Am I Still a Rebellious Mom If I Use Disposable Diapers?

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Am I Still a Rebellious Mom If I Use Disposable Diapers?

Disposable diapers use 20 times more raw materials, two times more water and three times more energy to make than cloth diapers. (Photo: The University of Surrey/Environmental Psychology Research Group)

I have a confession to make. I am hardly using cloth diapers any more.

There it is. I said it out loud. It feels good to get this off my chest.

I should go on. There are worse things in the world to be guilty of, but I feel pretty lousy about this. Our household is so good about trash. Between faithfully (even in this freezing cold) composting and assiduously recycling, we generate very little trash. It is a badge of honor for me that we don’t have to take our rolling trash can to the curb every week.

But, if you dug through our trash, I bet you’d find that half of it is gross balls of used diapers. This makes me sad. It makes me feel lazy. It makes me feel like I am falling short of my values. It also makes me feel like I am not being radical enough to have penned a book about rebellious motherhood.

So, consider this column part confession, part pep talk and part self-education. But before we go on, here’s a note about Seamus, our resident size 5 diaper wearer: Cloth diapers are just too bulky for him to wear under any of his clothes, and he pulls them off anyway. I still try and get him to wear them every few weeks because I read that one of the reasons that kids don’t potty train is that disposable diapers are not uncomfortable enough when they are wet (all that super processed wood pulp and hydrophilic polymers). I want him potty trained and so I want him uncomfortable in wet diapers. But he is too strong and too capable to submit on this front. I assuage my guilt about his diaper usage by telling myself “this is the last box” every time I go to Target. Because when this box is empty, Seamus will be potty trained. That is the hope, anyway. But it hasn’t happened yet.

My cloth diaper concerns are centered around Madeline (who recently turned one year old). Whenever I put a disposable diaper on her, I think, “Well, my choice is between wasting water to wash the cloth or tossing more material into the waste stream.” This thought process has always made me feel better, but now I find out that disposables also use a lot of water and fuel.

According to the Good Human website,“disposable diapers use 20 times more raw materials, two times more water and three times more energy to make than cloth diapers.” Yikes. I think I can stop right there and go back to the cloth diapers based on that sentence alone. If I add in the consideration of the chemicals and compounds that I cannot pronounce that also go into disposables to make them super absorbent — well, can I just say “yuck”? Here are a few of the yucky things in most disposables: dioxins, sodium polycrylate, and phthalates, as well as fragrances and dyes with equally hard to pronounce names.

Some readers might say, “Well, cloth diapers are expensive.” That is true, but we don’t have that excuse. We have hand-me-down diapers that cost us nothing. But how expensive are cloth diapers? When you are at the store and trying to choose between a huge box of disposables for $30 and one really cute cloth diaper and cover for about the same, the choice seems obvious: Go with the disposables. But trust the blogosphere to figure this one out; smart moms have done the math on the hundreds of dollars you’ll shell out for cloth diapers versus the thousands that disposables cost.

Here is the startling sum-up from Squawkfox: Cloth diapers $775, disposables $2,349. The author also argues that you can sell your cloth diapers when you are all done with them and recoup half your investment. Of course, cloth diaper companies have also done the math for you on this one, and they have cute graphics to go with it.

With all of this research, web poking and thinking, I am recommitted 100 percent, beyond a shadow of a doubt. The work of writing this column has gotten me back to the cloth diaper side of the world. I am ready once again to stick my hands into the toilet and rinse the poo out of the cloth diaper. (Yep! I should have written about the military budget this week.) Oh, but I am not done. Then, I have wring it out and put it in a diaper pail with all the other dirty diapers and then every other day or so haul that pail down two flights of stairs and touch all the gross diapers again, as I put them in the washer and then into the dryer, back up two flights to be folded and put away.

I can do it. I was raised with an appreciation of frugality and hard work. My dad — who grew up during the Great Depression on a farm in Upstate New York — took wastefulness really personally. He taught us to wash out trash bags and reuse them. He reused his dental floss. And then when it was no longer good for cleaning his teeth, he used it to sew his buttons back on his shirts. My dad also didn’t mind the earthier side of life. He was not grossed out by anything. Maybe that is what combat tours of duty in France during World War II do to a person. I can hear my dad saying, “You can’t get anything on your hands that you can’t get off again” every time I plunge my hands in the toilet to rinse a diaper.

I can do the work myself instead of burdening Mother Nature with more plastic and chemicals and super absorbent wood pulp. I will try, really hard. But if you see me with a disposable, try not to judge me too harshly. I am perfectly capable of doing that myself.

Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan, a columnist for WagingNonviolence.org, serves on the board of the War Resisters League and organizes with Witness Against Torture.

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