Image: Krupa
Nati Harnik  /  AP
Heather Krupa and her 19-month-old daughter Madeline shop for cloth diapers at the Circle Me store in Lincoln, Neb.
updated 4/21/2009 6:41:07 PM ET 2009-04-21T22:41:07

With the economy in a downward spiral, some parents are sniffing out savings by jettisoning disposable diapers and switching to reusable cloth diapers for their kids.

Danielle Tassin of Covinton, La., has two kids in diapers, and the costs were starting to pile up. After a rough couple of years that included losing most of their possessions to Hurricane Katrina and a fall that left her husband unable to work, the Covington, La., resident decided to start using cloth diapers.

She's spent about $300 total so far on cloth diapers for her 17-month-old and 3-year-old. But she said she's saved hundreds of dollars, because disposable diapers would have cost her about $20 a week.

For those who turn up their up their noses at the idea of stained cloths and safety pins, these aren't your grandma's cloth diapers.

There are all-in-one models that snap on like a normal diaper, or versions that can be used with a disposable liner.

With names like bumGenius and FuzziBunz and an array of colors and fabrics, "They're adorable," said Caite Mackey, who was shopping recently at Circle Me, a new cloth diaper store in Lincoln, Neb. "I think it's going to pick up as soon as people realize it's not as difficult as they think."

Mackey registered at Circle Me so people coming to her baby shower could buy diapers to help build up her stash. She also made some of her own diapers out of old T-shirts and sweaters for her first child, a girl born in March.

Susie Arevalo of Diaper Decisions, an online business resource center for cloth diaper sellers, said stores are telling her sales have increased in recent months, and dozens of online stores contacted by The Associated Press said they're selling more cloth diapers.

There are some high-profile proponents of cloth: Actresses Julia Roberts, Maggie Gyllenhaal and musician Dave Matthews all have said they used cloth diapers with their children.

Most people still use disposable diapers, and Stuart Schneider, brand director for Huggies, said sales in the diaper category haven't been down, although some people are buying cheaper disposable diapers and Huggies is promoting moneysaving awards systems.

Cloth diapers are a "fairly large" niche market, estimated at about $200 million a year, according to Chicago-based market research firm Mintel International Group Ltd.

People bought $2.8 billion in disposable diapers and training pants in 2007, and Mintel's research shows 83 percent of diaper users had used disposable diapers or training pants in the past six months.

"We haven't seen a movement of people out of disposable diapers to cloth diapers," Schneider said.

Huggies is a brand of Dallas-based Kimberly-Clark Corp. Schneider said once you add up the initial investment in cloth diapers and water and energy to clean them, cloth isn't any cheaper.

Some parents disagree, and there are other reasons they turn to reusable diapers, too, including the assumption that they're better for the environment.

Cloth advocates point out that disposable diapers make up the third-largest source of solid waste in landfills, after newspapers and food and beverage containers.

On the other hand, disposable diaper producers point to studies showing that cloth diaper use increases water and energy costs and also sends more detergents down the drain.

But for some parents, cloth seems less sanitary. There's the unpleasant task of getting the solid waste into the toilet, then throwing the rest in the washing machine, which may seem a bit, well, icky.

"I just could imagine how big of a hassle that would be," said Britney McGinnis, whose husband is stationed at Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha. She said she never considered using cloth with her 5-month-old son, Ryan.

"I get grossed out with him pooping on his clothes," McGinnis said. "I wash those separately because I don't want them to touch my other clothes."

But the rinsing and washing is "not that big of a deal," said Sarah Breakfield of Denver, who has two children ages 1 and almost 3.

She has a diaper sprayer that attaches to the toilet's water supply line. She rinses the worst of the waste into the toilet, then throws the diaper into a pail for washing every two days.

Breakfield said she saw her electric bill go up about $3 a month since she started using cloth diapers eight months ago. Still, she said she's saved hundreds of dollars, which proved crucial in November when her husband got laid off from his job.

"He was like, at least we don't have to buy diapers," Breakfield said.

Stacee Magee of Mesa, Ariz., said when her kids were in disposable diapers, stuff leaked out the legs and back of the diapers.

"With cloth diapers, they don't do that," Magee said. Elastic on the top keeps the poop in its place, she said.

When she switched to cloth, Magee said her sister-in-law thought it was "disgusting."

Recently, she had a change of heart.

"She said, 'We can't afford diapers any more. Can you make me some diapers?" Magee recalls.

For those concerned about the upfront expense, Robin Morris suggests spreading out the cost. She runs the online baby clothing store Modern Mommy Gear, and said if moms-to-be spend $70 a month stocking up on cloth diapers each month they're pregnant — what they could expect to spend on disposables later — they'll have enough by the time the baby comes.

And for those who can't afford diapers at all, Miracle Diapers, a Texas-based nonprofit, sends thousands of cloth diapers a year to needy families around the world. They were overwhelmed with requests last August and had to stop taking new applications, said operations manager Lisa Johnston.

"People just can't afford something as basic as diapers," Johnston said. "The money is just not there."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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