Albatross covered this a bit in his post on the Great Cloth Diaper change that happened earlier today. (I'd actually planned to go to this but forgot it was today; I'm glad now that I missed it.)
Now, I do think cloth diapers are better for the environment than are disposables, at least from a resource usage standpoint. Disposable diapers are, well, disposable, meaning a constant stream of resources is necessary for continued manufacturing. Cloth diapers use resources for the initial manufacture, but if you take care of them and actually use them for several children, things fairly obviously work out in favor of the cloth. This is actually fairly controversial, though, with about a zillion analyses showing either is the 'greener' alternative. I don't care about green, though, I care about using resources carefully. This is why the bulk of Marie's diapers are used or recycled--at least half of her stash consists of receiving blankets I was given. Sounds a little strange, but they work very, very well and are truly one-size. If you get your diapers second-hand (and there are a few women out there using diapers from the 1970s!), then plainly no further resources are necessary to make them. You simply cannot get second-hand disposable diapers. Well, unless you pick them up out of parking lots, but you can't reuse them even so. (Come to think of it, if you've ever come across a dirty diaper carelessly tossed into a parking lot, you can tell the line about them taking centuries to decay is BS; out in the open, at least, they degrade fairly quickly.)
I had three kids in disposables before this, in diapers for a cumulative total of 81 months. Let's say for the sake of argument we went through five diapers a day (this is almost definitely a conservative estimate); that's about 150 diapers a month, or 12,150 for all three kids. Marie has probably five dozen diapers, total, and that's an outside estimate--so, 60 diapers. And although I might well buy more, I won't need to, and since I've kept things simple they will definitely be able to be used for any other kids we have.
The resource usage for cloth diapers comes in when you wash them. There's water, detergent + associated resources used to make it (though my experience has been we really don't use too much more now than before I was washing diapers--it's maybe three extra loads a week), and of course electricity or gas for the machines. Still, you have to do a comparison of resources used to wash cloth vs. resources used to manufacture disposables, and I don't see how cloth cannot come out ahead there too.
But holy hell, some women do their best to make sure it doesn't! I've touched on this before. Cloth diaperers are crazy. There are a lot of women out there who go nuts with the washing:
My wash routine (I have hard water and a fairly new top-loading "energy efficient" Whirlpool washing machine that thinks it knows everything):
1. I always swoosh the diapers that have toddler poo on them in the toilet to get most of the poo off.
2. I do 2 cold "rinse and spin" cycles in a row with no detergent. I don't need to do 2, but I always do just in case.
3. Then I do 1 "normal" hot wash, set to heavy soil, with an extra rinse, with powder Tide (free and clear, clean breeze, regular scent...they've all worked the same) up to AT LEAST the 1 line, usually up closer to the 2 line. I have to set my washer to "large load" so that it fills up with enough water, otherwise, when on "automatic load detection", it tries to save water.
4. I take them out to smell them before putting them in the drier just in case, but they're always perfect. Occasionally a few of the fleece liners I made or a microfiber insert that had some serious toddler poo on it will still stink. These go back in the wash for another "normal" cycle with plenty of Tide. That usually does the trick. They just didn't get clean the first time.
5. Everything line dries (pul, etc) except my flats, prefolds, and microfiber inserts, which go in the drier on medium heat.
6. I almost never use vinegar and I've NEVER used bleach (I just don't like the harshness or the smell of it -- I'm weird).
In case you didn't read that, let me summarize: 3 extra rinse cycles + one extra-long wash cycle, in more water than necessary for the size of the load. And that's a self-proclaimed simple routine.
Here are some others:
1. Quick wash (26 minutes) - cold wash and cold rinse...no detergent, only vinegar when neededThat's two full cycles for one load.
2. Reg wash (70 minutes) - Put detergent in and TTO, hot wash, hot rinse, extra rinse hot.
3. Put in dryer with dry balls or if it is the summer I line dry them. My dipes usually dry in 1 cycle...if not I always have sheets washing while diapers are drying and I put the sheets into the dryer with the diapers so I feel like I am not wasting energy or time.
1. cold wash with oxyclean and vinigarThat's two full cycles and two extra rinses.
2. hot wash with original tide powder
3 double cold rinse
4. dry (takes about 3 hours start to finish)
I run a cold cycle with nothing.That's three full cycles! Judging by the thread I got those from, it seems that multiple wash cycles is the norm, with or without added rinses. This may be yet another case of energy efficiency biting us in the ass--I'm seeing claims that "high efficiency" machines don't use enough water to get diapers clean.
I run a HOT cycle with Washing Greens Washing Powder
I run a HOT cycle (including cold rinse) with nothing.
I line dry outside until just damp or until the sun starts to go down. Then I put in the dryer on low.
To be fair, there are plenty of folks who use the same routine I do: put the diapers in the washer and run one cycle (heavy duty, in my case), then put the diapers in the dryer. (I plan to ask the landlord if we can hang a clothesline soon so I can bypass the dryer completely.)
I strongly suspect that more expensive diapers make for a more complicated wash routine, as well, but I have no way to prove that.
The kicker? Prepping diapers. One of my Facebook friends the other day was prepping some prefolds (these are essentially a rectangle of material with a center panel made up of 4 - 6 layers) according to the directions--10 wash-and-dry cycles. Prewashing diapers causes them to fluff up and be more absorbent. The last time I bought prefolds, I prepped them by throwing them in the washer with the load of dirty diapers. They worked just fine out the other end.
So there you have it. It's possible to take something that should be an environmentally-conscious thing to do and fuck it up royally.
Now, for the likely-necessary disclaimers: I don't care if you use disposables. They're a lot easier; this is why they became ubiquitous. You put them on your baby, they go potty, you take them off, throw them away, and put on another one. I got into this for three reasons: one, it's a lot cheaper. I've paid for 60 diapers, as opposed to 4,500 or so. Know how babies do that thing where they pee, and you change their diaper, and just as you put a new one on they poop? I like just shrugging and tossing the diaper in the pail to be washed and worn again, instead of having to throw away an extra diaper. Two, I suspect it's more comfortable for Marie. I wouldn't want to wear paper panties (and as a woman, I can attest to how not comfortable certain paper-and-plastic things are). Marie doesn't seem to care one way or another, though. Three--it's cuter. It just is. I like Marie's little bubble butt when she's in cloth. I actually changed her diaper after writing the first paragraph of this entry. She went from a Gerber flat folded into a Curious George cover into a pink-and-white gingham blanket that's folded and pinned, no cover. It's adorable. Anything else, even the environmental angle, is secondary. To cuteness:
(The diaper isn't crooked; it's just the way she's lying.)