When I was in the diaper-washing phase of my life, my mind would often wander (often while I was hanging out diapers to dry on the line) to how on earth mothers managed before automatic washing machines (or servants). It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that diapers, both cloth and disposables, are a modern invention, and in many parts of the world, babies still don’t wear diapers. They are watched carefully by their mother or caregiver and held over a chamber pot when they are about to eliminate. They are gradually conditioned to go when a specific sound is made or when they are held in a certain position. As they begin to toddle, they wear dresses or open-crotched pants and learn to squat when they need to. It sounds odd to us perhaps, but caregivers in other countries cringe in horror at the very idea of making a baby sit in his own waste. If the method, called Elimination Communication, Natural Infant Hygiene, or Infant Potty Training by various groups, appeals to you, there are books and websites (Diaper-Free Baby, for instance) to teach you how to do it. And it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair: According to parents who practice the method, babies can be diapered part-time and managed diaper free when at home.
Plastic-Free Alternative #2: Cloth
Most environmental comparisons between cloth and disposable diapers have come to the conclusion that they're about equal in terms of overall impact. Plastic diapers pile up in landfills, while cloth diapers require lots and lots of soap and water to wash, and plenty of energy to dry. But that doesn’t mean you should abandon cloth. The big problems with cloth diapers are associated with the diaper services that most people use for convenience. They drive their fossil fuel–powered trucks to your house to supply you with diapers, a diaper pail, and liners, and then drop off a stack of neatly folded, clean diapers each week when they pick up the previous week’s used ones to be laundered (which they usually do with multiple rinse cycles and high-heat dryers). I used a diaper service for a while with my first baby, and it was indeed very handy. But then my nickel-pinching gene kicked in, and I discovered it really wasn’t all that much more trouble to launder my own, which is what the experts agree is really the ecofriendliest way to deal with diapers. Wash them at home and line-dry them, and the water and energy issues are (for the most part) resolved.
If you're outfitting a new baby with cloth diapers, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. At their very simplest, basic cloth diapers are just large squares (about 30 inches) of single-thickness fabric, with the edges finished to prevent unraveling. Simple diapers like these have the advantage of drying in a flash, which is a real plus if you're hanging them up to dry.
Then you have prefolded diapers, which have a multilayer strip down the center, often with some additional absorbent material quilted in. You can buy these in different sizes, but I had just one size that I used on my two kids from birth through toilet training (and then passed on to another family), and it seemed to work just fine.
And then there are the shaped diapers, which you do need to purchase in different sizes because they are fitted. Whichever type you decide on, try to find hand-me-downs if you really want to be green and thrifty, or choose organic-cotton diapers if you are buying new. Here is one online source for organic-cotton styles.
You could also sew your own out of old flannel sheets, worn cotton T-shirts, flannel shirts, or any absorbent cloth. There is nothing special about diaper fabric, any soft, absorbent cloth will do. If you need a pattern, there are lots online. Here’s one site with a range of patterns from prefolds to fitted diapers. While you've got your sewing machine out, make yourself some reusable diaper wipes so you don't have to buy disposable wipes in unrecyclable plastic boxes.
Covers and Soakers
Some sort of moisture barrier is usually needed, too, to protect clothing, bedding, and anything else baby sits on. "Soakers" are felted wool pants that slow the progress of moisture out of a moist diaper, and they can be purchased used or new, or you can sew them in a flash out of felted sweaters. Put a dry soaker on after each change and hang moist soakers to dry so you can use them a few times before washing...or until they get soiled. You can also buy natural rubber or nylon pants to pull over diapers, but if you use these totally waterproof covers you need to be more vigilant about changing diapers immediately, especially if your baby has sensitive skin.
Dealing with Dirties
This is probably the least pleasant part of cloth diapers. If you use them, you definitely need a diaper pail, and any metal kitchen trash can with a pedal-operated lid that closes fairly tightly will do. Control odors with an all-natural laundry freshener spray (make your own by adding 20 to 30 drops of essential oil to one cup of vodka in a spray bottle), or poke a few holes in a box of baking soda and sprinkle in a little after each addition. When you deposit a particularly soiled diaper, flush its contents down the toilet first to keep smells from getting too out of hand. Rinse your pail out and allow it to dry, in the sunshine if possible, at least once a week.
Plastic-Free Alternative #3: Hybrid Diapers
While completely reusable cloth diapers are the most ecofriendly diapering option, busy families may find it hard to imagine giving up the convenience of disposables, or daycare providers may be unwilling to deal with them (I simply packed a big zip-top bag in the diaper bag for the used ones to come home in, which worked well for everyone involved). One company, called gDiapers, makes a kind of hybrid diaper that uses a cloth pant with a biodegradable insert. Since the covers don’t need to be washed with every change, you end up with very little extra washing and drying to do. The company also says you can drop the wet diapers in your home compost pile (urine is usually sterile) and either flush the poopy ones down your toilet or send them to a landfill. In the event that you do need a 100-percent-disposable diaper, look for responsible companies, such as Seventh Generation, that make disposables out of chlorine-free organic cotton and responsibly harvested wood pulp.
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.