Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Cloth Diapers: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

Apologies to anyone who enjoys this blog’s more … cultured posts.  Our usual content will (the spheres aligning) return next week.  Meanwhile, enjoy a practicum in parental calculus.

The time: Some months past.

The place: A small townhouse.

The scene: One baby.

I was never too worried about the environmental impact of diapers.

And yes, I have seen Wall-E.

I don’t know how long it will be before we’re shuttling rubbish off into space, but with rocket flights going commercial and Peter Thiel with a finger in the White House pie, it can’t be that long, can it?  And I’m pretty sure that disposed diapers will be one of the first things we launch.  Probably before nuclear waste.  Maybe right after banana peels.  Jupiter could use a new moon or two, no?

So, no, call me Scrooge or possibly a cock-eyed optimist, but the environmental impact of disposable diapers never bothered me.

If you ARE worried, though, consider that some evidence suggests
that cloth and disposable diapers are roughly similar in impact.

There are, however, two other reasons for using cloth diapers which applied (or I thought they applied) in our case: money and aesthetics.

Aesthetics first.   Even though I’m not morally distressed by throwing things away when necessary, I don’t like the idea of throwing things away.  I do like the idea of reusing things, giving them to other people who will use them, etc.  I’m convinced recycling is usually not worth it; but I sort of wish it were, because I just don’t care for the idea of landfills.  So the thought of not having to haul eighty pounds and twenty cubic feet of wetness to the bins at the end of the street every seven days (I may exaggerate slightly, particularly since I didn’t always do the hauling) was aesthetically appealing.

The cute diaper covers, which are probably what you thought
I meant by “aesthetics,” I could care less about.

The money was another matter.  It is most definitely possible to save money with cloth diapers … especially when one is given an experimentally-sized stash for free.  But even if one has to spend money for the whole set up, cloth diapers come out ahead, as long as you accept the fact that you don’t need super-special accessories.  Behold the calculus:

12 wipeable/washable covers (enough to go 2-3 days): $132
32 flannel receiving blankets (ditto—and yes, these work better than standard inserts): $80
Two years extra laundry detergent: $35
Grand total of additional items needed for cloth diapering one child: $247.

I’m not counting the trashcan (aka, cheaper-than-buying-a-diaper-pail),
trashcan liners, and baking soda, because you’ll want those with disposables too. 
But you could do all that for two years for about another $200.

And what about disposables?  Assuming your child stops using diapers at two years old (admittedly, an optimistic assumption), how much would you spend on them?  It turns out that 6 diapers per day x 0.24 per diaper x 365 x 2 = $1051.20.

N.B. If you can get your diapers in bulk, and are willing to buy non-premium
but still standard brands—i.e., the bottom end of Pampers or Huggies—
your cost for disposables can be lower—as low as 0.15/diaper.

So by using cloth diapers, assuming that you’re funding all this yourself, you save $804.20 over the course of two years.  Obviously, if you can reuse that cloth diaper set for another baby, or if your toddler continues to wear diapers past age two, you’re looking at even more savings.  So it should be pretty clear why I considered—and tried—cloth diapering, albeit with a mostly borrowed “stash”.

But there’s something else in play besides money: time.  Cloth diapering takes a lot of time.  For one thing, you are looking at a couple of extra changes per day; for another, those cute little flat blankets need to be folded into those cute little covers (unless, of course, you’ve bought all-in-one diapers … for beaucoup bucks more).  And you’re going to need to stain-treat those lovely flats, either by spraying them or rubbing them or hanging them out in the sun, unless you’re willing to have them just be … unlovely.  Over the course of a week, assuming that you’ve got it all figured out and things are running smoothly and swiftly, you’re looking at …

Spraying, washing, and hanging to dry: 8 diapers x 7 days x 20 sec./diaper = 18.67 min.
Folding/reassembling (either at once, or ad hoc): 8 diapers x 7 days x 15 sec./diaper = 14 min.
Extra diaper changes per week: 2 extra diapers x 7 days x 2 minutes = 28 min.
Grand total of additional time required for a skilled cloth diaperer each week: 60.67 min.

A mere extra hour, you say?  What’s the big deal?  You spend five or six hours of “fun time” on Facebook and Netflix anyway?

Well, maybe you do (and maybe those quotation marks are a topic for another blog post).  But unless you’re actually replacing that “fun time” with cloth diapering, the comparison doesn’t hold water.  For me, changing diapers and doing laundry is work, and I’m more likely do it in place of other work—making this an economic problem.  One hour per week x 52 weeks per year x 2 years = 104 additional hours of diapering with cloth.  And those cloth diapers saved you … about $800 dollars.  In other words, you’d be earning eight dollars an hour in the extra hours required to use cloth diapers.

For some families, this might make economic sense.  But this makes no economic sense for me, since I can usually get additional freelance writing/editing work at three times that rate.  I doubt I could cobble together forty hours a week of such work—but I don’t want that much work anyway, given baby plus dissertation—and I certainly could (1) add a couple additional hours to the five or ten per month when I’m already writing/editing for pay, (2) buy the disposable diapers from this pocket money, and (3) come out financially and temporally ahead of where I would have been if I had worked those hours in cloth diaper land.

Mind you, when it comes to certain products and experiences, I’m not opposed to “wasting” time in the economic sense.  I love baking, but I am under no illusions that my biweekly bagel experience is actually any economically more beneficial that cloth diapering.  The same goes for every dress and pair of pants that I hem. But baking and mending, however economically injudicious, make me happier, while cloth diapering—doesn’t.  And when you put that fact together with the fact that cloth diapering also doesn’t pass the family’s fiscal CBA …

Let’s just say that I’m hanging on to a couple of those $11 covers to go over disposables at night, and the rest of the stash has already traveled a better home.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Of Lives Worth Living

“Je suis Charlie Hebdo,” said the signs.  Terrorism is indeed a terrible thing, and understandably calls out sentiments of solidarity.  I would not call the Charlie Gard case an instance of terrorism, but it terrifies me and, as a mother, it terrifies me on a personal level.  If a court in England can decide when someone’s child no longer has a quality of life worth preserving, how long before a court in America can make that decision?  And what if, God forbid, it were my child whose case the court was examining?  So, to co-opt a phrase, Je suis la mère de Charlie Gard.

*                      *                      *

The other day, as some of us were discussing the matter, lines sprang to mind, lines familiar from childhood, imprinted in the static-y tones of an old cassette tape.

“If someone loves a flower, one single blossom among all the millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy, just to look at the stars—because he can say to himself, ‘Somewhere, my flower is there.’  But if a sheep eats the flower, then in one moment for him all the stars will be darkened.  And you think this is not important?!”

It was hard at first to articulate why the lines felt relevant to the case of Charlie Gard; but I think I have an inkling now.

The proponents of euthanasia talk about quality of life, and occasionally about dignity.  But they define these terms narrowly: generally, by observation of the purely physical.  They talk of pain and comfort.  I cannot recall an instance where they talked of love.  But it is love which, as Saint-Exupéry reminds us, makes us happy—not to talk with the beloved, not even to be with the beloved, but simply to know that they exist.  “If someone loves a flower … it is enough to make him happy … [to] say to himself, ‘Somewhere, my flower is there.’”

I suppose someone might retort, “Yes, that’s all very well; but if the flower is unhappy, or the flower does not even know of its gardener’s existence, why bother so much about the gardener’s feelings?  Isn’t he a bit selfish to ask that his flower keep blooming while he, planets and planets away, looks smugly at his millions of stars?”

If one is asking about the flower of Saint-Exupéry, then my rejoinder is that one ought to read The Little Prince.  But of course, one would really be asking about Charlie Gard, and Terri Schiavo, and all the rest of us who may some day be in their condition, or have a loved one who is.  And to that question, my answer would be this:

There is an economy of love that knows next to nothing of the physical world.  If someone loves a flower, this is good for the flower too—yes, even if the flower is for the time being through some circumstance neither pruned nor sheltered nor watered nor smelled.  The flower too is happy, in the old sense related to “hap”; the flower is fortunate.  And not fortunate because of the good things it received in the past or may receive in the future, but fortunate because it is loved, even if it is ignorant of that fact.

No one can deny that being loved is good, as being healthy or rich is a good.  Health, however, is useless to a hypochondriac and riches are useless to a man who does not know that they are buried in his field.  Health and riches are good for use; they are good when they are enjoyed; their value lies in their employment in various activities.  But love and being loved are not good for activities; they are activities.  One does not speak of “enjoying” loving or being loved (except callously); certainly we would judge that anyone who speaks of “using” love does not know what the word means.  Other things are given a value by the human beings who have them: by the market, or the taste of the individual, or the customs of the country.  But love works in the other way: love cannot be made greater because human beings value it highly, nor can it be made less because human beings undervalue it; rather, love gives us value.  We are what we are because we have been loved: by our spouses, our parents, our children, our friends, the strangers who change our bedpans—and by God.  Most of all, by God.

I suppose to anyone who does not already take a supernatural interest in things, this will sound irrational.  I am afraid that even to anyone who agrees with my ethical concerns, it may appear hopelessly soppy.  But I do think that this is one of the true reasons why it is wrong to take an innocent life: because there is an intangible value to each person’s existence, making it in some perhaps mysterious wise worthwhile to them, due to the love they receive, an everlasting love which nevertheless bears up their existence in this brief particular moment of space and time.