The choice for diapering these days has become overwhelming. Companies have come up with an amazing myriad of products to serve your baby’s backside, and they are making a fortune doing it. But are disposable, cloth, biodegradable diapers really any better than each other? Are they better for the environment, or better for your bank account? And then there’s the logistics… I have twins, I was changing over 20 diapers a day when they were first born!
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I have been part of a small online mom’s group since I found out I was pregnant with the twins, and they are my go-to for any questions about motherhood, I call them my baby-ladies. Between us we seem to have beautifully covered every mom-type there is, so I knew they would be the source of wisdom I needed to put this post together. In researching the real cost of disposable, cloth, biodegradable diapers, I have three main factors to consider:
- How green/eco-friendly are they?
- How cost-effective are they?
- How practical are they?
What I haven’t yet delved into is the potential health benefits of disposable, cloth, biodegradable diapers, which may also be something to research in your consideration.
The Disposable, Cloth, Biodegradable Diapers Debate
Despite what might be happening politically at the moment, I would like to think many people seek to reduce waste and their carbon footprint. I almost feel dirty telling you that my twin boys have been in disposables since birth; I did consider giving cloth a go, but to be honest I was so terrified at the prospect of having two babies to take care of, I figured I’d just keep it simple. Disposables are nice and easy… use it, chuck it, get a fresh one, brilliant. But that’s where is all goes wrong. According to Dawn at ‘Small Footprint Family‘, disposable diapers are responsible for 7.6 billion pounds of garbage each year in America alone. Dawn also breaks down the cost in resources to make disposables, claiming (even taking into account washing) compared to cloth they:
- waste twice as much water,
- use three times more energy,
- use 8 times more non-renewable raw materials (like oil and minerals),
- and use 90 times more renewable raw materials (like tree pulp and cotton).
On the flip side, others such as Kendyl Salacity from the Washington Post are concerned that the cotton inserts and prefolds used in cloth diapers are encouraging the growth of unsustainable cotton farming:
Cotton is an extremely thirsty crop. Although roughly 30 cloth diapers serve the function of 4,000 disposables, cloth’s water demands are almost nine times the alternative.
So Dawn says disposables use twice as much water as cloth, and Kendyl claims cloth uses nine times as much as disposables. I really have no idea what to believe. Biodegradable diapers’ green credential aren’t as black and white as you may think either, more on that below…
Choosing Between Disposable, Cloth, Biodegradable Diapers
You may automatically presume disposable diapers are going to break the bank… cloth is going to save you loads of money, right? Not necessarily. It really depends which style/brand of cloth you choose and which brand/seller of disposables you choose. We had a huge discussion on this last year in my mom’s group… who could find the best deal on disposable Pampers? In the end it was agreed… Having your diapers delivered to the door on a monthly subscription through Amazon Prime was the cheapest option for all. Their prices are great anyway, and you get 20% off!
Every time I look up the annual cost of diapering I see different numbers; but many sites are massively over inflating the cost of disposables (usually based on boxes of 25 from the Grocery Store) to make cloth look cheaper. This is what I believe it cost us to keep our babies’ butts in Pampers Swaddlers (per baby) for the first year:
2500 diapers at at average cost (price varies slightly with size) of $0.14…. total $350 per year. Other sites report anywhere from $500-$900 a year and it’s just not true. Shop sensibly and disposable diapers are reasonably cost effective. The second year is cheaper too, because you’ll probably only use 2200 diapers, costing around $300 if you shop wisely.
Pampers Swaddlers are obviously not the only brand available. Baby-lady Nina outsourced her disposable diaper research to her teenage daughter. For a school science project big sister tested Pampers, Huggies and Seventh Generation Diapers and found:
While the Huggies and Pampers absorbed more, they both smelled SUPER weird when exposed to liquid and didn’t absorb fast enough. If a diaper wasn’t applied just right, it would be easy for large amounts of liquid to escape before they got absorbed.
Thanks to Nina’s daughter, her little brother has been in Seventh Generation ever since and they haven’t looked back. I love a good experiment… and I’m now wondering if my children smell weird. Baby-lady Kaila prefers Pampers Cruisers, and many ladies love Target’s own brand ‘Up and Up‘ – great value for money and you get a discount if you subscribe with them too.
With a hybrid, you can decide how green you want to go… use either ‘biodegradable’ disposable inserts or washable cloth inserts in your cloth cover (see All-in-Two below for more on washable inserts). The disposable inserts mean the bulk of the waste doesn’t have to be dealt with, and there is considerably less washing to do.
The cost though is not so pretty if you want this happy halfway house. Not only do you have to buy the hybrid covers, but the disposable inserts are more expensive that a disposable diaper, up to twice the price in fact, compared with big brand disposable diapers. However, if you plan on using the cloth inserts most of the time, and want a little extra convenience when you leave the house, hybrid diapers might just be perfect. After all, who wants to carry around a wet soggy diaper in their bag for the rest of the day?
In regard to the green side of things, the hybrid brand gDiaper got into a little bit of trouble in 2012 after it was asked by the FTC to back up it’s eco-claims. There was concern that customers were under the impression that their ‘biodegradable’ inserts will naturally break down in landfill. This is not the case, and when flushed they can’t promise they’ll break down either. No… you have to get your home composting going if you want to stay green. Diapers even had to ditch the ‘certified’ wording before ‘biodegradable’ to keep the FTC happy.
Despite all this, I still love the flexibility of this option! gDiaper, Charlie Banana, Flip and GroVia all offer disposable liners. Here are some of my favorite picks:
All-in-one, as it suggests, has the convenience of being a single part, no separating, no folding, no stuffing. However, some have a pocket to bump up the absorbency when needed, at night for example. After trying a number of brands, baby-lady Kate is a big fan of Blueberry Simplex All In One Diapers for their all cotton inners:
“What I ultimately realized is that I hate synthetic fiber diapers (microfiber).”
The all cotton diapers are a little pricey, especially if you go with the organic cotton version, but nothing is too good for that beloved toosh, eh? Kate has 30 diapers to keep her going, totaling a cost of around $700, but these system are designed to last from newborn to potty training.
In reality, small newborns may not quite fit, and chunky toddlers may burst out, but overall these system are a one size thing. You can get some brands in newborn and larger sizes if needed. Kate has a selection of sizes and admits she deals with a bit of “diaper addiction”… there are all so pretty after all! Here’s a photo of a portion of her stash for size comparison:
My favorite pretty All-in-Ones:
Pocket diapers, as the names suggests, have the absorbent material stuffed into a pocket. This may be a purpose made insert, or a folded ‘prefold (yes, you have to fold the prefold, aha). This additional step is a bit of a headache, but it gives the flexibility of filling it with whatever you want. These stuffed pockets can make Baby’s behind on the large size though, so be careful with your clothes choices. Baby lady Jen says:
“we can only use bumGenius brand of pocket diapers because Baby’s skin needs true stay-dry or she breaks out horribly,”
It seems the freedom to stuff that diaper full of all the absorbent stuff mean you may have a better chance of making it through the night without leaks and avoiding the dreaded diaper rash. And although some cloth diapers system can get pricey, there are cheaper alternative such as ALVABABY Pocket Cloth Diapers.
All-in-two systems appeal to me because the entire diaper does’t get washed every time. You’ll probably do the same amount of dedicated diaper washes, but you won’t need as many covers and there will be less drying costs. I like the idea that you just snap/tuck in and out a freshly washed insert, and wash the whole thing when things get messy. Baby-ladies Jillian and Bethany both like Flip diaper covers, combined with a charcoal and bamboo washable insert. The inserts just tuck in with no stuffing into awkward pockets required.
Baby-lady Abby also find the All-in-Two system is less bulky than the Pocket system which is why she uses them by day.
“We are 100% cloth: daycare, weekend trips, swim time. We use Bumgenius at night and Best Bottom during the day. I only do laundry once a week so I have a decent stash without going overboard.”
Abby’s stash of diapers to wash only once a week however comes at a cost… 9 Bumgenius pocket diapers, 15 Best Bottom All-in-Two Covers, and 32 Best Bottom inserts is coming to around $850, which sounds like a lot, but these systems go from newborn through to 35lb+, therefore if you potty trained at 2.5 it would only cost $350 a year plus the energy/water cost of washing.
Most mom’s however wash every two/three days, so you could reduce your cloth diaper stash to as much as half the example above, costing more like $175 per year plus the energy/water cost of washing.
How much do it cost to wash cloth diapers?
According to this cool laundry energy calculator, if I do three loads a weeks set to hot wash in Phoenix (with a sensibly priced detergent), I will be spending at extra $180 a year.
Based on this… a modest cloth diaper system plus washing is going to set you back around $355 a year, pretty much the same as disposables. But nothing goes into landfill… nothing. And you can even pass on your outgrown diapers through sites like Diaper Swappers or your local moms swip-swap site.
However, not everyone has it that easy, and baby-lady Jen reports that a single wash and dry isn’t always enough:
“Washing diapers well means a pre-rinse, then heavy soiled main wash and rinse, then another rinse to get every last bit of detergent out to avoid rashes. Then two to three runs in the dryer to actually dry. Our electricity bill has skyrocketed…”
Jen lives in California where utilities are notoriously high, and she saw a raise in bills of up to $120-$150 a month because of the extra cycles she was having to run to avoid rashes on sensitive baby skin. This little ones sensitive skin was soaring costs into around $1500 a year! Others too have reported that getting those poopy diapers perfectly clean is difficult, and some prefer to use a service to do it for them (more on that below).
Prefolds / Flats
We’re into retro territory, Grandma would be proud. Brush up on your folding skills and have a go at traditional diapering. The ‘flat’ diaper is exactly what your parents would have worn as babies – folded up cotton, held together with a pin or a ‘Snappi‘ at the front. Prefolds give a little less prep work as the name suggests; there is less folding involved because they are thicker ‘pre-folded’ panels. I was wondering if you could just leave it at that, after all I’m pretty sure that’s what you see in the movies set pre-1950. But baby-lady Jeanine says:
“We definitely need to use covers, otherwise she’d wet right through the prefolds; there’d be no waterproof lining.”
Despite the cost of the cover, flat and prefold diapers are a notoriously cost effective option. Lets look at the numbers:
Baby-lady Jen recommends 24 Cloth-eez refolds, if you bought sizes Small, Medium, and Large it would cost around $90 total. Add some Snappi Cloth Diaper Clips and 12 sensibly priced covers, and you’re looking at around $270 a year.
Baby-lady and diapering guru Meredith has tried them all, including the traditional flats your mother would have worn. She says:
“People think flats are a ton more work, when really I think they’re easier than prefolds and less bulky! And they clean up so much better, especially with hard water, so I love them for stinky toddler pee…”
However, you are going to have to learn some diaper origami to make it work, which family members and daycare may not approve of. For the super frugal mama, Meredith recommends two sets of flats (you may need half flats for littles and regular for when they’re bigger) and a very basic waterproof diaper pant over the top. You can make this work for as little as $200 a year.
After feeling fed up with mountains of washing and inflated utility bills, Baby-lady Jen decided to ditch the cloth diapers and opt for biodegradable disposable diapers. Similarly to the gDiaper inserts above, these diapers are not going to degrade in your regular trash bag in landfill, and it’s unlikely you’ll have the scale of composting at home to make it work. However, Jen has opted for a door-to-door composting service.
Jen claims the cost of the service ($30 a month) is the same as the increase in her water bill alone when washing cloth, without even considering the rise in electricity on top. She gets her Naty by Nature Babycare Diapers delivered straight to her door, and the used ones are picked up in the same way. They are taken to a composting station to be broken down as best they can, and the whole service costs $80 a month, or $960 a year.
But how biodegradable are biodegradable diapers?
The Naty website says:
‘At Naty we use renewable resources whenever possible, however our nappies are not 100% biodegradable.’
Although the plastic outer layer found on conventional diapers has been replaced with a biodegradable, breathable material, there is no getting away from the ‘super-absorbent granules which are necessary to enhance the absorbency of the nappy‘. The bulk of the diaper is made of ‘biodegradable chlorine free cellulose fluff pulp‘ so I’m sure there’s not a lot left for landfill, but I’d be interested to know how these composting stations separate the two different materials. Still, this is surely a greener alternative, especially for those extra sensitive bottoms that don’t always like cloth.
Door to Door Washing Services
If the idea of unpredictable utility bills and mountains of washing is holding you back trying cloth diapers, a door to door washing service might be for you. Baby-lady Ahhlexiz is using a door to door service to wash the cloth diapers she uses by day and the biodegradable disposable she uses at night.
“Since the company we use does both compostable and cloth, we throw everything in the pail (cloth, disposable and wipes) no rinsing/washing required.”
The service delivers her a pack of biodegradable diapers and freshly washed cloth diapers very week for $114 a month. They compost the biodegradable and deal with all the poop she sends them… easy peasy.
Other baby-ladies that use door-to-door services for only prefolds are reporting prices between $70-80 a month, and claim they come back cleaner than they can get them at home. The trouble is, you have to buy a two week supply of diapers to have in rotation, so if you buy 120 prefolds to have in rotation (and replace with new ones as they grow to the next size), plus 12 covers and a door to door service, you’ll be paying around $1000 a year.
Cloth is Not for Everyone
Plenty of Moms report giving cloth a go and find it doesn’t work for them. Sometimes, Baby’s behind just doesn’t stay dry enough, leading to constant battles with leaks and diaper rash. Some find the difficulty and cost of washing too much. Some just get fed up with scraping, shaking and spraying poop off diapers… who can blame them. Baby-lady Cristina says:
“Baby got the absolute worst diaper rash every time I had them on him for more than a couple of days. At first, he only leaked during the night (despite 1-2 changes) and then he started leaking during naptime…”
“We loved cloth, however I quit at 8 months due to the poop. I couldn’t handle it.”
“We have been super successful at using cloth wipes. I make my own solution and stopped buying the Kissaluvs brand wipes, preferring to buy yards of a similar hemp/cotton blend fabric and cutting my own wipes.”
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**This post contains affiliate links. This means I get a small commission if you buy these products. The price is not affected.**