Sunday, August 7, 2011

Third World Green Daddy Part 20: The diaper issue

My boy is seven and a half months old now, and he's starting to shit like a big boy. On his pot (after much dramatic grunting and farting to tell us when he's ready), solid, once a day. This is to say that he's on his way to not using diapers anymore, which makes me think it's finally time for me to finish up and post a blog on Sam's diapers.

A few months before Sam was born, I started worrying about the diaper issue. My wife Caro and I didn't want the cost, and especially the environmental damage of disposable diapers. We couldn't fathom buying an expensive pack of diapers every week, and contributing day by day, diaper by diaper, to filling up landfills with a toxic, non-decomposing mix of plastic, paper, and poop.

Surprisingly (or not), there is actually a lot of discussion on the Internet regarding disposable diapers. Those in favor cite their convenience. The arguments of the cloth-diaper crowd are summarized by Autumn Beck, who runs the All About Cloth Diapering blog. She cites three reasons for using cloth diapers as opposed to disposables: health, environment, and cost. She also gives a primer on the different cloth diapering systems.

The issue of toxicity is important to consider with any product your children are exposed to. Much has been made of the potentially toxic effects of sodium polyacrylate, the drying agent used in disposable diapers. There are those who say it is highly toxic, and those who shrug off such concerns. If we look at the material safety data sheet (sort of a summary of risks) for sodium polyacrylate, we see that it's a skin irritant, but doesn't seem to be highly toxic. However, the MSDS for the acrylic acid from which sodium polyacrylate is synthesized (and which we can assume will remain unreacted at low levels in a typical batch of sodium polyacrylate) indicates that it is an acute irritant, and there are reasons to believe that long-term exposure (like having it next to your baby's crotch for a year or so) can have nasty effects. Beyond this, the bleaching and other industrial processes for making disposable diapers can leave traces of dioxin, one of the most toxic substances known to man. While you're probably not going to notice any major, immediate harm to your child by using disposable diapers, I'd go for avoiding needless exposure to these chemicals if you can.

Anyway, I think that the most common reason people in the US use cloth diapers might be this health issue. We tend to have an individualistic, consumerist mentality, whereby what hurts us or ours is more important than what hurts others or the collective. My wife and I tend to value the collective pretty highly though, so for us the most important factor in favor of cloth diapers is environmental. Disposable diapers are a mix of different materials (mainly wood cellulose, plastic, and chemical absorbents) that use a lot of resources (water, petroleum, land, fertilizer) to produce. The individual components of a diaper wouldn't present much of a disposal problem, but when you mix paper, plastic, reactive chemicals, and piss and shit, the end product is impossible to biodegrade, recycle, or even incinerate. This means that the diaper your kid uses for a few hours will last hundreds or thousands of years in a landfill or the ocean. In our small town, with poorly-designed open pit landfills, the disposal issue is especially troubling, because pathogens would leach out of our kid's shit into the local waterways every time it rains.

The last issue is cost. This one is sort of a wash, because cloth diapers cost a lot up-front (at least if you're using the pre-tailored ones instead of square cloths that you fold into a plastic outer liner). Also, cloth diapers must be washed and dried, which adds to your weekly laundry time, and uses water and electricity. However, in the long-run cloth diapers are a sight cheaper than disposables. Once you've bought them, you don't need to make store trips or pay weekly for diapers. In our case, we spent a little under a thousand dollars for a whole bunch of diapers, and haven't invested anything since other than time, soap, and water, all of which are cheap. At an average clip of $15US a week for disposable diapers, after a year and a half we'd break even with the initial cloth investment, and from then on disposables would be the pricier choice. It seems that our Sam is on track to stop using diapers pretty early, so the disposable route might have been cheaper in his case, but we'll still have his old cloth diapers for any future kids.

I recognize that something like disposable diapers have their reason for existing. For many people, a diaper that you can quickly put on your kid, then take off and throw away when it's soiled, is a big convenience. Disposable diapers obviously have their drawbacks in that they use a lot of resources to produce and don't biodegrade, as well as costing more cash money than cloth diapers. Like many manufactured products, I'd say that disposable diapers are good for people who work long hours outside the home and/or don't feel too bad about creating a lot of solid landfill waste.

Often green parents are seen as somehow elitist. Of course it's easy to caricature the seemingly boundless worries of someone who's conscious of the ecological and health effects of many aspects of modern society. But green parents don't seem so ridiculous if we consider their conduct as an outgrowth of concern for their wellbeing and that of their children. Yes, everyone in the world today is probably exposed to toxic substances, and most people's existence entails some damage to the environment. But then doesn't it make sense for us to try as much as possible to reduce our exposure to harmful substances and situations, as well as reducing our destruction of the environment that sustains us?

With that philosophical context out of the way, I'll describe the logistics of our using cloth diapers. I must admit that for the first few weeks of Sam's life we used disposables, because he was so tiny we didn't know if the cloth ones would fit him. But since then it's been basically all cloth, all the time.

Here's a sampling of the different styles of diaper we bought, front and back.

From left to right we've got: Babyland cheap-ass diapers with a polyester insert, bought new on eBay from a manufacturer in Singapore. They're cheap, lightweight, and work pretty well (though after a while they build up some sort of residue that you have to rinse the hell out of with vinegar to get them absorbent again). Next is the BumGenius Flip diaper, a plastic outer cover with a thick, ultra-absorbent synthetic insert. I bought this new at an online store, as I also bought the Bumgenius organic cotton all-in-one diaper, pictured below.
Bumgenius seems to be the Porsche of cloth diapers. They're pricey, but they work well and come in nice colors.

To the right of the Flip is a wool outer cover,

with a normal cloth diaper like the ones my mother used when I was a baby (of which we still have three that my son now uses!). The modern twist is the Snappi fastener, a little rubber strip with plastic hooks that obviates the need for safety pins.

To the right of that is another Bumgenius offering I got on clearance from their online store. Here is a photo of all those diapers stuffed with their liners and seen from inside:

Note also the plastic diaper cover under the diapered stuffed animal.

Below are two photos of another brand called Kushies. I also got these on eBay, not used but not new. Those of you who know me well won't be surprised to learn that it was my first time using eBay. I actually got pretty into the whole thing, bidding on the diapers, waiting to see if I was outbid, calculating what price I could go up to and still get a better deal than buying them new. The Kushies inner towels are cotton, with an unattractive outer plastic layer. The cotton makes them very absorbent (also slow to dry after a wash), and they come in sizes. This is a disadvantage compared to other diapers that are adjustable as your child grows, but on the other hand the Kushies still fit Sam well, while many of the supposedly one-size-fits-all diapers are now getting small for him.

Above are two photos of different diapers, liners, and cloths hanging out to dry behind our house. When we first got the diapers (and before our son was born) I washed them a number of times with and without soap and hot water. The idea of this is to break down the fibers a bit (especially with cotton, which has natural water-repelling oils) so they'll be more absorbent. My son was born during our area's dry season, so it was easy for me to do so many washes and dries in short order. Most of our clothes we hang in an indoor patio, where they dry in a day, but the heft of the diapers demands more drying. This is why we usually hang diapers outside to dry in the wind and sun, the latter of which also totally removes shit stains. When I first started reading about cloth diapers, I assumed they would always retain some brown stains. I mean, when you're young and you occasionally have poop smears in your undies, they never come out. I was skeptical when cloth diaper enthusiasts insisted otherwise. But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the washer followed by the sun really does get out all the stains!

What about washing Sam after waste processes? We usually just wash his ass off in the sink when he poops. This is tricky in Bogota, where the water is ice-cold, but he doesn't seem to mind. When we are traveling we pack some store-bought handy-wipes, and sometimes even disposable diapers, but we rarely use either. In fact, if we need a handy-wipe in the house, we've come up with an innovative Third World Green solution:

These are scraps cut from old shirts of mine.

When my undershirts get embarassingly ripped and worn and holey, I do a little show where I hum "Thus Spake Zarathustra" and rip my shirt apart at the climax. From there it's just a bit of handy scissors-work until we've got a nice supply of handy-wipes. Wet with water and use.

Okay, the 500 lb. gorilla in the room is "How do you deal with the diapers? Is it really disgusting?" Not really. Basically we have a pile of clean diapers. When Sam soils his diaper, we take it off, rinse his butt, and change him to a new one. We take the dirty diaper to a plastic bucket and throw it in there (removing the inner towel if necessary).

Handling this dirty diaper is no more or less disgusting than dealing with a soiled disposable. We keep filling that (sealed) plastic bucket for two-four days, depending on how our clean diaper supply is looking. When it's full and we need to do a wash, we dump the contents of the bucket into the wash machine, fill it with water and non-chlorine bleach, and let the diapers soak overnight. The next morning we drain the water and do a regular wash with cold water. The diapers come out nice and clean, and any that still have shit stains we hang in the sun, which bleaches them in a matter of hours.

So there's the poop on cloth diapers. As I said, I've been meaning to post this since December, but never got around to it until now. I guess I just felt strangled by the pressure of writing a comprehensive bit about cloth diapers.

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