What are the trade-offs when you give up disposable diapers? One dad conducted a hands-on experiment to find out the pros and cons of cloth diapers.

diaper need
Credit: Boyarko Nadya/Shutterstock

Why Give Cloth a Try?

One day, after reading another grim article about climate change, I had the idea that I should at least experiment with using cloth diapers for my 1-year-old. By my estimate of six diapers a day, we had already used 2,190 diapers and I hated to think of the nonbiodegradable diapers sitting in a landfill for hundreds of years. I wasn't familiar with all the arguments of the cloth-versus-disposable debate, but stuffing the earth with Isaac's dirty diapers didn't seem like a good idea.

I went to a nearby baby boutique and asked the saleswoman for cloth diapers. She gave me a package of six white dish towels. I thanked her and again asked for cloth diapers.

"These are cloth diapers," she said.

I looked at the package. It did say "cloth diapers," but this was not what I'd had in mind. One time at the playground I had seen a baby with a cloth diaper, and it didn't look like a dish towel. It looked like really thick underwear. It looked cozy and comfortable, even if it did give the baby a J-Lo butt.

I asked the saleswoman how I was supposed to keep the cloth diapers on my son. She told me to buy safety pins, and I did.

Dad washing and folding cloth diapers
Credit: Heather Weston

I looked online for instructions on how to fold and pin the diapers and found The Diaper Hyena—a self-proclaimed "definitive cloth diapering resource site." There were tons of different folds including the "Birdseye Flat Fold," the "Newspaper Fold," and the "Let's Do the Twist" fold.

The Birdseye Flat Fold looked easiest. I took out one of my six cloth diapers and practiced until my Birdseye looked just like the one on my computer screen. Then I approached Isaac with the cloth diaper and my box of pins.

I don't know what I was thinking.

Safety Pin Trouble

It's not easy to diaper Isaac even when folding and pinning are not involved. Recently, he decided that he's far too busy for diaper changing, so just for kicks he zooms off mid-procedure.

It's our own little father-son vaudeville routine: Isaac zips around the apartment smiling, his half-open diaper hanging from his side, and I scurry after him with a tube of A+D cream. The Snatch-and-Diaper is a tricky maneuver with a disposable, but as it quickly became clear, it does not work at all with a cloth diaper. In the process of tucking the diaper under and around Isaac, my Birdseye kept falling apart. After five tries, I decided to forget about the fold.

I placed the unfolded square of cloth between Isaac's legs and pinched two edges on one side of his waist. With my other hand, I opened the safety pin and lifted it to my son's side. Isaac squirmed. I closed the pin and put it down.

I would rather let a few icebergs melt than risk pricking Isaac every time I change him. Maybe, I thought, the disposable diaper is one of those inventions, like toilet paper, that the Western world just can't live without—no matter the environmental impact. After all, if we really wanted to, we could wipe our own butts with cloth and throw the cloths into the wash every night.

I wasn't ready to give up. People have been using cloth diapers for hundreds of years. There had to be a better way. Had the saleswoman been more helpful, she might have mentioned an invention called the Snappi, which, I later found out, offers a much easier and safer way to keep cloth diapers on because no pin is needed. She might also have told me that almost everyone who uses cloth diapers also uses some form of cover that both protects from leaks and helps keep the diaper in place.

But the saleswoman did not tell me any of those things, so I had to think for myself. And what I thought of was taking out my roll of blue painter's tape and wrapping it around the diaper. (If the idea of taping the diaper came to me quickly, it was likely because on the previous Halloween my wife and I had dressed Isaac as a Frenchman. And since he was too young to carry a baguette, I'd had no choice but to tape it to him.)

toddler in plain cloth diaper
Credit: Heather Weston

The taped diaper wasn't exactly stylish, but it didn't fall off. Isaac didn't seem to notice the difference, and, to my surprise, it held up fairly well. The diaper got much wetter than a disposable diaper and had to be changed immediately, but it didn't leak.

Dealing with Dirty Diaper Laundry

Of course, the real test came later that evening when Isaac's diaper got really dirty. I imagine that handling a dirty cloth diaper isn't especially fun for anyone, but it poses a special challenge for germophobes like me. I haven't touched a public toilet with my hands in years—I've perfected the foot flush—and when possible, I avoid skin contact with the bathroom door as well. But now, according to the folks at DiaperPin.com, I was supposed to empty the diaper into the toilet and then swish the cloth in the toilet bowl before dropping it into a bucket.

I walked into the bathroom, holding the diaper out in front of me, and looked down at the bowl. I wanted to throw the diaper into the garbage and pretend the whole cloth experiment had never happened.

I pondered grossness for a minute or so. Then it occurred to me that Isaac was still undiapered and very possibly urinating on my laptop. I emptied the diaper, flushed three times, using gallons of water—thereby almost certainly eliminating any of the environmental benefits of cloth diapers—swished the diaper in the toilet bowl, dumped half a box of baking soda on it to eliminate the smell, threw it into the diaper pail, and raced to Isaac.

Later that evening, and every evening for the next few weeks, I took my bucket of diapers down to the laundry in our basement. To my pleasant surprise, once a diaper has been swished in a toilet bowl and covered with baking soda, the odor isn't so bad. And after being sprayed with a baby-safe stain remover and washed in hot water, the diapers came out white. The real problem was all the time the washing and drying took. I was having nightmarish flashbacks to Isaac's first weeks, when I was washing clothes so often that it felt like life was an interruption of doing laundry rather than the other way around.

Trying the gDiaper

In the few spare moments I had left in my day, I ordered the elusive good cloth diapers. When the new ones arrived, it felt like turning in a Hyundai for a Rolls-Royce. They came in an assortment of bright colors. They had absorbent cotton-velour insides and waterproof-polyester outsides. They had Velcro straps and elasticized legs for a trim fit. And considering how much use I could get out of them, paying around $15 per diaper didn't seem like a bad deal.

Putting the new diapers on Isaac was a breeze, I was down to flushing only once between emptying the diaper and dipping it in the toilet bowl, and I was using only a quarter bottle of Purell after each changing.

Then, just as I was about to live happily ever after, I put the cloth diapering on hold. A mom told me I had to try gDiapers.

orange G cloth diaper
Credit: Heather Weston

The gDiaper is what might result if cloth diapers and disposable diapers had unprotected sex. The outside looks like the good kind of cloth diaper. It's made of cotton and closes with Velcro tabs. On the inside is a disposable white pad that you replace, just like a disposable. But gDiaper pads differ from traditional disposables in one key way: You can flush them down the toilet.

At first this struck me as a simple and brilliant solution to the diaper dilemma. But simple solutions are rarely what they seem. My gDiaper starter kit came with an instructional pamphlet that offered tips for successful flushing of the disposable pads. "Know Thy Toilet," the pamphlet commanded. To avoid clogging, you have to tear off the edges of the insulated pad, empty the contents into the toilet, and then break up the floating pad with the white "swishstick" that comes with the starter kit -- along with two cloth outsides and 10 pads.

The first time, I forgot to tear apart the pad and clogged the toilet. But as unpleasant as I find plunging a toilet, it is almost preferable to following the gDiaper instructions. When you tear open the dirty pads, cottony particles flutter into the air. And if there is one thing worse than handling dirty diapers, it is inhaling them.

Still, I do think the gDiaper is a smart, if expensive—a package of six inserts costs $35—approach to diapering. If you don't want to flush the pads, you can throw them out without feeling too bad. Unlike traditional disposables, the gDiaper pads have no plastic and are biodegradable.

Do Cloth Diapers Really Help the Environment?

My experiment was over. Was I ready to give up disposables?

Before making a decision, I wanted to learn more about how diaper use impacts global warming.

The cloth-versus-disposable debate has been raging for decades, but, for the moment at least, the disposable appears to have the upper hand. In 2004, the quasi-government British Environmental Agency concluded a four-year study of the environmental impact of cloth and disposable diapers and found that all the energy used in washing and drying cloth diapers makes them equally damaging. The study's findings were in line with a 1992 study sponsored by Procter & Gamble, maker of Pampers. But unlike Procter & Gamble, the British Environmental Agency did not have an obvious incentive to promote disposable diapers. On the contrary, the study came as an embarrassment to the government, which was in the midst of a multimillion-dollar campaign to promote cloth nappies.

Cloth-diaper advocates have responded that the study was flawed and that it used only a small sample size. And there is little doubt that the debate will continue. But reading about the British study was enough to suck the life out of my enthusiasm for cloth.

The verdict in the case of cloth versus disposables might not yet be in, but there is no question that using cloth diapers can take up a big part of your life. And while I think it's extremely important to make sacrifices for the environment, I need to be sure that my sacrifices are making a difference -- especially when the thing I'm sacrificing is the most important of all: time with Isaac.

Cloth vs. Disposable Pros and Cons

DisposableCost and Estimated Time Spent: 20 to 25 cents per diaper; 2 minutes per diaper.Pros: Most time-efficient, no toilet contact. No laundry!Cons: More expensive than cloth, ends up in landfills, environmentally unfriendly.

gDiaperCost and Estimated Time Spent: 37 cents for replaceable pads, plus $27 for starter kit with two cloth outsides; 4 minutes per diaper.Pros: Possibly the most environmentally friendly.Cons: Most expensive, requires swishing in toilet, and poses plumbing risks.


(Dish towel-style)Cost and Estimated Time Spent: $1.25 per diaper; 9 minutes per diaper (including wash-and-dry time).Pros: Saves money in long run.Cons: Difficult to put on, still impacts environment, looks like a dish towel.

Good ClothCost and Estimated Time Spent: $15 per diaper; 10 minutes per diaper (including wash-and-dry time).Pros: Saves money in long run, soft cotton feel and bright colors.Cons: Lots of time in the laundry room, still hurts the environment.

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

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