I have just welcomed my third child into the world. Her small presence has brought many large changes to our routines, including, for the first time, the use of cloth rather than disposable diapers. This change to cloth started me thinking: Was there a way to quantify which is better, cloth or disposable diapers?
Cloth diapers have experienced a resurgence in recent years. Enthusiasts cite the cost, environmental, health, and potty-training benefits to argue for the superiority of cloth over disposable diapers. Of all of these benefits, only the costs of cloth and disposable diapers can be compared, without oversimplifying the issue, in the space of one blogpost.
So, I will attempt to characterize the most important direct economic costs associated with cloth and disposable diapers to determine, overall, which is more costly in a baby’s first year and which is more costly over the first two years. The cost of cloth diapers can be broken down into three parts: 1) the initial outlay to purchase the diapers; 2) the cost of washing the diapers; and 3) the cost of dealing with the diapers (“ick factor” not included). By contrast, there is only one direct cost to disposable diapers– the initial purchase costs.
A comparison of these costs shows that, on average, in the first year of a baby’s life and over the first two years of a baby’s life, cloth diapers cost more than disposable diapers. See the summary table below. However, at the lower end of the cost range of both cloth and disposable diapers, cloth diapers are slightly less expensive over two years and roughly comparable in price over the first year. It is also important to note that looking only at the second year, cloth diapers are on average less expensive than disposables, because cloth diapers last two years, and so do not need to be purchased in the second year. Previous calculations had shown that cloth diapers were less expensive than disposables over two years, but these calculations ignored the time cost of dealing with cloth diapers.
The following sections lay out the calculations of the cost estimates for cloth and disposable diapers over two years.
When many people think of cloth diapers, they think of a sheet that needs to be folded and then attached, very carefully, using safety pins. Newer cloth diapers have an all-in-one design that have the same shape as a disposable and can close with snaps rather than safety pins. Many of these diapers are designed so that one size fits all and only one size of diaper is needed for the first two years of the baby’s life. While these new diapers are much more convenient (and safer), they are also considerably more expensive than a square of terry cloth. At the low end, a single cloth diaper can cost around $7 ($6.66 on Amazon). A high end diaper can cost up to $17 (16.66 on bumGenius).
Manufacturers recommend that parents purchase between 12 and 24 diapers so as to avoid continually running out of clean diapers. Thus, it costs $80 (12 x $6.66) to $400 (24 x $16.66) for a supply of diapers that should last two years.
The Cost of Washing Diapers
In order to reap the benefits of re-using cloth diapers, they need to be washed—a lot. It costs roughly $.97 to wash and dry a load of laundry. It is estimated that a baby will go through 1,800 to 2,400 diapers in its first year. Assuming that a load can fit up to 24 diapers, it would cost between $70 and $190 in the first year to do laundry.
My experience has shown that the pace of diaper use decreases in the second year. If we assume that a baby uses 30% fewer diapers in their second years as in their first and that the cost per load is unchanged, the cost of doing laundry in the second year ranges from $50 to 140.
The Cost of Dealing with Cloth Diapers
When most people discuss the cost of cloth diapers, they usually ignore the time cost. However, as the saying goes, “time is money”. One benefit of disposables is that they help to avoid the time and effort spent dealing with diapers after they are used (to say nothing of avoiding the “ick factor”). Each load of cloth diapers: needs to be taken to the laundry, switched from washer to drier, taken out of the laundry, and be folded and put away. This process can take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes per load of active time. Valuing an hour of a parent’s time (using the median annual U.S. salary for 2018 of $30,533 per year comes to $14.68 per hour) it costs between $90 and $490 in the first year to deal with cloth diapers. In the second year it will cost roughly $60 to $340 to deal with cloth diapers.
In sum, in the first year of a baby’s life it costs between $244 and $1,100, or on average $664, to use cloth diapers. Over the first two years of a baby’s life it costs between $360 and $1,560, or on average $960.
One disposable diaper does not fit a child as it ages from birth to age two. Larger diapers and diapers with different (and more expensive) features need to be purchased as the child gets older. Table 1 below gives the price per diaper and the total cost for the first four sizes that typical babies wear in their first year, assuming parents purchase diapers in bulk. Table 2 below gives the price per diaper and the total cost for the two sizes babies typically wear in their second year. For simplicity, and without much change in estimated cost, I assume that the baby wears roughly the same number of each size of diaper over the course of a year. That is, if a baby wears 2,400 diapers in its first year of life, he or she will wear 600 newborn diapers, 600 size 1 diapers, 600 size 2 diapers, and 600 size 3 diapers.
In sum, in the first year of a baby’s life disposable diapers cost between $240 and $620, or $430 on average. In the first two years of a baby’s life diapers cost between $430 and $1,190, or $810 on average.
In “brief,” as this analysis shows
the direct economic costs of cloth versus disposable diapers are a “wash.” Of course, for most people, direct economic
costs is not the only factor in diaper choice.
Other important factors include environmental impact (more complex than
most people realize), convenience, and health.
What is undoubtedly true, however, is that the “cost” of diapers is one
of the first major outlays for the very expensive, but infinitely rewarding choice
of having children.
 See “6 reasons why cloth diapers are making a comeback” (https://allaboutclothdiapers.com/6-reasons-why-cloth-diapers-are-making-a-comeback/ accessed February 7, 2019) and “Cloth diapers aren’t the greener choice, after all” (https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-cloth-diapers-arent-greener-20150510-story.html. accessed February 8, 2019) and (“Southwest Harbor woman hopes to capitalize on cloth diaper rebirth” https://bangordailynews.com/2011/04/11/business/southwest-harbor-woman-hopes-to-capitalize-on-cloth-diaper-rebirth/ accessed February 8, 2019)
 See “Why Disposable Diapers Are Dirty and Dangerous (https://www.smallfootprintfamily.com/dangers-of-disposable-diapers accessed February 8, 2019) and “The Politics of Diaper: A Timeline” (http://www.mothering.com/articles/the-politics-of-diapers/ accessed February 6, 2019) and “The Joy of Cloth Diapers” (https://www.ecomall.com/greenshopping/motherc2.htm accessed February 8, 2019)
 See for example “Money, Time, The Environment? What Do Cloth Diapers Really Save” Forbes October 17, 2014 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/annabahney/2014/10/17/money-time-the-environment-what-do-cloth-diapers-really-save/#13dc79a2491f accessed February 8, 2019)
 I have tried to provide a range of values whenever possible to represent the variation and uncertainty of some of these costs.
 ALVABABY 6 pack for 39.99. Amazon.com Search for “Cloth Diapers”. (https://www.amazon.com/ALVABABY-Inserts-Reusable-Washable-Adjustable/dp/B01HG9C9YM/ref=sr_1_17_s_it?s=baby-products&ie=UTF8&qid=1549652743&sr=1-17-spons&keywords=cloth%2Bdiapers%2Band%2B2%2Binserts&th=1 Accessed February 7, 2019).
 Price per diaper for a 24 pack of All-In-One One-Size Cloth Diapers from bumGenius. (https://www.bumgenius.com/products/bumgenius-freetime-all-in-one-one-size-cloth-diaper?variant=41695318597 Accessed February 6, 2019)
 Cost Taken from “A Cost Comparison of Home Laundry and Laundromats” (https://www.thesimpledollar.com/a-cost-comparison-of-home-laundry-and-laundromats/ Accessed February 7, 2019), which cites: https://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/dryers.html Accessed February 7, 2019).
 This range was taken from personal experience and a review of articles and calculators. See for example “How Many Diapers Do You Need” (https://www.parents.com/parenting/money/saving/save-money-and-build-a-diaper-stockpile/ Accessed February 7, 2018) and The Pampers diaper Calculator (https://www.pampers.com/en-us/about-us/diapers-and-wipes/article/diaper-size-and-weight-chart accessed February 8, 2019)
 1,800 diapers, at 24 diapers per load is 75 loads per year. 2,400 diapers at 12 diapers per load is 200 loads per year. If only 12 diapers are purchased only 12 diapers can go in a load. 75 loads at $.97 per load is $72.75 per year. 200 loads at $.97 per load is $194 per year.
 “This Is the Average American’s Salary. How Does Yours Compare?” (https://www.fool.com/careers/2018/10/14/this-is-the-average-americans-salary-how-does-your.aspx accessed February 8, 2019)
 75 loads per year at 5 minutes per load is 6.25 hours spent dealing with cloth diapers a year. 6.25 hours at 14.68 per hour is $91.75 worth of time spent dealing with cloth diapers a year. Similarly, at the upper end, 200 loads per year at 10 minutes per load is 33.3 hours per year. 33.3 hours at 14.68 per hour is $489.31 worth of time spent dealing with cloth diapers a year.