Diapers Go Green

Eco-friendly and cost-conscious parents are returning to cloth to cover their babies' bottoms

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Mei Tao for TIME

A Happy Heiny's cloth diaper boasts several features that promise to keep babies drier and parents happier

Most reasonable people want to do one thing with a dirty diaper: get rid of it. Which largely explains why disposable diapers have become a roughly $5.7 billion business. So it may come as a surprise to learn that cloth diapering is making a comeback.

But the new cloth diapers are different from the ones that your grandma struggled to get around her baby's bottom. While approximately half of cloth users still rely on fold-and-pin diapers provided by laundry services, new designs with cutesy names like Fuzzi Bunz, bumGenius, Kissaluvs and Happy Heinys that are made to be washed at home have developed cult followings. Velcro, buttons and snaps have replaced pins, and the diapers are fitted with elastic around the openings to hold tight around flailing legs. In place of old-fashioned rubber panties, the new cloths use water-resistant covers made of merino wool, nylon or polyurethane laminate. "They don't leak or sag or get stinky," says Jenn Labit, founder of Cotton Babies, a popular retailer. And though cloth diapers cost from $6 to $18 each, parents can take care of their baby's needs straight through toilet training for a total cost of less than $300, whereas disposables may run up to $3,000.

Companies that market cloth diapers have reported sales increases of 25% to 50% in the past few years. "The industry has seen a very steep growth curve in the last couple of years," says Labit, who started her company in her kitchen after being laid off from her job as a programmer in 2002, and now manufactures her bumGenius brand in factories in Colorado and Egypt. "None of us can expand fast enough to keep up with demand."

Cloth converts are a mix of environmentalists, earth mamas, cost-conscious parents and those who argue that cloth diapering is healthier, resulting in fewer rashes and allergies. "I feel like my baby is getting the best as far as his skin is concerned," says Natalie Brown, a mother of three in Fort Washington, Md. She tried old-fashioned cloth diapers with her first child and gave up on them because they were too messy. "When she was soiled, there was major spillage. It wasn't pretty," Brown recalls. "But the new kinds are much more functional. I'm not a huge green fan, but I love that I'm leaving less of a footprint."

The disposables industry and the cloth advocates have battled for decades over which diaper is greener. The Real Diaper Association, an advocacy group founded in 2004, estimates that 27.4 billion disposable diapers are used each year in the U.S. (according to the EPA, that translates into more than 3.4 million tons of waste dumped into landfills) and that producing those diapers also consumes huge amounts of petroleum, chlorine, wood pulp and water. Team Pampers argues that the water and energy required to launder cloth diapers cancel out those costs.

The greenest choice may be a hybrid produced by the company gDiapers. With disposable inserts and fashionable, washable coverings, gDiapers launched in 2005 and are sold in Whole Foods stores. There is one catch: the component to be flushed needs to be swished around in the toilet before it goes down. But the diapers come with a certain cachet: Julia Roberts, mother of twins Hazel and Phinnaeus, 3, and 7-month-old Henry, is a big fan. n