Cloth or disposables? Half-century debate still on

Published 10:58 pm Monday, April 11, 2011

Disposables, cloth. Cloth, disposables. Fifty years after Procter & Gamble introduced affordable throwaway diapers, dubbing them Pampers, the battle over baby’s bottom rages on.

The brand brought on a revolution in baby care, obliterating safety pins, soaking pails and diaper delivery trucks. But reusables have been slowly inching back into the mainstream, with the predictable faceoff among parents choosing one or the other — though some families use both.

In 1958, with other disposables already out, P&G’s version was a “fortunate failure” during a summer test run in Dallas, according to a company history. Consisting of pads and plastic pants, it made babies uncomfortable in the heat.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The company tweaked the invention into a one-piece and went calling on parents again in 1961. They played in Peoria, Ill., one of the markets chosen, but customers said the cost of 10 cents each was too high. More tweaks followed and the price went down to 6 cents. By 1979, Pampers was a billion-dollar brand.

The disposable diaper industry, now worth more than $25 billion, crushed the cloth market. But wait. After the save-the-planet zeitgeist of two decades ago failed to produce a blockbuster comeback, reusables have become de rigueur in certain circles, and to some parents who lack  money for disposables.

The new cloth diapers are hardly a threat to the big guys in throwaways, but in crunchy enclaves like Portland, Ore., and Northampton, Mass., it’s a rare parent worth his yoga mat who would dare consider disposables, at least out loud.

Reusables can be had in big box stores and discount houses. Stashes are sometimes passed on to friends. They’re still roughly 5 percent or less of the diaper market, but it was the other way around in 1956 when disposables accounted for about 1 percent. That’s when P&G chemical engineer Vic Mills went in search of a better alternative to cloth for his newborn grandchild.

Disposables have been around since at least 1935, primarily as a niche item for trips away from home, but they never broke through to overtake cloth until Pampers hit, tapping into the postwar fervor for all things new, convenient and timesaving — especially among women setting up house in suburbia.

“Empowerment of women was a big piece of what was behind that,” said Jodi Allen, general manager for Pampers. “Offering conveniences, offering more options, was clearly part of the culture at that time.”

Today, saving the environment — and keeping anything that isn’t “green!” away from baby — is driving interest in reusables. The green question is especially vexing as both sides bandy scientific studies involving so many variables that the Natural Resources Defense Council considers the issue a wash when it comes to disposables in a landfill versus reusables in the laundry.

“We don’t recommend one over another,” said Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the environmental action group and director of its solid waste project.

“A compelling argument for getting rid of disposable diapers absolutely does not exist. It’s a personal choice, but it really can’t be made on environmental grounds. There are costs both ways,” he said.

Cloth advocates are scrappy. They have a public education arm, the Real Diaper Association, which is not to be confused with a trade group, the Real Diaper Industry Association.

Reusable diapers come in cotton, hemp, bamboo, wool and less organic forms. The flat cloths of old have been reinvented in prefolded, fitted, pocketed and all in one “systems” that offer breathability, expandability, leak control, Velcro, snaps and a three-armed fastener called a Snappi. There’s also a cuteness factor in brightly decorated covers, many from mom-grown businesses fueled by Internet interest.

“Even if there really are no indications that future generations of humans will be able to survive our mistakes, I can wash load after load of dirty diapers with some trite optimism,” said cloth-user Thomas Chang, the stay-at-home dad to year-old Olive in Northampton.

Shhhh: He and his wife use disposables at night.

In Portland, 20-month-old Alexander’s mom, Kris Vockler, went for disposables all day long after she worked out a metric carefully weighing the pros and cons — the big pro being she travels a lot and decided they were hassle-free when her son was along for the ride. He’s mostly potty-trained now but Vockler’s memories are fresh.

“We live outside Portland, where, if you know the place, picking disposables and saying so would give us funny looks,” she said.

There are a lot of “what abouts” in the cloth versus disposable debate. There’s the cotton, pulp, petrol and industrial agricultural complexes to contend with on both sides. And what about the landfills, a subject that comes up a lot.

Disposable diapers, according to Hershkowitz, comprise about 1.5 percent of all municipal waste generated in the United States, and municipal waste makes up about 2 percent of all waste from all sources. As someone who cares, he’s been looking for answers to the diaper dilemma for decades, “and there’s just no clear position to take. I wish it was that easy, but it’s not.”

P&G’s Allen, a believer in “giving babies the best, most comfortable experience,” is no cloth-basher. “I certainly don’t want to downplay the cloth diapering options and the fact that parents are looking for options that are also good for the environment,” she said.

In his enlightened western Massachusetts town, Chang notes that few day care centers support cloth, though that’s changing.

Most states allow child care providers to decide for themselves whether to accept reusable diapers. Generally, day care centers are not terribly receptive, said Heather McNamara, mom of two in San Diego, Calif., and executive director of the Real Diaper Association.

The group maintains a searchable database of cloth-friendly day cares and massive amounts of other information at McNamara sees a steady stream of cloth converts there.

“There’s a large silent population of cloth diaper users,” she said. “People come to us almost daily and say I can’t believe I didn’t know about this before.”