"We used cloth back in the day and I tell you – never again!" is a phrase we hear very often from women of an older generation.
Cloth diapers were a part of our lives for most of our history and for a long time they were primarily handmade from any absorbing material, such as a folded square or rectangle of linen cloth, cotton flannel, or stockinette, which was fastened with safety pins. Today, this type of diaper is referred to as a flat. The flat was commonly used in the late 1800s in Europe and North America. First mass-production of cloth diapers in the United States started in 1887 by Maria Allen.
In the early part of the 20th century, as we became aware of bacteria through scientific discoveries, cloth users started boiling diapers adding to the workload required in using them. This discovery also helped conceive first disposable diapers in the 20th century, but its deployment varied worldwide. Several patents were registered at the time. However, at first, the big manufacturers were unable to see the commercial possibilities of disposable nappies as cloth was still viewed as an affordable and easily accessible solution.
Our world truly changed with the start of WWII. Here are where attitudes about cloth took a 360-degree turn! The World War drove a lot of women into the workplace and away from their traditional housewife roles, as most men left factories for the front lines. The increase of working mothers who wanted freedom from washing diapers so that they could work and travel, caused an increase in demand for disposable diapers. The first mass-marketed disposable diaper in the U.S. was introduced by Johnson & Johnson in 1948. Mothers, being the authority in decision-making regarding child upbringing, became primarily targets of commercial advertising which emphasised lower cost and ease of use as the greatest benefit of disposables. In 1961, Procter & Gamble unveiled Pampers.
By 1990's, disposable diapers already constituted 1.6% of municipal waste, by the year 2006 - 2.1%. The environmental cost of disposables becoming apparent, 7 in 10 Americans at the time said they would support disposable diaper ban. However, with mass production making disposable diapers cheaper and the influx of working mothers led to a further boom of the industry. By the 2010s an estimated 20 billion diapers were added to landfills each year in the US alone. The rise of environmentalist movements brought cloth back into the discussion.
Meanwhile cloth did not "stand still" as many seem to believe, and modern cloth nappies are nowhere near the traditionally used flats of the past. Many design features of modern cloth diapers have followed directly from innovations initially developed in disposables, such as eliminating the need to fold, the use of the hourglass shape, implementing materials to separate moisture from skin, and the use of inner elastics for better fit and containment of waste material. Meanwhile technological advancements in washing machines, detergents, and cleaning agents have revolutionized the hygiene standard to which cloth nappies can be kept, with minimal effort.
Modernized and providing the same ease of use as disposables, they do not contribute to landfill waste. As for the early 21st-century disposable diapers, well, they will finish biodegrading by the year 2500.