Diapering in a Drought

California is in a severe drought. Like many others in the Bay Area (and just about anyone who has grown up in California and lived through many other droughts), our household has long been practicing water-conservation. That means there is not much we can do to cut back further – our lawn is already deader than dead and we dread laundry and dishes so much that every load is completely full anyway.

Having a baby does throw a bit of a wrench in our water conservation efforts, though. There is more laundry to do and being at home during maternity leave means more dishes, as well. When we found out we were expecting, we had thought we would use cloth diapers – one of the few things I saved from Jack’s infancy. But then the drought got worse – it’s now considered to be one of the most severe droughts on record for California. There is talk of fining households that don’t cut their water usage. Even worse, there are worries over drinking water shortages.

Considering this, we started thinking cloth diapering may not be the way to go after all.

There is a lot of debate about the amount of water required to wash cloth diapers versus the resources needed to manufacture disposable diapers and then dispose of them, and which type of diaper has the bigger environmental impact. Most studies seem to come to a similar conclusion – there is no clear answer as to which is better for the environment because availability of resources (water vs. landfill space) differs by geographic area. Landfill space is always an issue, sure, but the scarcity of water can reach emergency levels much more quickly – which is now what we’re looking at in California.

With these things in mind, I started wondering about alternatives to both cloth and disposable diapering. Aside from elimination communication (which I have neither the time nor the stomach to try), other options are gDiapers (with flushable inserts) and cloth diapering services. Unfortunately, gDiapers present many of the same problems as disposables, with the added concern over the possible clogging up of the plumbing in addition to the extra flushing required. Further, in our county they cannot be composted by our waste management company. Diaper services, on the other hand, use only prefold diapers (the kind that require folding and pinning/snappi-ing and a cover) – which I loathe due to the bulk and the lack of moisture-wicking. When I used prefolds with Jack, we easily went through twice as many diapers each day as we would have with other types of cloth and/or disposables. Using twice as much cuts into the benefits of using a service that washes them in bulk, no?

This diapering thing seems so much more complicated that it used to be.

I finally stumbled upon diaper composting services. Some of the same diaper services that offer drop-off/pick-up and washing of prefold cloth diapers also offer a disposable option – you can buy eco-friendly disposable diapers from the company, which will drop them off weekly and pick up the dirty ones to compost at their facility. The service eliminates the extra water usage issue AND saves us from sending more garbage to the landfill (and paying for a bigger garbage can)! Two such services here in the Bay Area are Earth Baby and Tiny Tots.

Right now we’re trying out Earth Baby (they offer a 1-month free trial). So far it’s working out fairly well, although I have to mention that Desmond is a super soaker and has leaked out of the diapers at night lately (in reading reviews, it’s an issue with some babies using the Naty brand of diapers, which are the only brand Earth Baby offers), so we’ve taken to using Huggies for nighttime diapering. The Huggies have to go into our garbage can, of course, but it’s only around 10 diapers a week so…we’ll take it; I can’t be washing sheets every day!

The diaper composting service is not a big money-saver, unfortunately. The diapers and wipes can only be purchased through the service and are more expensive (the service has to make a profit somehow). We are avoiding the cost of additional water usage and a larger garbage can, though. And, well, I am not sad that I’m avoiding the laundry involved with cloth diapers, either…cloth is soft and cute and great for sensitive baby skin, but extra laundry still sucks!

I’m no expert but so far, this seems like one of the most environmentally-friendly diaper options for Californians right now.

What do you think? Does the environmental impact influence your household’s diapering decisions? Do you have drought conditions to take into account in your area?

8 thoughts on “Diapering in a Drought”

  1. I absolutely adore how you thought this out so deeply and worked to find a solution. (And yes, cloth is adorable, but it’s not always the right answer either.)

  2. Thank you for this. We live in the San Francisco Bay and have been a little anxious about continuing to cloth diaper due to the resources–namely water and energy (gas/electricity)–given the current drought. Our son is almost 2-1/2 and we’ve been using cloth since birth, mostly stay-dry ones for convenience, of course. Yes, cloth diapering has been less-than-ideal since he started eating solids, but I’ve been ok sucking it up for the good of the earth. I work from home and have the time to wash and dry the cloth diapers, so that aspect has been easy. My husband, on the other hand, does not need any convincing to switch to disposables/compostables ASAP.
    I so welcomed the warm sun and the early arrival of spring because it meant that I could fully sun-dry my diapers again, rather than finishing them off in the dryer. But the sun and heat have also reminded me how desperate our yard is for water (mind you, it’s adapt or die in my garden), never mind the general population as a whole.
    We have been using Naty diapers overnight for the last 6 months or so (less leakage than with different types of cloth we tried) AND when we expect a #2, so occasionally using compostable diapers collected in a compostable bio bag–though ultimately dumped into our garbage bin–seemed the least of all evil. At least it will decompose in less time in the landfill, right? But we’re still using cloth diapers during the day along with cloth wipes, which means laundry cycles and my drought woes. A recent email I received about our actual water usage in comparison to other households was embarrassing.
    We do have a conventional washer and dryer. Last year, I had looked into investing in a high-efficiency washer and dryer, but a lot of blogs I read were wary of them due to build-up and stink issues on cloth diapers, seemingly due HE machines not using enough water to fully clean the diapers. I’m telling ya: I think we’ve all done our best to make a thoughtful decision on this. 🙂
    Potty training is half-heartedly in progress, so I expect we might have another year of diapers/pull-ons. I had looked at Earth Baby few months ago, and I think your article is pushing me one step closer in that direction. (But what about the fuel the trucks use to pick-up drop off?! Ugh. Never mind.)
    Any update on Earth Baby service and experience? Thanks again.

    1. Hi Aimee! Thank you for the comment. It’s great to hear from other parents in the area dealing with the same issue was we are. There is comfort in commiseration! Isn’t it incredible how much time you can spend thinking about DIAPERS? 😛

      We have been using the Earth Baby service for 6 months now and it’s working out very well. Once Dez got out of the size 1 diapers, we had fewer leaks and didn’t need to use a different brand at night. He’s in Naty full time now and leaks are rare. We had one incident where our diaper delivery disappeared from our front porch, but Earth Baby took care of it. They have great customer service! I would definitely suggest you give them a try.

    2. Hi! I wanted to clarify one thing you mention: nothing biodegrades in a landfill. There isn’t any O2 so even if you put compostable items in the trash, they will sit there like regular trash. This is something to keep in mind with compostable diapers: they only help the environment if you can get them back to the correct processing facility.

  3. Hi EwokMama,

    This issue has always been on my mind, since I live in the Bay Area as well and have been cloth diapering our 13 month old since he was one month old. We tried out the Earth Baby service with the one month trial and thought it was great, but just felt so expensive! Plus we would still have diaper blow outs with the compostables, but rarely had any once we switched to cloth. We have been using the Bumgenius Flip brand almost exclusively now, so theoretically is less laundry because we’re able to reuse the covers if baby didn’t soil them. We also use the Bumkins brand of disposable liners to help with disposing of his poops and throw it into the garbage, instead of down the toilet to avoid the chance of clogging the sewers, but hey they’re biodegradable still! Rarely do we pull out the Natys compostables (since I keep thinking it’s at least 40 cents per diaper)… but we have them around for in case.

    We use a conventional washer (top loading) and do laundry every 2-3 days on a small load, and then hang dry the inserts. We haven’t used our dryer I think a year?! We hang dry all of our clothes. Like Aimee said, we also looked into the HE washer, and after all the problems I’ve read about using them while cloth diapering (you end up having to run the diapers through multiple times to get them finally clean, which defeats the purpose of using a HE washer)… we decided to wait until after our diapering days to invest in one.

    Since cloth diapering, our water bill has obviously gone up, but we do our best to conserve water in other ways around the house. For one, we take very short showers, and even use buckets to catch the water as the shower warms up, and flush our toilets with that. We use the “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” mantra too. Our little guy has transitioned from the toddler tub to a shower with me or my husband, with little or no water trickling, and scrubbing him down in minutes. We also have reduced our red meat consumption. We do as much as we can do generally reuse, reduce, and recycle. If not recycle, then compost!

    I’m hoping we can continue to use our cloth diapers until baby is potty trained… and we plan to use our cloth diapers for baby #2 when that happens down the road. I couldn’t find a consensus on the water footprint of a diposable diaper, vs compostable diaper, vs the various brands of cloth diapers. I think that would be interesting to see.

    Thanks for posting!

    1. It sounds like you have a very thoughtful method going with adjusting your water usage in other areas to compensate for the cloth diaper laundry! I think making mindful decisions about diapering is the best we can do really. It’s hard to know which is the “right” path to take – preserving water or avoiding landfills (since trash in a landfill doesn’t decompose normally – everything is so compressed that moisture and oxygen levels are too low to break down the materials). Ideally we would do both but I haven’t found a practical way to do that when it comes to diapering.

      Hopefully California can fix this drought situation for all of our sakes…

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