Washing Cloth Diapers in an Apartment: Eco-friendly or Totally Nuts?

On our recent article “Cloth Diaper Recommendations for a Complete Novice,” one of our readers asked if it would be worth investing in cloth diapers if she lived in an apartment with coin-operated laundry.  In my opinion, based on number-crunching rather than personal experience, it would be worth a try.  Even if you have to pay to run the washer and dryer, you will save money using cloth diapers.  As long as your washer and dryer work reasonably well and you don’t have to keep feeding it quarters to make them properly wash and dry your diapers, it should be a better choice for the environment, too.

Our reader pays $1 to run the washer and another $1 to run the dryer.  Obviously she could save money and carbon emissions by hanging diapers to dry, but that not may be practical in her apartment or climate.  I wash diapers every four days, or ninety times a year.  If she can get away with running just one cycle per load (i.e., she does not use extra rinses or run the washer twice to get the diapers clean), she’ll pay $90 a year to wash the diapers.  I know some apartment dryers barely work, but let’s assume that $1 will adequately dry her diapers, so she’ll pay $90 for drying, too.  If she uses Biokleen Laundry detergent (see our posts on eco-friendly detergents here and here), she’ll spend $.139/load, or $12.51/year on detergent for her diaper loads.  Total washing and drying costs (for one year): $192.51.

I spent just $129.50 on one year of diaper supplies, which is on the cheap side.  I estimated in my Cloth vs. Disposable Cost Comparison post that, depending on the diaper system, you could spend anywhere from $120 to about $600 on start-up costs.  Total start-up costs: $120-$600.

Keep in mind that even if you do start cloth diapering and give up, you can usually sell back your diapers and get as much as half your money back.  Consumer Reports estimates that disposable diapers will cost $600-$800 a year-and obviously there is no resale value on a used disposable diaper!  With these factors  in mind, I’d say it’s definitely worth giving cloth diapering a try.  Even in the first year, you could spend about half the cost of disposables.

Now for the practical side of washing cloth diapers in an apartment.  Will you want to lug a stinky diaper pail down to the public laundry facilities?  Will your fellow apartment-dwellers be grossed out by diapers swishing in their laundry machines?  These are factors to consider, too.  Perhaps some of our readers can weigh in with personal experience.  Has anyone tried using cloth diapers with public washing machines?  How did it go?  Please help our pregnant reader solve her diapering dilemma!

Comments

  1. Rebecca says:

    Some laundromats and apartment style machines actually forbid you from washing soiled diapers. Check with the policies before you invest. A hybrid option might work out better (that’s what I’m going to try first), since less fecal matter and urine end up in the washer, and there is less of a chance that your (presumably tiny) apartment will stink of dirty diapers until you can wash them.

  2. Most of the time it’s the poopy diapers that cause the eeuuw-factor with others. But if disposable liners are used, most of the solids get flushed anyway. Perhaps one could have a wet diaper pail whereby the poopy diapers get pre-rinsed (and the water flushed down the toilet or bath) before being taken down to the laundry (in a “dry” pail). That way, residents have less to complain about because the diapers are pre-rinsed.

    I don’t see it any different to other people washing their undies in the same machine. ;)

    There is the option of line drying diapers – in fact many diapers don’t respond well to tumble drying – so that is a possibility. Although it does mean your apartment would look like a laundry for a day or two.

  3. In the interest of fairness, I have to say I never spent more than $30 a month on disposables.

    And Penny, I live in an apartment and it is actually forbidden to set up a clothesline.

    I would say that it’s probably do-able, but definitely not easy. If you compare the environmental impact of living in a smaller space to the disposable diapers, you might cut yourself some slack on this one. It is not only the money, but what a hassle to have even MORE laundry. It’s not like you can just throw a wash in and go about your business – it is taking it there, waiting for it, entertaining a small child and not being able to, say, clean the kitchen or whatever else needs doing while waiting.

    Many apartments have washers and dryers in the units or at least have hook-ups. I would think just in general having little kids in an apartment with no washer/dryer would be tough.

  4. Rebecca, good point about checking out your apartment or laundromat’s diaper-washing policy before investing in cloth diapers. I am wondering, though, why you say a hybrid diaper would mean less fecal matter and urine would end up in the washer? Personally I don’t put any fecal matter in my washer if I can help it, and I use plain old prefolds with covers.

    Penny, I think disposable liners are a great idea for apartment-dwelling diaper-washers! You’re right; it would keep things much cleaner. Good idea about the two diaper pails, too.

    Eileen, it’s true that you can spend just $30/month on disposables, but if you’re trying to be “green,” then I think you’d be buying more expensive brands such as 7th Generation. As far as I know, it would be difficult to spend so little on chlorine-free diapers. You’re right, though, about the environmental advantages of living in an apartment. Not only are you living in a smaller space, but you are also sharing walls with others, which means you’re spending less on heating costs. So I’d say disposable-using apartment dwellers could indeed cut themselves some slack!

    Another cost consideration that Eileen’s comment reminded me of is garbage disposal. Here in Portland, we pay less for once-a-month garbage service as opposed to weekly service. So, if I used disposable diapers, I’d have to pay more for garbage, because I’d get it picked up every week. In all the apartments I’ve lived in, I’ve had unlimited garbage service. This makes using disposable diapers in an apartment more tempting, though “unlimited garbage service” is not so great for the environment!

  5. Just a quick note– my husband & I recently found out that my husband and his older brother were both cloth diapered. This was in 1970-1975 or so! Turns out my brother-in-law was terribly allergic to the disposables of the day (I can only imagine that it would be worse these days). And for the first couple of years, my in-laws took the diapers to a laundramat to wash them. My brother-in-law’s diapers even had to have an extra rinse with vinegar. I was very impressed but my mother-in-law seemed to think it was no big deal. So it’s definitely do-able!!!

  6. Would diaper service be an affordable option? Here in Seattle I think it is about $75/month, but maybe it is cheaper elsewhere? That might solve the laundry issue.

    I think a pre-rinse of the diapers (our water takes a long time to heat up and I often put dirty dipes in a bucket and rinse in water as it gets warm) and it works well – eliminates the pre-rinse in the washer.

  7. We have been in 2 apartments with our son in cloth diapers, and used a diaper service. Both have laundry facilities, but the first was unreliable so we used a diaper service. Our diaper service was $20/week for 80 diapers when we started, but now would cost $24.75/week for the same number. In our current place, the water temp is great and it’s easier to access the laundry room (don’t have to leave the building) but availability would still be an issue. What I notice in researching laundering our own diapers (because another baby is on the way) is that the prices for both diaper service and laundry in our area (outside NYC) are DOUBLE what I’m reading on line. A wash is $2, a dry is $2. Most info I read recommends washing diapers twice, if you can’t control the soaking/washing/rinsing as with a personal machine, so we’re looking at $6/each time. I hang-dry many of our clothes inside the apartment, but would be unable to take advantage of sun-bleaching diapers because hanging clothes outside is not an option. Having a toddler and an infant without the freedom to do laundry on my own timetable, along with the cost, is making us reconsider disposibles – $11/60 at Target and we don’t pay extra for garbage pick-up where we live. Have any of you dealt with similar expenses and limitations – would love to find a way to make using cloth work.

  8. Hi Melissa,

    Disposables certainly sound easier in your case. I think cloth diapering is still possible, though, if you want to give it a try. I admit it may not be worth it–what if my hypothetical scenario doesn’t work for some reason? But here it goes:

    1. Buy a 12-pack of bumGenius diapers at cottonbabies.com for $200.

    2. Wash them every other day (or less often if you can). That would cost you $360/year, or 900 over 2.5 years. At the Green Baby Guide, we recommend skipping extra rinses, soaks, cycles, etc. It should not be necessary to wash diapers twice.

    3. Hang them to dry. Pocket diapers should dry much more easily than prefolds. I’ve heard sun-bleaching works even through a window, but sun-bleaching isn’t exactly necessary to the cloth-drying process. Here in Oregon there’s no sun for several months on end, so I know!

    Okay, so my scenario would end up costing you exactly the same as the Target disposables after 2.5 years–$1100. However, with the cloth diapers you can sell them when you’re done and get at least $100 back.

    Of course, I have not tried this myself, so perhaps this grand plan would not work at all. If you want to be our test case, that would be great! Good luck finding a system that works out!

  9. Rebecca, thanks so much for replying. I will check out the bum genius diapers, and we’ll give it a go and keep our fingers crossed that none of the neighbors freak if they see us washing diapers. Of course, as I’ve read on other sites, even with disposable diapers, if there’s babies, there’s poop, pee, etc. going into the machines at some point. As far as cost, as long as we’re coming close to even with the disposables, it’s great. Also, did you ever bother getting one of those diaper-rinsing hoses for the toilet? I wonder if that would be worthwhile. Thanks again!

  10. Melissa, good luck! I did not get a diaper-rinsing hose. If you’re washing the diapers in a public machine, you may want to look into diaper liners. That way your diapers are going into the washing machines without solid waste on them. I think (but I’m not sure) that you can wash them and reuse them if they’re just peed through, so you’d only be throwing away about one a day.

    Ooh, also, I just remembered that I found a sale on bumGenius diapers!

  11. Thanks ladies, I’m so glad to stumble upon this post! I am in this same predicament. We just moved from a house with lots of sunshine, space, and our own washer/dryer to an apartment with shared facilities and three flights of stairs. I really want to go back to cloth for my 8 month old because of the eco-friendliness of it all, cost savings, and my hands are so chapped (which I suspect is from disposable diapers/wipes).
    The reasons I haven’t switched yet: $3 per load with no option for 2nd rinse, time constraints (can’t just leave things sit in community machine), traveling up/down stairs with baby & carrying them back up, having difficulties keeping up with regular laundry for a family of 4, Luvs cost $20/week with no wash requirements or fees for garbage removal, .
    I will look into disposable liners. Do you use them every diaper change? What are your favorite brands? Also, I like the idea of using a wet & a dry pail.
    Any words of wisdom/encouragement are most appreciated :) Thanks!

  12. By the way, we purchased Baby Babu pocket diapers for only $10 each and really enjoyed their quality/craftsmanship.

  13. Shannon, we use disposable liners when I expect that Frances is going to poop. I’m not always right about the timing, but pretty close. If your baby poops around the same time every day, you should be able to guess when to use a liner.

    We don’t have a favorite brand of liner. I’d say whatever is flushable and on sale!

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