My sister, pregnant with twins, emailed me last week saying she was overwhelmed by all the options for non-disposable diapers and asked if there was a particular type I'd recommend. My sister is an idealist, a perfectionist and usually overworked, so I wrote back suggesting she first buy a big bag of disposables. This may sound flip, but it wasn't my entire answer and it's definitely a very different answer than I would have given 2 and a half years ago when starting the diapering process with my firstborn.
A hybrid diaper: part reusable, part disposable
When preparing for the birth of my first daughter, I had high ideals for how I was going to save those 4.5 trees and 2 tons of garbage- an estimate of what it takes to diaper a kid for 2 years- by avoiding disposables. Instead of relying on the cloth of my own infancy, I was going to one-up my mother and go with what I thought would be a labor-saving alternative: flushables (see video How do you flush a diaper?). This hybrid option called gdiapers, involving a reusable cloth cover with a flushable/compostable/plastic-free/chlorine-free/perfume-free FSC-certified insert, was deemed green enough to become the first consumer packaged good to be certified Cradle to Cradle back in 2006.
Since they don't sell gdiapers in Spain (where I've been living since 2006), I had my parents bring over several hundred flushable inserts along with a few reusable cloth covers. Although I'd heard they can leak with the small legs of newborns, technically they worked well for us (see my video where I brag about my system to my friend SuChin), but when I realized how many diapers a baby goes through, especially a newborn, I began to question whether it was worth the 30 cents per diaper (about double the price of plastic disposables and considerably more than cloth). I had also realized that I might not be saving myself the labor involved with cleaning cloth, since I often had to clean the poopy edges of the reusable covers.
DIY cloth nappies
So when my flushables ran out, I switched to cloth. Intimidated by the variety and price tag of many of the modern cloth diapers, I decided to make my own.
I'm not a seamstress, but all I did was cut an old towel and t-shirt into small pieces, fold a t-shirt piece around a towel strip (to make a soft outer lining) and insert them into the plastic reusable covers my mother had brought over to me. This worked great, especially when she was still breastfeeding and her poop didn't smell and had the easily-washable consistency of yogurt.
Modern cloth: more options than a Starbucks
As she outgrew my homemade strips, I decided to invest in more modern cloth nappies. Instead of trying to choose between organic cotton all-in-ones (AIOs), hemp prefolds or fleece pocket diapers (see video on Fuzzi Bunz), I decided to avoid the 10 to 20 dollar investment per diaper and purchase a medley of already-used reusables.
I found a woman on craigslist selling about 50 cloth diapers of all different types and sizes and I was soon in diaper heaven with the simple pre-folded velcro-fastening cotton/hemp/fleece nappies, complete with liners and colorful designs (Note: I'm aware there's debate over the water used for cloth diapers, but I question the statistics used, and their source. See my post Diaper Wars for more.).
Disposables: let them sag
This worked well for months until my diapers developed a build-up, either from the hard water of Barcelona or my method of simply dumping the poop-covered cloth into the washing machine without scraping first. While looking for a recipe to strip my diapers (see video on Stripping diapers with salt, baking soda and vinegar), I switched back to disposables, but used each one to the fullest of its potential:
• If you read the label, manufacturers tell you their disposables are good for up to 12 hours- thanks to the gel that wicks all moisture away from the tiny bottoms- so I took full advantage and didn't change until a poo or the diaper nearly sagged to her knees.
• To cut material use, I downsized my daughter from the larger 4 her weight called for to a 2 that fit just as well. (see video Breaking the disposable diaper size barrier). This may have been the luck of finding a different brand that fit her better, but it made me realize it's worth taking a second look at size to be sure what they put on the package works for your child.
A wardrobe of options
Until my sister asked which type of diaper I'd recommend, I hadn't realized just how oversimplistic the question was. It's a bit like asking someone what one type of shoe they'd recommend for all purposes: perhaps some of us can get by with just a pair of sneakers, but most of us need at least a few options in our wardrobe.
For my guide to greener diaper options see my extended post on Diapers: one size does not fit all.