Babies of the cloth

For health, money and the environment, cloth diapers are getting a second look

Wearing a cloth diaper, Benton Snow waters flowers with his mom, Adrienne Snow.

Wearing a cloth diaper, Benton Snow waters flowers with his mom, Adrienne Snow.


When Adrienne Snow first had her now 22-month-old son, Benton, she used disposable diapers. Spurred by her mother’s advice and an economy that was starting to affect her husband’s construction work, she started looking for a good cloth diaper, but didn’t have much luck. And the compostable diapers she found were just as messy as cloth diapering—and still disposable. So she and her mom, Becky Sarnowski, started Little Smudgeez, an online cloth diaper store, selling stylish diapers they make themselves.

“We throw stuff in the trash can, and it gets taken away,” says Snow. “But you don’t see the 6,000 to 9,000 diapers [per child in two years] when it’s all said and done. And the average family has two to three kids.”

If disposable diapers were around 500 years ago, the nappies worn by Nostradamus and Michelangelo would just now have decomposed. According to Women’s Environmental Health News, disposable diapers are the third largest single consumer item in landfills. But parents don’t have to quit cold turkey. Snow says if each parent replaced two disposables with a cloth diaper each day, 720 fewer diapers would go to the landfill each year. Considering disposable diapers cost, on average, 36 cents each, that family could also save $262.80 a year.

Then there’s what goes into the manufacturing of disposables, which babies wear all day—chlorine bleach; dioxin, which is a carcinogen; the toxic pollutant Tributyl-tin, linked to hormonal problems in people and animals; and the gels in superabsorbent diapers made from polyacrylate, which is similar to a substance once found in tampons that increased the risk of toxic shock syndrome. And according to a report to the National Association of Diaper Services, 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce disposables for one baby each year.

When our grandmothers were having to hand wash and line dry cotton diapers, it’s little wonder that disposable diapers looked like a godsend to them. Now, however, both cotton diapers and washing machines are better designed, making them not as inconvenient as many parents might think.

“I was scared myself at first,” says Snow. “But after a couple of weeks, I said ‘What was I thinking? This is a piece of cake.’”

Easing the process are diaper sprayers that make rinsing solids from diapers straight into the toilet a 10-second task, “Snappis” that take the place of pins, and all-in-one cloth diapers that function just like a disposable except you don’t throw it away. Cloth diapers at Smudgeez range from $8.50 for diaper covers to $32 for the all-in-ones. The most economical choice, says Snow, are the prefolds ($24-$34 per dozen) with a fitted cover ($13-$14). Those are about 1-8 cents per use compared to 24-40 cents for a disposable.

Snow teaches local classes on cloth diapering, where parents learn how to choose and clean cloth diapers, as well as how to introduce them to their daycare. Snow says some daycares claim it’s illegal to use cloth diapers at their business, but it’s not. However, moms need to provide an easy way for daycare employees to clean up the mess, like “yuck sack” or waterproof bag.

“I have a choice to waste or not to waste,” says Snow. “I’m willing to do a little more work to do the better thing for my kid and my community.”