Eventually, my job with Money Crashers gave me the chance to research all those questions in painstaking detail. I learned about the many different types of cloth diapers now on the market and how much they cost to use, as well as the advances in disposable diaper technology and how to evaluate "green" claims. I then compared home-laundered cloth diapers, disposable diapers, and diaper services to see how they measure up in four areas:
If you're an eco-conscious parent, then you presumably won't consider any disposable diaper unless you're confident that it's free of any kind of toxins that could harm your baby. A detailed study at Baby Gear Lab, which I relied on heavily for this article, shows that the best value in a "green" diaper is a brand called Earth's Best Tender Care, which costs 36 cents per diaper, or about $2,160 for three years' worth. Add in the cost of a large diaper pail ($125) and disposable wipes ($360), and your total cost for diapering one baby for three years comes to $2,645.
By contrast, the best buy in a cloth diaper is the Flip Hybrid, which costs just $300 for three years of use. Since you'll already be laundering the diapers, you can also use reusable cloth wipes (about $45 for a three-year supply) and a smaller diaper pail with a pair of cloth liners ($100). You also need to spend $70 on a diaper sprayer and shield to prep the diapers for cleaning, and about $200 for additional laundry costs. That comes to $715 total, less than one-third the cost of disposables—and all the diapers and accessories can be reused for a second baby, reducing your cost still more.
Of course, the cloth diapers are also more work. In addition to a couple of extra loads of laundry per week, you have to spend a minute or so dumping and spraying the diaper before dumping it in the pail —though the editors at Baby Gear Lab point out that, in theory, you should do that with a disposable diaper too, as it's illegal in most states to put human feces into a landfill. So if you're a truly eco-conscious parent, the disposable diapers might not actually be any more convenient in that regard. But there's also another way to eliminate this part of the job: use a removable, flushable diaper liner that you can simply lift out and deposit in the toilet. That adds another $420 to the three-year cost of the cloth diapers, but your total is still only $1,065, less than half the cost of disposables. And you can also compromise by using a diaper sprayer at home and liners when you're on the road, for a cost somewhere in between.
How about environmental costs? Well, according to my research, as far as global warming is concerned, it's kind of a wash. According to a British study from 2008, cloth diapers have a lower carbon footprint if you wash them in cold water, dry them on a line, and reuse them for a second child—but if you wash in extra-hot water and tumble dry, the cloth diapers actually have a significantly larger carbon footprint than the disposables. Of course, greenhouse gases aren't the only consideration; you also have to consider the amount of water used for laundering and the amount of landfill space used by disposables—both of which may or may not be a concern, depending on where you live. And there's also the resources involved in the actual manufacture of the disposables, which studies show significantly outweighs the resource use for cloth—though all these studies are at least 10 years old, so the numbers may not apply anymore. But when you factor in the whole "poop in a landfill" problem, it becomes pretty clear that cloth diapers are definitely greener overall, making them a win on both counts.
If you want more details (lots more), you can read the entire article at Cloth Diapers vs. Disposable – Cost, Types & How to Choose for Your Baby. It tells you everything you ever wanted to know about choosing a diaper, and probably a lot more.