. All-in-Ones have an outer water-proof layer and several absorbent layers but no pocket for an insert. As the name implies, they are easy and convenient but take longer to dry. One-Size Fits All diapers have a multiple snap system which allows the diaper to grow with your child. Fitted diapers are shaped but require a water-proof cover.

There are many factors to consider when choosing a diapering system for your baby. Comparative costs, environmental considerations, convenience, and concern for your child’s health all factor into the decision. Disposables cost more than reusables overall– you pay for the convenience. But disposables contain plastics, adhesives, glues, elastics and lubricants which can be irritants and even potentially toxic. The diaper industry is self-regulating and therefore does not have to disclose product contents so it’s difficult to know exactly what’s in a disposable diaper. Many organizations such as Ecolife are urging parents to consider the benefits of natural diapers. The most recent comprehensive, and independent, comparison of the environmental effects of disposable diapers and reusables was in 2008 by the British Environmental Agency (comparable to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). They concluded that based on average washer and dryer use, disposable diapers are slightly more environmentally-friendly than cotton due to the water usage and energy costs. Cotton diapers’ effect on the environment can be improved with line drying and lower water temperatures. If you’d like to read the study, it’s available here. Skip to the last page to see the conclusions.

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Photo Credit: Ebay

There are lots of great resources to help evaluate the benefits of diapers. This article from SCGH (formerly Sierra Club Green Home) does a great job of outlining the pros and cons of the diaper choices. Gathering information to make an informed decision is the only way to ensure we make the best decisions for our family. We know our circumstances, resources, and children better than anyone. But who can blame eager new parents for doing what they think is right for the environment while also garbing their baby in adorable floral or fish patterns– even if they’re on diapers which are mostly covered by clothes? After all, Victoria’s Secret has made a fortune designing fashionable underwear. We get pleasure simply from the joy of using beautiful and fun accessories, whether it’s for ourselves or our children– it’s human nature. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to choose what is right for us and our kids.

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Liz Smith has worked across the globe for many of the world’s major apparel brands, including Victoria’s Secret, Chico’s, Justice, and Hanes. She has earned thousands of airline points and worn out several suitcases visiting factories in more than 20 countries to ensure that production is of the highest standard. Liz has managed all aspects of garment production, from design through fabric development to sewing and merchandising– so she knows what it takes to make high-quality apparel. Liz is thrilled to share her knowledge about clothes to help discerning customers choose the finest products.

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