clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Diaper dilemma endures: Disposable or cloth?

Rosalee Dougal recently stopped using disposable diapers on her 11-month-old son, William. She had grown "tired of throwing my money away."

Jenna McGowan, on the other hand, buys name-brand disposable diapers in bulk for her 4-month-old son, Bryce, and believes that's as economical and, for her, infinitely more practical than cloth diapers.

When the birth of a child has you living in Soggy Bottom and you are trying to figure out finances and what's best for the environment and your lifestyle, there's plenty of debate and conflicting research.

"I don't think there was a totally fair analysis ever done," says Dennis Frederick, vice chairman of the Real Diaper Industry Association and owner of All Together Diaper Co., which makes cloth diapers. "There's always some bias."

Choosing a diaper may boil down to perceptions as much as economics. And interest is high in Utah, where some disposable diapers are manufactured at a Kimberly-Clark plant in Ogden and dozens of smaller local companies make and sell cloth diapers online. With Utah's birth rate among the nation's highest, diapers are a huge and hotly contested market.

Global Industry Analysts Inc. estimates by 2012 disposable diaper sales will reach $26.6 billion worldwide. Frederick says recent informal surveys of cloth diaper manufacturers show about a 30 percent increase in cloth sales a year, some driven by the recession.

"In hard economic times, cloth can be considerably less out of pocket," he says.

But the costs of water, soap and utilities to clean cloth also add up, counter those who love disposables.

Either way, there's sticker shock. The average baby will be changed about 7,000 times. A quick survey of diaper prices at Wasatch Front stores found most disposables selling for between 19 cents and 26 cents per diaper and some specialty types considerably more. Cloth diapers have a huge range, depending on style and features. So-called eco-friendly diapers may cost $18 each; some start at around $5.

Parents who try to decide based solely on environmental evidence have tough going. Critics of disposables say they take forever to degrade in landfills, while cloth critics claim the harsh chemicals needed to clean cloth diapers harm the environment.

And each side counters the other. Says Frederick, you don't need harsh chemicals or chlorine to clean the cloth. Says Procter and Gamble, we reduced package and product size to cut down waste and now use less energy, water and material to make them.

"I thought about switching because of the economy," says Natalie Hollingshead of Orem, who spends $75 a month on disposables for Camille, 6 months, and Luke, 21/2. "I just haven't quite been inspired to quit. I have heard horror stories from my mother-in-law and my mom. I think these are a godsend. We make it work."

When she started considering cloth, Dougal, of Orem, says, "I was surprised by how practical they are and how much they have changed from when my mom used them. I never dreamed I'd be cloth diapering."

McGowan, also of Orem, said she "decided not to use cloth diapers because I don't think there are any actual savings. If you are using a service to come and get them, you pay for that. Or you wash them yourself and spend water and time. I figure it evened out in the end."

When husband Brett was briefly between jobs, she would not abide switching.

"That was one thing I was not willing to back off on," she says.

Faith Crabill, of Salt Lake City, uses disposables for Caedan, 11 months. When Crabill buys brand-name diapers in huge boxes, she cringes only slightly at the price. They don't leak and she won't change brands just to save money.

"What if I buy that whole box and they don't work the same? These are really good," she said.

Rebekah Adams, of Cedar City, uses cloth for daily wear and disposable for road trips with Adria, 27 months, and Kiah, 2 months. Adams calls cloth both cheaper and more environmentally friendly, but she loves the convenience of disposables on trips.

Some parents say the start-up costs of cloth discourage them. Adams found hers "gently used" online. She likes a mid-range pocket diaper with snaps, one size fits all. It has waterproof material on the outside and a pocket for an absorbent insert. She washes diapers every couple of days, then hangs them out to dry. She uses biodegradable rice paper liners so she can just flush any mess.

When baby Easton was born a month ago, Travis and Sarah Larsen of Stansbury Park received loads of disposable diapers, which disappear fast with a newborn, so they buy in bulk. Even in a two-income family, "it seems like quite an expense," he laughs. "When you're doing 10 (changes) a day, it seems like every other day you're buying a pack."

Stores try to keep prices down, says Smith's Food and Drug spokeswoman Marsha Gilford. They know that "if you can get the customer buying with you for baby products, you probably have a long-term customer."

Stores determine their prices but have no say if the package shrinks, which Joey Mooring of Kimberly-Clark says is just one way manufacturers counter rising costs. Still, Mooring notes, prices from the manufacturer have only risen significantly once this decade, driven by the cost of raw materials.