Are environmentally friendly nappies worth the trouble?
I was a day into cloth diapering my then three-month-old daughter, and I had already washed a load full of her soiled clothes, changed my urine-covered outfit twice and scraped poo out of a diaper. A shiny, unopened box of disposable diapers was taunting me from across the nursery.
“You never had to scrape poo out of us Amelia, did you?”
It was the statistics on disposable diapers that had brought me to this point. The average child uses up to 6,000 diapers before potty training; together U.S. kids’ used and discarded diapers add up to 3.4 million tons of landfill waste. Choosing cloth diapers for my daughter, I thought, could very well be one of the most important decisions I make for the environment.
But my foray into cloth diapering my first-born was not going as planned. When I made the decision early in my pregnancy to use environmentally friendly diapers, I imagined happily changing her chemical-free bum, my daughter rolling around in an adorable, colorful diaper matching her onesie and coordinating socks.
You see, cloth diapering is not the old pin-in-the-white-cloth routine our grandmothers tried. Today’s modern parenting trend capitalizes on the ultimate female guilty pleasure: accessories. The cloth diapers of this decade are not really cloth at all, but made with a waterproof shell, soft terry pocket inside and microfiber (or hemp or wool or bamboo) inserts. Most have cutesy rear end-related names: Fuzzi Bunz, Bum Genius, Bumkins, Happy Heineys, Bummis. Others take the environmentalism to a new level, like the top-of-the-line Firefly, offering a single knit organic wool cover for a staggering $50. There are well over a dozen major brands and thousands of moms singing cloth diapering praises on web sites, message boards, parenting magazines and blogs.
I had grand visions of being such a mom, changing my daughter’s fashionable diaper on a public changing table to the “ohs” and “ahs” of strangers passing by, giving quick tutorials and converting dozens of fellow mothers. “It’s really easy,” I’d say, “and so good for the environment.”
In reality, going cloth was not so adorably chic. The diapers involve constant monitoring; changing took place every hour-and-a-half. Doubling up on inserts was my only sanity, but made my tiny daughter look like Kim Kardashian from the backside. The diaper bag more closely resembled a dirty gym duffle bag, exploding with thick diapers and their counterparts, both dirty and clean. The nursery reeked of fermenting urine. Life revolved around the laundry machine, waiting for the next load to finish. And I had to watch out when friends or family held my little one — she was a ticking time bomb, ready to leak at any moment.
Even more enraging were the aforementioned cloth diapering advocates, the “CD mamas,” tirelessly defending and protecting their use of the ever-mighty cloth. When I admitted defeat on a message board and complained about the constant changing, the responses were not helpful. “Personally, I like changing more often since I wouldn’t like to sit in my urine,” one CD mama replied. “Last night, [my baby] was running around cover-less and went through three diapers in an hour,” another offered cheerfully, as if I should embrace an impromptu diaper change every 20 minutes. The words “easy” and “enjoyable” were used to describe cloth diapering. I was thinking only “messy” and “time-consuming.”
I took dry heaving over the bathroom sink as a sign that I was officially done with cloth diapers. It was some particularly jarring excrement that brought on my mad dash from the changing table to the toilet — every parent knows the kind. And I could not quickly chuck the entire mess in the trash. It was sitting on an $18 piece of organic cotton that required scrubbing, stain treating and air drying. I’d gladly do laundry labor over a vintage scarf or favorite pair of jeans, but a diaper? I was done.
Clearly, the CD moms and I were not cut from the same cloth. I was already a slave to my daughter’s round-the-clock feedings. I was not going to be a slave to her waste.
And, sure, cloth diapers decrease my daughter’s landfill waste, but research shows it’s debatable whether they decrease her carbon footprint. A Slate article from 2008 argues that the amount of energy consumed in cleaning cloth diapers makes their environmental impact about the same as the disposable diapers.
So, I’ll just stick with recycling and using CFL bulbs. It’s not like I gave up on saving the earth. I just decided to save my sanity as well.