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My wife and I have been using reusable diapers for our two kids. We've made them from old curtains, old bedsheets, etc., pretty much all "recycled" materials.

They've been working perfectly fine, but every time I wash out the poop I can't help but wonder: compared to disposable, compostable diapers, is the ecological footprint of reusable diapers really smaller?

There's a few things to consider here:

  • I hand-wash the diapers in lukewarm water with some detergent, prior to machine washing them. Sometimes I put them in the dryer (I don't live in a climate that always allows air drying, and I kinda need the diapers quickly after washing), but let's leave that step out of consideration for now.
  • There are these cover-pants things, that you have to put over the actual diaper to make everything watertight. They contain some plastics, and they have to be washed too. However, on like 10 diapers you'd use 1 of these things. They're pretty indestructible, so we got them second-hand, and we plan on selling them on to the next parents when our kids grow out, but at some point they have to be disposed of...

The kids run around bare-butted a lot these days, so we're using like 3 a day or so. Back when they were babies it used to be somewhere around 10 a day. That contrasts with the diapers being much easier to wash when they are babies; toddlers tend to produce far more "sticky" material :)

Anyway -- we also used disposable ones in the past, made from sustainable materials and compostable, but I really don't know how to start comparing them. So does anyone know how these two compare?

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I have heard that disposables use less energy than reusables if you also use hot water and they dryer. But it seems that many experts disagree. Most of the energy that goes into reusable diapers is in heating the water and the dryer. So, the colder the water you're using and less often you dry them the better off you are. Using rain water and/or solar hot water would also help the energy use be lower.

On the topic of energy use and diapers, we've also had pretty good success teaching our daughter to pee and poo in a little potty rather than in the diaper. This saves a lot of water (no prewashing poopy diapers) and we use fewer diapers since she doesn't get them dirty every time she wears them. This works for both reusable and disposable. She almost never poops in her diapers any more. She is only 10 months old and we started this around 8 months. She stopped pooping in her diapers immediately after letting her use the potty. All we do is every hour or two, when we would normally change her diaper, we take her diaper off and set her on her potty and let her play with a toy or two for a few minutes. She normally pees right away. If we hear her making pooping noises, we take her to her potty. Supposedly, we are actually training babies to be ok with peeing and pooping in their diapers and that most babies would much rather do it in a potty from a very early age. By the time they get older and we start training them to use the potty, they have already gotten used to their diaper.

  • +1: agreed on teaching them to use the potty and do away with diapers altogether! We indeed tried that, and honestly I believe it would have worked. But a few pretty bad things and quite many life-changing events happened in our lives the past year and a half, and of course all very badly timed when it came to teaching the kids to use the potty. We simply could not find the energy to clean up all the accidents for long stretches of time, so we opted for diapers. Reusable and/or compostable ones to try and keep things sustainable, but...well, here we are. – Rody Oldenhuis May 13 '13 at 14:59
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    Yeah, I think one of the unique things about sustainability is that it really encompasses all of life and reductionist views necessarily limit how sustainable your solutions will be. The context is extremely important. – Zach Dwiel May 13 '13 at 19:02
  • My wife has been trying to get our son to be "nappy free" since he was just a few months old. It has worked pretty well with regarding to pooing: he uses unmistakable body language to indicate he needs to poo. However, he still pees at any time without warning, regardless of what he is or isn't wearing. Eventually, my wife realised that trousers are easier to wash and dry than washable diapers, so he tends to wear trousers without diapers while in the house, and diapers only when travelling somewhere. Being nappy free most of the time has definitely improved his walking ability. – Ciaran McHale May 13 '13 at 20:25
  • That's a really good idea just letting em pee in their pants since you've got to take the pants off to get to the diaper anyway. Also, shes been naked a lot more now that it is getting warmer out, which definitely helps – Zach Dwiel May 14 '13 at 0:38

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