This is not going to be a paint it perfect, happy go lucky post that people on either side of the fence are going to like. I am pretty sure noone will really like this post. However the real truth is going to be here, or at least the truth in how I see it. Oh, and there will be poop talk so if that is too much information for you then stop reading now.
Let's talk cost, the #1 argument is cloth diapering is cheaper. Cloth diapering can be pretty cheap. With a bare minimum of prefold diapers you can probably get away with about a dozen. If you shop around for sales or buy used you can get diaper service quality (because anything less is a waste of money) or chinese prefolds for about $1 each. Flat folds may be cheaper but not everyone can fold flats. I suspect that just as some people (like myself) fail at swaddling, we also fail at flats. I am good at Origami so I don't think I'm the problem :-) If you fold and manipulate the diapers you can probably get away with only 2 sizes of prefolds over baby's lifetime. That comes to about $24. Going with a cheaper brand, sale, or used you can get covers for about $8-$10 a piece. Going with a one size cover you can probably get away with only 2 sizes. In those 2 sizes you can get away with about 3 covers, 1 to wear, 1 to wash, 1 as a spare. That comes to $60. Assuming you buy laundry soap cheap, in bulk, or in some other economical fashion, don't add a bunch of junk, have a front loader and hang dry you are only spending about $0.20 a load. With the above amount of diapers you are washing a load every other day. So that is about $0.80 a week. You will spend about $85 over 2 years to do the laundry. They say cloth diapered babies potty train easier and faster, so maybe around 2 years old? That comes to $170 total, for everything, for 2 years of diapering.
Since that was the cheap cloth diaper version let's do the same for disposable diapers. If you coupon and shop sales you can get newborn diapers for about $0.15 a piece. They say babies go through 100 diapers a week or 10 diapers a day in the first 3 months. Now let's be realistic, do first time moms even stand over baby while they are sleeping and wake them up to change their diaper that now has maybe a teaspoon of pee in it? Instead let's go with 8 diapers a day (this is only an average as it will be more in the beginning and less toward the end, this assumes breastfeeding which creates more diapers typically) the first 3 months. That's $1.20 a day or $108 for the first 3 months. After that we'll go down to 6 diapers a day for the next 21 months (we'll assume this baby trained at 2 too because mom was really motivated to stop buying diapers). But with less diapers in a pack the price goes up to about $0.16 each. That's $0.96 a day or $605 plus the original $108 equals $713. To some of you that sounds pricey, you could probably manage a weekend away for that. To those of you buying formula that may not sound so pricey. If you average that over the 24 months that only comes to about $30 a month, or a cheap dinner out. Either way it is $543 more than the cheap version of cloth diapering.
Not everyone is cloth diapering for the money savings. In that case the total can be a lot higher. If you want to go with the adorable and super easy pocket diapers or all in ones you are looking at $18 or more each. When money is not a big object you may have enough to only wash twice a week. That's $576 for newborn diapers and $432 for the one size diapers to last the rest of their diapering (more if you buy specific sizes). Now you are up to $1008, well past the cheap disposables and you haven't even calculated in what it costs to wash them, the cute wet bags you buy for the diaper bag and house, or the fancy sprayer you install to make it easier.
Of course there are so many more options. Brand name disposables without a coupon, with the more average potty training age of 35 months, comes to close to $2000. Gdiapers can cost $2200 or more. Cloth diapers can be done cuter than cheap and cheaper than the most expensive cute, easy option. Really cloth diapers are a range and can go everywhere in between. Though, then again, people can buy generic disposables or use coupons without a sale so they can be a range too.
Is disposable diapering easier? Of course it's easier because noone follows the instructions. The instructions on every package of disposable diapers says you need to flush solid contents. When people's disposable diapers leak they just assume it is par for the game of diapers, or maybe it's just a fluke. When baby has diaper rash they buy a cream, change them more often, and/or call the pediatrician. Noone assumes it is the chemicals in the diapers. Noone assumes it's an allergy to the diapers. Noone considers that the lack of airflow is creating yeast problems. Since people either don't have problems or don't consider the diapers to be at fault for the problems, and when they do they can switch brands, disposable diapering is easy.
Is cloth diapering just as easy? I personally have not had as many diaper rashes when I use cloth. If I am using disposables and have a resistant rash I switch to cloth and it quickly goes away. That's not to say that a baby can't be allergic to the detergent you use (but just like you can switch disposable brands I'd think you could switch detergent brands). Or baby won't get a rash if you don't rinse the diapers well. I also don't have anywhere even close to the same number of leaks in a cloth diaper as i do with a disposable. Actually, when we are doing pictures or a special occasion I have been known to put a cloth diaper cover over my disposables to have more of a guarantee that we won't ruin the outfit. All in one cloth diapers are so easy you just stick them on and off just like a disposable diaper. You do not "have to" have a special diaper pail, etc. You can toss them in a plastic garbage can and then into the washer and it does the rest.
I don't know that I can say they are as easy though. I already do about 14 loads of laundry a week. If you add 2 loads of laundry a week (the least amount cloth diapers add) that makes 16. That doesn't sound nearly as dramatic as it does for someone who may only have 2 kids and do 4 loads of laundry and does diaper laundry every other day so it doubles their laundry. But adding 2 more loads of laundry bumps me over the 2 loads a DAY mark. That is not easy.
Now let's talk about poop. I am sure cloth diapering is easy for very regular babies who may have bowels of steel or be formula fed. My 2½ year old isn't even breastfed anymore and she still doesn't always have nice solid poops that I can just shake into a toilet. We won't even talk about my 80% breastfed (the other 20% being experimental finger foods) baby's poop. Needless to say we would most certainly need to install a sprayer. I would then need to use the sprayer. Otherwise I am making a mess rinsing or dunking. Or I am leaving very poop filled diapers to later be swished all over my washing machine.
If you don't know how I feel about environmentalism you should read my Earth Day post. Everyone thinks that someone else will take care of the environment so the 1 person (or family) they are, won't matter. Just like 365 Starbucks cups or water bottles (or even worse, both) a year is several trash bags full, just imagine how many bags over 2000 diapers a year takes up, even if you roll them up into nice little "packages" (in which case you can't even fill up a trash bag because it weighs too much). Now if your baby uses formula, baby bottles, jarred baby food, bottles of baby soap, etc that is a LOT of trash. We aren't even getting into the big stuff. Yes, environmentally and wallet friendly people will buy their stroller, high chair, etc used then sell it again. These things don't last forever though, they end up somewhere eventually. They end up in some trash pile, maybe in a separate pile than last years television and cell phone models but still a pile somewhere. Almost every baby needs a carseat too, you can pass it down to the next baby but you aren't supposed to buy those used. Carseats only last 6-8 years depending on the model so they all end up in the landfill. The cloth from cloth diapers is already breaking down by the time they are eventually trashed, if you are using them till they are really worn or passing them onto someone else who will. Does anyone know how long it takes plastic (like in disposable diapers) to decompose? You aren't the only one who doesn't know. The first plastic water bottles still have not fully decomposed.
Baby's health is probably a toss up. If you think the chemicals in disposable diapers is bad you can find ones that are chemical free (though Tushies Diapers are the only ones I know of). If they started studying the effects when they first started using chemicals the long term studies would only just now be coming out. I mean disposables didn't come out until the 1970s and those first many years didn't have that stay dry chemical gel. People can argue that disposables also keep their skin dryer since it wisks away the urine into some gel behind a stay dry liner. Cloth diapers could be argued to be better for skin because they breath better. Disposables may be more comfy since there is so much less bulk. Cloth may be more comfy because they are natural cotton and softer. If you really want to get picky we can talk about carseat safety, I do have to loosen the harness a little to fit cloth diapers.
So what is the right answer? Does it really matter? Who said babies were easy anyway?