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GREENINGS (MAY 2016): Cloth diapers have gone from burden of the poor to luxury of the rich in one generation

May 13th, 2016 · No Comments

By Terri Chu

Having a kid is expensive, anybody can tell you that. What nobody told me though was how expensive raising a child can be when you try to stay low on environmental impact. Cloth diapers are a huge capital outlay and I’m not convinced they are used long enough to break even against disposables. Using a diapering service costs around $25 per week while disposables are about $0.30 each, which even at 10 per day comes in at $21.

Using, and throwing out, one of these marvels of engineering is cheaper than buying and washing pieces of cloth.

My mother often talks about my own childhood when she had to wash our cloth diapers, back before fancy Velcro diaper covers when safety pins reigned supreme.

“Disposable diapers were invented already but they were just too expensive. We were too poor for that,” she told me.

How is it that in a single generation, cloth diapers went from the burden of the poor to the luxury of the hipster rich parents?

Choosing products that are of low(er) environmental impact should not be an economically punitive decision. In the span of a single generation, manufacturing has become so automated, labour so cheap, and resources so disrespected that using things once and throwing them out has become cheaper than buying something that can be reused.

A diaper is nothing short of an engineering marvel.

Petrochemicals brilliantly absorb pee, synthetic materials whisk moisture away from the skin (key to preventing diaper rashes), and a wetness indicator tells us when it’s time for a change.

Using, and throwing out, one of these marvels of engineering is cheaper than buying and washing pieces of cloth.

If we are to get serious about meeting our environmental goals, we have to stop making low-impact purchasing decisions so economically punitive.

My apologies to the men reading this, but let’s take a look at some more numbers.

Everyone is familiar with tampons. Though the cost varies depending on where you buy them and in what quantities, a good average estimated unit cost is about $0.20 each.

You use these little cylinders of cotton once, after which you discard the plastic inserter along with its wrapper.

On the market is a slightly more environmentally friendly product called the Diva Cup that retails for $40.

Assuming that it replaces one heavy flow tampon per day, and an average four-day cycle, the Diva Cup pays for itself after four years.

This is all fine and dandy if not for the fact that the manufacturer recommends replacing the Diva Cup after a year.

For those who choose washable cloth diapers, an all-in-one diaper costs about $30.

Compared to a $0.30 disposable diaper, you would have to use the cloth diaper 100 times to break even (to say nothing of the labour and energy to wash it).

Owning enough diapers to do laundry once every three days means breaking even after 300 days. For anyone new to the world of infants, babies grow out of things after about three months, or 90 days, well before the diaper will break even on cost.

Is it really a wonder that cash-strapped parents and women choose single-use disposable products?

It is high time for a sin tax on single-use disposable items, whether these are diapers, tampons, or paper plates. If people want the luxury of being able to throw something out without washing it, it should be treated as that, a luxury.

While people are tightening their belts, it’s impossible to blame them for making decisions based on their wallets.

If we are to transition to a society that’s sustainable, we need good public policy that creates economic incentives for low-impact decisions.

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy, and help distinguish environmental truths from myths.



Provide help or stand aside (April 2016)

Don’t fall prey to marketing (March 2016)

Reduce, reuse, then recycle (February 2016)

The power of labelling (January 2016)

Tags: Annex · Columns · Life · Opinion