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.


  1. Haha, your cold hard cost analysis brings warmth to my cold northern-European heart.

    1. Glad to have warmed the icy cockles.