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.
I’ve heard two arguments in favour of reusable diapers that, at first brush, seem strong:
- Reusable diapers save a ton of money; and
- Reusable diapers save the environment.
But I disagree with both.
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).
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.