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Going green with diapers

20 April 2011

LIKE any expectant mother, Nor Farhana Mohamad Fadzil was eagerly shopping for baby stuff months before her first child’s arrival.
“From the start, I opted for cloth diapers because I don’t fancy my baby wearing plastic ‘pants’ aka disposable diaper for a few hours each time, only to ditch the diaper in the landfill,” says Farhana of Kuala Lumpur. “And I don’t want my baby to have any possible contact with chemicals found in disposables.”

But to Farhana’s surprise, the array of cloth diapers available in the online market boggles the mind: countless brands, types, pricing, designs and the huge number of online shops and blogshops. Reusable diapers come in cute designs. There is a vast array of cloth diapers available online: countless brands, types, pricing and designs.

“It was quite intimidating and there was so much information to sieve through,” says the 26-year-old who works out of home as a customer service consultant. After months of poring over websites and reaching out to local and overseas cloth diaper advocates, Farhana set up the blog, (CDM).

“I wanted to share the information with other parents who want to explore the cloth diaper option,” says Farhana whose baby boy, Filip Alif Rafee, is now 14 months old.

“Besides, many other resources on the Web are Western-oriented, so this site is meant to meet Malaysian parents’ needs.”

Jam-packed with diaper-related info, the site covers tips on choosing the right diapers for your baby, care instructions, and where to buy cloth diapers. A whopping 40-plus online shops and more than 60 blogshops peddling cloth diapers are listed on the site. An offshoot of CDM, the Cloth Diaper Malaysia Facebook page boasts about 800-plus fans and counting.

Founder of Cloth Diaper Malaysia, Nor Farhana Mohamad Fadzil, changing her son, Rafee. ‘I wanted to share the information with other parents who want to explore the cloth diaper option,’ says Farhana.

“Essentially, CDM wants to educate, inform and promote Cloth Diapering as a lifestyle choice for parents,” says Farhana who tries to hook up all the Malaysian mums who blog about cloth diapers. “And we’re also creating a community of cloth diaper mums.”

Why are disposable diapers getting so much flak from these ardent mums?
Every single week, a baby will get through, on average, 50 to 80 disposable diapers. In Britain alone, around 9 million disposables are dumped in landfills each day, and diapers make up about half of the garbage by volume for an average family with one baby, according to London-based Women’s Environment­al Network.
"On average, each child, from infancy to potty-training stage will use about 8,000 disposable diapers that end up in our landfills,” explains Farhana. Disposable diapers can take 200 to 500 years to decompose – imagine all the untreated sewage and harmful methane produced by billions of diapers in landfill sites ( Largely made from polypropylene plastic and bleached, pulped wood called cellulose, the process of manufacturing disposables consumes huge energy and resources.Conventional disposable diapers also contain chemicals like super absorbent sodium polyacrylate (SAP) granules, bactericides and chemical deodorant linked with irritation and allergic reactions. On top of depleting our natural forests, the toxic by-product of pulp and paper bleaching is dioxin. Dioxin accumulates in the environment and is not easily broken down.

“Some parents have to resort to cloth diapers because their babies’ skins are sensitive to chemicals in disposable diapers,” says Farhana.

Based on CDM’s estimate, parents will spend approximately RM8,280 (based on RM0.50 per diaper) on disposable diapers from the time the baby is born till he is potty-trained.
“With modern cloth diapers, you need about a set of 24 one-size diapers, assuming they’re washed every two days,” she says. “At the cost of RM50 per diaper, you’re only spending about RM1,200.” Though the initial investment is a tad high, you can reuse the diapers for your second child or sell it at secondhand online markets, Farhana added.

“Babies who wear washables tend to potty-train earlier because they learn what it’s like to feel wet from an early age,” says Farhana whose green lifestyle extends beyond cloth diapers. She prepares fresh, homemade organic food for her baby, uses natural, organic skincare and baby toiletries and prefers cloth wipes instead of disposable wet wipes.

Cloth diaper galore
Today, the old-fashioned kain lampin (flat rectangular cloth) that our mothers swore by is so passé. With “modern” cloth diapers, you don’t need origami-folding skills or to fiddle with safety pins to hold them in place. These modern archetypes come in varied styles, sizes, colours, designs and fabrics. Companies like Canada-based Mother-ease started hawking these prototypes in the market since the early 1990s.

Prefolds, one of the cheapest and simplest options, are rectangles of absorbent fabric with extra bulk in the middle and needs to be fastened with a Snappi (pin-less, diaper fastener), then layered with a waterproof diaper cover.

Pocket diapers, for example, are shaped like disposable diapers with easy fasteners – buttons or Velcro. It has a two-layer system – a waterproof outer layer and a stay-dry inner layer, usually stitched from absorbent microfleece or suede cloth materials. The inserts are removable, making it easier to wash and dry. The one-size reusable diapers grow with your baby from infant to potty-training age.

Parents have a choice of natural, eco-friendly materials like organic cotton, hemp and bamboo. Touted as being the world’s greenest crops, bamboo and hemp are naturally antibacterial and hypoallergenic. Bamboo diapers absorb 60% more moisture than cotton and diapers dry twice as fast, too. Both hemp and bamboo need minimal pesticides, chemical fertilisers and water to grow, unlike conventional cotton.

“What’s great about the cloth diaper market now is that you can buy a reusable for as little as RM20 or splurge on a fancy RM120 diaper,” says Farhana. “We’re happy to see more homegrown cloth diaper brands like Bamboo Delite, Maybel’s Closet,, Mama Sewbulous Shoppe and lots more.”

But really, how do disposables stack up against cloth diapers?
Internationally, the “cloth vs disposable” debate has been ongoing for a while now. In 2005, a study released by London-based Environmental Agency concluded that disposable diapers have the same environmental impact as reusable diapers when the effect of laundering cloth diapers is taken into account. Cloth-diaper industry countered these findings with their own research – cloth diapers used fewer resources overall.
Both sides presented scientific studies involving so many variables that US-based Natural Resources Defense Council issued a statement saying they don’t favour one over another. There are costs both ways. (One of America’s most powerful environmental action groups, non-profit NRDC is made up of environmental lawyers, scientists, policy-makers and activists.) Resource consumption assessments are based on so many factors: if you’re using cloth, is it organic or conventional cotton which contributes to global pesticide use? Are you line-drying versus machine tumble-dry? Is your washing machine energy efficient and are you using biodegradable detergent?

“At the end of the day, you have to go with what works best with your family’s lifestyle and personal beliefs,” Farhana sums up. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Some parents use both types of diapers, switching depending on the child’s age, their travelling plans or schedules.

Cloth diaper experiment
FROM the onset, my hubby and I knew we would go the “cloth” way. Before baby arrived, friends showered us with green baby gifts, including a set of Rumparooz One-size reusable diaper, our first initiation into modern cloth diapering.

Shaped like a disposable diaper, the US-brand diaper comes with a waterproof outer and removable inserts made from soft, microfibre material that is absorbent and dries fast. The contoured shaped inner acts like a “poop scoop” and prevents messy leaks. Snap closures allow you to adjust the diaper size from infant stage, about 2.9kg, to toddling years, 16kg. To clean, we just toss the diaper and inserts into the washing machine.
Easy-peasy, right? Or so we thought.

Since each diaper cost RM89 per piece, we started off with six Rumparooz diapers and extra six inserts which set us back about RM800. The usual advice from manufacturers is to start with at least one dozen diapers to allow frequent changes and laundering. We supplemented with kain lampin – hand-me-downs and new – from well-meaning friends and relatives.

Then baby arrived. Our first few weeks were a mad frenzy of round-the-clock breastfeeding, diaper-changing, laundering and folding. I didn’t practise confinement and we don’t have a maid. Needless to say, we were utterly exhausted from dealing with a newborn and the household chores. But we learned not to get grossed out by the slimy poop and distinct smells.

The Rumparooz did its job well – no soaking-wet diapers or messy leaks but the poop stains were stubborn. Then again, it could be the mild, biodegradable laundry detergent we use.

Our poor baby suffered from a diaper rash episode which kept us on our toes – we needed to change her more frequently! When we were on the road and staying in hotels, we found cloth diapers impractical since we had no access to washing and drying facilities. But over time, the cloth diapering rigmarole does get easier as baby’s pee and poop frequency decreased.

Alas, three months later, when it came time to send baby to the daycare after I returned to work, our “cloth” experiment took a hiatus. Despite the offer to take back the soiled diapers each day, the daycare refused to accept reusable diapers. All the six daycares we scouted earlier had said no to cloth diapers.
For now, we’re stuck with disposable diapers. But in the scheme of green living, we aspire to join the diaper-free movement. The basic idea is to use your intuition, timing, sound cues, and baby behaviour to know when she wants to go.

No diapers, no extra washing, no detergents and – best of all – no cost.

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