Reusable Diapers? No Thanks.


Today, I’m going to talk about why we use disposable diapers for our daughter rather than reusable diapers.

I have a mea culpa to get out of the way first. We received a free set of used (obviously clean) reusable diapers as a gift from a family member who has a three year old. It was a lovely present. I thought we’d use it. In fact, I was gung-ho on the idea of reusable diapers. Then I actually had a daughter and suddenly the logistics didn’t line up with my expectations in some ways. The reusable diapers didn’t fit a newborn so we needed to wait a while to use them. We bought disposable diapers. Then some more diapers. And, finally, I realized: I was wrong about reusable diapers.

Reusable diapers are gross

I’ve heard two arguments in favour of reusable diapers that, at first brush, seem strong:

  1. Reusable diapers save a ton of money; and
  2. Reusable diapers save the environment.

But I disagree with both.

Savings Argument

First off: most people pay too much for diapers. Do NOT buy brand name diapers if you’re trying to save money. (Sorry Adina, but I think it’s a waste.) Here’s an actual example I calculated using size 2 diapers:

Huggies pack of 72, $20.97 (after tax) = $0.29 per diaper

Parent’s Choice (Wal-Mart no-name brand) pack of 72 x 2 packs for $21 (after tax) = $0.146 per diaper

(Side notes: #1: HST on diapers in Ontario is only 5%, because the province doesn’t charge PST. #2: Buying in a larger quantity is obviously going to save you money in general. Nevertheless: look at the unit cost quickly before you buy. We’ve definitely paid less per diaper by grabbing smaller packs before.)

We’ve been lucky. Within a few weeks of Cat’s birth, she was down to using 5 or fewer diapers a day. Our diapering cost has therefore been less than a buck a day, taxes in, even as she’s grown into bigger sizes.

But remember: the savings from reusable diapers are not simply equal to the cost of disposable diapers. We wouldn’t actually save a dollar a day by switching to reusable. A fair, empirical analysis requires that one deduct the added costs of reusable diapering. Besides the initial investment in reusable diapers (free for us), one must account for increased costs and wasted time. Reusable diapers will result in a lot more laundry, which takes time and costs money — electricity, water, and detergent. Make no mistake: diapers are small, but you will need to do a lot more loads. Oh, and don’t forget to pre-treat reusable diapers (yuck).

I’m not Trent Hamm so I’m not going to calculate the increased costs precisely. Let’s be super generous to reusable diaper advocates and say the increased cost is only $0.30 a day (and if that’s the case, your time must be worth next-to-nothing). Is switching to reusable diapers worth saving less than $0.70 a day? To me, no. But this is a point where personal discretion becomes valid. I think 70 cents is worth using disposable diapers. We deal with less fecal matter, run fewer loads of laundry, have more free time, and enjoy hassle-free trips outside the home. To me, the benefits are more than worth adding $250 ($350 or so in pre-tax income) to our annual cost structure.

There are many other more convenient ways to save more money on baby costs than by eliminating disposable diapers. For example, breast feeding and blending rice/vegetables/fruit can easily save well over a hundred dollars a month (and, if you’re a tool who refuses to shop at No Frills and Wal-Mart, the savings are more like $200+ a month).

Environmental Argument

Am I concerned about the environmental impact of this decision? No. Landfill waste is not a crisis in first world nations — or at least it shouldn’t be.

The role of government, as I’ve discussed before, is to solve collective action problems including environmental degradation. At all levels, Canadian governments have miserably failed to protect the environment. Science and the free market have been doing their parts. They’ve produced the technology necessary to incinerate garbage at very high temperatures. The by-products are useful energy and negligible emissions. Sweden, besides having a world class diversion system, is using this waste-to-energy technology to such spectacular effect that they are now IMPORTING garbage from other countries (including dirty diapers).

Instead of paying Michigan to take truckloads of its garbage, or dumping trash into Ontario’s open pit mines (and therefore its water table), the City of Toronto should burn its garbage. But it doesn’t happen. The average person is stupid and doesn’t understand how we could reap significant benefits while limiting the downside. They hear “burning garbage” and assume it’s like throwing bags of garbage onto a bonfire.

So before you mindlessly criticize my diaper decision on an environmental basis, critically reflect upon the conditions, imposed by irresponsible socialist governments, that have created the “disposable diapers are bad” situation. Don’t try to change the player, change the game. When it comes to environmental issues, make sure you change the game in a way that is convenient for the players. Otherwise your attempt at social engineering is doomed to fail like the prescriptions of most well-intentioned but useless government bureaucrats. (See? I’m a policy expert. Joe Wood’s #1 Rule of Policy-Making: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”)

In sum, while I respect the decisions of reusable diaper advocates, it’s important to question their underlying assumptions. Yes, if you’re poor, saving $250 a year could be the difference between a fun Christmas or none. If you have twins or triplets, there may be economies of scale for reusable diapers that would significantly affect the analysis. On the other hand, if you’re burning thousands a year on a housekeeper or iSheep Apple products, but insist on reusable diapers, then your priorities are incoherent. As for the environmental concerns: plant a tree. It’ll sequester the carbon from thousands and thousands of Swedish diapers.

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17 Comments… Share your views

  1. We buy Pampers for around 22 cents per diaper (on sale at Superstore or Shoppers). No-name diapers suck – if I wanted to deal with blowouts and leaks I’d use cloth diapers.

    I do feel a tinge of guilt when I take out the diaper genie bag, which, if extended, could probably run the length of the driveway because we stuff so many diapers in there.

    • lol our diaper genie is a shopping bag that goes in the garbage every other day. Plastic shopping bags ftw.

      As for the quality issues: really? We haven’t had those problems, but apparently a bunch of other commenters have.

  2. Maintenance time is definitely a big factor many people who use reusable diapers overlook. And like you illustrated, diapers are pretty cheap these days. I watched an episode of a show called Extreme Cheapskates where one family uses rags instead of toilet paper for the whole family :( They say it saves them money, but I think it’s simply not worth it unless you really need to.

    • Yeah I posted that video eons ago:

      Absolutely disgusting. I don’t care how poor a family is; go get food stamps or ask for TP at the Food Bank. Using rags and keeping a variety of peoples’ fecal matter around is a good way to help some terrible diseases make a comeback. The kids will be so bitterly mortified in a few years.

      The family claims to save $20 a month on toilet paper. Really? I stocked up on TP in the summer when it was under $0.13 a roll and they’re spending $0.70 a day?? How is EVERY FAMILY MEMBER USING A ROLL A DAY? Oh, she just made up a figure because she’s an idiot.

      We can’t stop here, this is Hamm country.

  3. We stick with name brand diapers simply because both of our kids have had more incidents where what’s supposed to stay in the diaper doesn’t stay with store brand or cheaper brand names (I’m looking at you, Luvs diapers).

    Also, reusable diapers may be cheaper from a dollars and cents perspective but there is a non-monetary cost involving your time. If you spend extra hours per week dealing with washing the reusable diapers, that’s time that you are missing doing other things like spending time with your baby.

    • Are you from the States? Do you have Parent’s Choice? Are the Wal-Mart store brand diapers awful?

    • I use reusable diapers for my 9 month old daughter and have since she was 5 weeks old (once she was big enough to fit into them). The time it takes has never been an issue for me. It only takes a minute to drop the diapers in the washing maching and turn it on. I hang them to dry on an airing rack next to the water heater, this step takes 3 minutes at the most. When they are dry I reassemble them at night when I’m watching a bit of tv, this step takes 15 minutes at the most.
      I admit that I battled over what made the most sense economically and environmentally, but I’m ultimately VERY happy that I decided to go with reusable diapers because I love that I don’t have to worry about running out to the store to buy diapers every week, I love that diapering barely creates any waste (we use reusable wipes except for extreme messes, in which case we use disposable wipes). I actually don’t think that the public’s waste should be the the government’s responsibility; we make it, we should be held responsible for it’s disposal.
      It’s definitely a personal decision, but for us it was the best one. It’s really nice to know too, that when my daughter gets a little brother or sister, we’ll be able to use the same reusable diapers that we are now.

  4. I don’t know, Joe – would you trust your behind to the cheapest toilet paper available? ;)

    I’m with Robb and Money Beagle on this – “premium” disposable diapers are not that much more expensive than the cheap ones, and there is an appreciable difference in quality. I tried the no-name ones a few times, and they weren’t the same.

    As for reusable diapers, my parents’ stories about my babyhood convinced me, long before I had my son, that I would never ever go that route. I’m sure things are different now, what with washing machines and all, but still not enough to convince me to try. I make it up to the environment by not driving (or jet-setting to far-flung locations). And thrifting ;)

    • Yes, I use the cheapest toilet paper (by TP surface area) available in normal retail stores (no I don’t shop at janitorial supply stores). I stocked up heavily in the early summer when Royale was on sale for $0.125. We’re still using it.

      lol that’s actually an excellent juxtaposition between capitalism and communism. Under the former, it’s a choice, where reusables are promoted heavily by advocates but the majority of individuals use their market freedom to purchase disposable diapers. In communism, it’s reusable diapers or a lot of poop on the floor.

  5. BC’s been trying to get a bioincinerator going for waste for awhile… not sure if it’s completely derailed yet or not *sigh*. There’s a lot of nasty stuff in diapers, unfortunately. While Sweden may be ahead of us on this game, do you feel that contributing to what is currently an issue is still ethical?

    • Absolutely not. Sometimes a crisis is necessary to spawn decisive action. When the landfills spilleth over, maybe the hippies will realize their attempts at social engineering are actually really destructive. I’d love if the government would produce cheap, renewable energy, putting the remaining 6% of garbage mass (very carbon rich and de-natured) into the earth.

      It’s the same reason I think most environmental issues are a scam. The future of humanity is in outer space. We went to the Moon in 1969 and stopped going in the 70s. It’s disgusting that our governments have funneled waste into excessive tax cuts, ineffective social programs, and aren’t working to broaden mankind’s frontiers. The private market is only starting to dabble in space travel — as the positive externalities become sufficient to justify the activity. Government pulled out far too early. Fundamental research and expensive, unprofitable endeavours like space exploration need to be initially funded by governments. If our society wants a stimulus program, try funneling hundreds of billions into a manned base on the Moon and a mission to Mars. The technological spinoffs from the Moon program alone moved ahead microcomputing and materials sciences by decades, not to mention the jobs and fundamental scientific research that happened. The Moon landing was the greatest achievement ever accomplished by anyone ever.

      • I would disagree that the cost of space exploration produces sufficient benefits and would personally consider it to be an “ineffective social program.” The same gains have resulted from war and current military research. Other governments are currently doing the funding, let them have their competitive advantage and let us do something else.

        I also disagree that waiting until there is a crisis is necessary in this case. That said, there’s definitely a balance to strike and unfortunately crying wolf and stop is much easier than moving towards things that are better solutions.

  6. I am happy with our decision to use cheap disposable diapers. I understand qualms about leaks etc. however I must say Parent’s Choice is great quality.

    • If we ever have a blow-out problem, leaks, whatever, we should take the remaining part of the diaper package back and get a refund. Wal-Mart is great for standing behind their products.

  7. Once again I’ll have to take the other side :) We’re finding re-usable diapers very practical, at least for the first 5 months. Even my parents who used cloth diapers were very surprised at how much better they have gotten.

    We use a lot more than 5 on many days, partly because we never have to think about wasting diapers. I would rather change a dirty diaper than have some mummified waste sitting there for 5-8 hours. They may take a few seconds longer to put on, but the 100th time is a lot easier than the first time you try to do it. The ones we have use velcro to close so they seal pretty well. I think the trick is to have them low and fairly tight so there is enough “carrying capacity”. That might also work with cheap disposables.

    So far travelling with them is great as well. We know how to pack things well after use so we don’t need to find a garbage wherever we are (and look longingly at the nearest bushes if there’s no garbage nearby). We can go 3-4 days if they are all clean, and for longer trips we can pack a fairly small bag instead of having to haul around big cartons. If we’re going somewhere for a longer time and can’t wash them we might use a few disposables. That has yet to happen though.

    Economically they are pretty good. We bought some used ones at first, and then had to rent a smaller size for a few months (the store we got them from caps the price of renting at $88). There’s a bit of washing time but if you do laundry regularly it’s not all that hard to clean them, maybe 10-20 minutes per week and the occasional package of special detergent. If you’re using 10+ diapers per day the savings work out to a pretty good hourly rate. Of course there are much bigger ways to save money as you pointed out. The biggest one is apparently to have a baby in Canada so you don’t have to pay all the healthcare/insurance costs.

    • I’m glad you’re able to travel conveniently and manage to save enough money that you find it worth the time.

      I swear we don’t leave her in dirty diapers — we check quite often and always whenever she cries. She just seems to be acting mature for her age. I actually think we should start toilet training and that it wouldn’t be wasted time.

      • Haha I wasn’t implying that you’re waiting as long as possible. I believe disposables generally go to great lengths to be absorbent/dry so I was just pointing out why I don’t have a problem with forgoing that (aside from the skin health concerns that others mention, which we have no experience with since the disposables we got from the hospital lasted less than a week). You should see if you can have the youngest toilet-trained baby ever!

        I wouldn’t try to push one option or the other on anyone, but for everyone who exaggerates the environmental and health impacts there is someone who makes reusables sound much more difficult than they are and pushes people away from what might be the best choice for them. Based on our experience so far, anyone who can clean themselves without help should be able to handle reusable diapers without much trouble. We’re still in the easy stages so that may change.

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