The Diaper Divide

Disposable Diaper Brouhaha

Recently we’ve noticed a lot of interwebz discussion about disposable diapers vs. cloth diapers. Specifically, the question keeps coming up as to why needy families are not able to use cloth diapers. It is a valid question. In fact, it seems just about every time we get any kind of coverage this is one of the first questions to come up.

Previously we’ve addressed the topic briefly in our Diapers 101 post, but we thought it might be helpful to publish a perspective that explains the hurdles faced both by providers of free diapers and the recipient families.


This past Earth Day an article came out in the Connecticut Post mentioning The Diaper Bank, founded by our friend and advisory board member Joanne Goldblum. The Diaper Bank distributes thousands (to the tune of 200,000 diapers  EACH month) to low income families across three CT counties.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

On the same day that folks marked Earth Day, a press release landed in one of my editors’ e-mail accounts. It was for a fundraiser for the Diaper Bank of Connecticut, which distributes thousands of diapers a year to low-income folks who can’t afford them for their babies. One has to wish, at a time of raised environmental awareness, why the Diaper Bank has yet to distribute cloth ones that can be laundered and recycled, too.

Well off or not, isn’t it everybody’s responsibility to pitch in and do their part to help the environment?

The Response

Dear Ms. Brown,

I just read your article, Helping to Save the Environment One Diaper at a Time with great interest.

I hope you will be pleased to find out that we do offer cloth diapers to clients. The problem is that no one will take them. Actually, we just sent bags of cloth diapers to Haiti because they had been sitting in our warehouse for so long. I wish you had called us for comment prior to publishing your article so we could have discussed this because we take environmental concerns very seriously.

The reason cloth diapers are unpopular among our clients is that families in poverty cannot afford and do not have access to washing and drying facilities. Hanging diapers out on the line in an urban setting is not realistic. Many landlords forbid it or provide no outdoor space or security to make it practicable. Furthermore, most childcare centers require parents to provide disposable diapers. Furthermore, most people living in poverty do not have affordable access to washing facilities.  Also, most laundramats do not allow people to wash diapers in thier machines. So while it is easy for wealthy families who control their own homes and childcare to use cloth, poor families are not so free to do as they might prefer.

In general we believe that the issue of disposable diapers and their environmental impact is a national topic that requires changing the conditions that make it impractical for many poor families to use cloth. This issue is not going to be resolved by not providing babies with what they need.  So even though cloth or recycled diapers may be better for the environment, we don’t think the place to make that argument is in response to poor children.

As for recycled diapers the cost, $23 a week, is considerably more than we pay for diapers since we buy diapers wholesale directly from a manufacturer. So switching to the recycled diapers would mean we serve far fewer poor children.

I will contact the company you spotlighted to see if they are interested in working with us to get the diapers they distribute to families in need- Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they were willing to work with us at a reduced cost to help poor families help the environment as well? I will tell you how that goes.

We at The Diaper Bank work hard to try to make Connecticut a better place for all children and families, I hope you will support us in that mission.

Please contact me if you would like to discuss this further, my cell phone number is 203-XXX-XXXX.

Joanne Samuel Goldblum

President and Founder , The Diaper Bank

Another Two Cents

This past year we have been very grateful to receive the support from many a cloth diapering mama, as well as from major cloth diaper manufacturer. We’ve even had our friends at Natural Resourcesshow some of our diaper recipients the ropes of cloth diapering basics. These mamas GET the cause and why cloth diapers may not be practical for everyone.

Because this cause is not about whether or not a mom chooses disposable or cloth diapers. Because to have this economic choice is a privilege to those of us who are able to meet the basic needs of our children and families.

What if you didn’t have the means to afford the start up costs of cloth diapering? What if you were living in transition – in a shelter, in your car, on a friend’s couch, doubled up with extended family? What if you could only afford to do your family’s laundry once a month? What if you only had 10 bucks in your pocket until the next payday? What if you finally got your child enrolled in Early Head Start and were required to provide a case of disposable diapers prior to starting the childcare program? The families we serve, through our partner agencies, come to them in crisis. They’re worried about their next meal and whether or not they can afford medicine, enough diapers, or to keep the lights on.

There is room enough in this cause for traditional disposables, eco-friendly disposables,  cloth diapers, AND diaper service companies. There’s room enough for projects like Laundry Love to advocate and address the logistical and financial challenges faced by many families. There’s also room enough to go beyond tangible needs and talk about the deeper issues – stuff like the real status of women; childhood poverty; public policy, urban and rural economic/food deserts.

So What Do You Think?

Is the good old “cloth vs. disposable” (as it relates to the issue of diaper needs) an argument we should continue? Do you know of a groundbreaking cloth diaper service that provides products and services free of charge to low income families? Have you heard of a charitable laundromat owner who helps out working families? We would love to hear your thoughts and relevant information you can share.

If you have NEW cloth diapers (CPSIA seal of approval) and you would like to donate to our cause, we will eventually find a needy bottom for them. Please know our greatest need is disposable diapers, though we currently do have a small agency that has distributed cloth diaper starter kits, thanks to our in kind donors.

If you would like to donate new or gently used cloth diapers, do check out the Cloth Diaper Foundation.

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