YOU won't hear about it on the nightly news, but it's on the lips of many new mothers: Cloth diapers are making a comeback. You may remember them - the soft, fluffy, 100-percent-cotton squares of cloth with Donald Duck safety pins. Older mothers and grandmothers will tell you of the ominous soak buckets, the tedious washing, the endless folding.
A small but growing number of today's parents are adopting the ancient way - only now, the method is more convenient and less ``icky'' than it used to be. For them, the lure of disposable diapers has soured - largely due to a concern that disposables are not so ``disposable'' after all.
``The thought of all those disposable diapers floating out in the ocean really bothered me,'' says Kim Gaynor, a Brockton, Mass., mother, who teaches mother/baby exercise classes.
Mrs. Gaynor used disposables with her first child four years ago. She switched to a cloth diaper service with her second child, born nine months ago. Cloth diapers, she says, ``are just as easy'' as disposables and often less expensive - a comment echoed by other mothers.
Steven Landry is president of Dy-Dee Diaper Service in Boston. After 15 years of decline, his business is up 10 percent over last year. ``A lot of our customers are starting with older babies, too,'' he says, showing that ``people are starting to think about what they're doing.''
Diaper services - once viewed as a luxury - are wooing converts and new parents through heavy emphasis on ``cotton-is-better-for-your-baby'' campaigns - and charges that disposables, which contain plastics and chemicals, are overtaking the nation's landfills.
``It's a shame that we're cutting down trees that are not recyclable,'' says Susan Chapman, owner of KC Diaper Service in Baton Rouge, La. Her small, one-year-old diaper service - the first in Baton Rouge in nine years - is already turning a profit. Once a week, KC Diapers delivers a hamper of fresh, pre-folded diapers to every customer and carts away the soiled ones. THOUGH Nonwoven Industry estimates that 80 percent of American babies wear disposables, the mood of many cloth diaper services is decidedly upbeat, says Brian Smithson, owner of Baby Diaper Service in Seattle. His business has grown 16 percent in the last year. At a meeting of Western diaper services in Salt Lake City last month, 17 out of 22 companies reported growth, he said.
Growing interest in breast-feeding, natural childbirth, natural baby foods, and all-natural clothing is helping pave the way for cloth diapers' return, says John Shiffert, executive director of the National Association of Diaper Services in Philadelphia.
Gaynor says the diaper service she uses is cheaper than disposables. With a baby using about 2,000 diapers during his or her first six months, savings can be significant. The King County Nurses Association in Seattle, a city with several thriving diaper services, has estimated that in the Seattle area, disposables cost 13 to 31 cents apiece, while cloth diapers cost 7 to 11 cents each.
Still, it's an uphill battle.
In 1986, Procter & Gamble (Pampers, Luvs) elevated the mundane to the ingenious with its Ultra Pampers line - touted as the ``driest'' diaper ever. Within the fluff are tiny chemical crystals, or ``super slurpers,'' that turn to gel when the baby wets.
Kimberly-Clark (Huggies) and other manufacturers have since joined the fray. Each year, snugger and snazzier designs (the latest being separate styles for girls and boys) have made disposables nearly irresistible for many consumers.
These products ``are extremely effective in keeping babies' skin drier,'' says Susan Hale, Procter & Gamble spokesman. ``Dryness, containment, and fit'' are what parents are looking for, she adds.
But the products' popularity has environmentalists worried. About 2 percent of the municipal solid-waste stream is composed of single-use diapers, asserts Carl Lehrburger, a solid-waste manager in Sheffield, Mass., and author of a detailed study on disposables. ``From a solid-waste perspective, I find that to be an alarming and startling number.''
Though instructions on diaper boxes advise consumers to flush waste matter down the toilet before putting the diaper in the trash, only 1 percent ever do, according to a recent report by the National Association of Diaper Services. Thus, raw sewage is going directly into the environment, threatening to contaminate ground water supplies, Mr. Lehrburger says.
``There was a time when you could dump trash behind your house - but not anymore,'' he adds. ``We're approaching a point where [dumping of disposable diapers] will be unacceptable, too.''
Parents and consumer safety groups have voiced some concern over the potential effects on babies of chemicals used in disposable diapers, namely, the gelling agent and trace amounts of dioxin discovered in the paper padding in 1987.
``We are concerned as to what these chemicals will do next to the babies' skin over the long term,'' says Judy Braiman-Lipson, president of the Empire State Consumer Association in Rochester, N.Y. Procter & Gamble takes issue with this assertion.
``We have done such extensive testing that consumers should have no concern whatsoever about the safety of this product,'' says Ms. Hale. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have stated there is no cause for alarm.
But Ms. Braiman-Lipson, whose organization is virtually alone in its drive against the gelling chemical, says her group has received some complaints claiming that the chemical has caused physical harm.
While both the Environmental Protection Agency and the American Paper Institute have stated there are no dioxin-related health risks involved with disposable diapers, more research is needed, says Karen Florini, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. Ms. Florini says dioxin could be ``extracted from the diaper and transported to the skin via creams'' and oily lotions used on babies' skin.
``My concern is that people have a choice,'' says Ed Reiss, president of Rocky Mountain Medical Corporation, maker of biodegradable, chemical-free disposables in Sedona, Ariz. ``People are mad because they're not being advised there are chemicals'' in disposables.
Mr. Reiss raises the question of whether even cloth diapers are risk-free, since diaper services use bleach, antiseptics, and fabric softeners.
``We long ago tackled that,'' says Mr. Shiffert, referring to studies of wash formulas conducted by his association. Diaper services around the country have to meet the association's washing requirements in order to become accredited.
``We have satisfied ourselves and the government that there's no problem.''
ASIDE from environmental and safety issues, some parents cite convenience and babies' comfort as reasons for choosing cloth diapers for their children. Kim Gaynor says cloth is very convenient, ``particularly if you're going to be indoors with a child a lot - like in the winter.'' In the summer, it is harder, she says, since she travels more.
As for cleanup, her diaper service ``does not want you to rinse the diaper or do anything - just drop it in the bucket and they'll take care of it,'' she remarks.
Newfangled ``diaper cloths'' with Velcro fasteners are now popular companions to cloth diapers. Mothers say these breathable cloths eliminate the need for safety pins and for stiff rubber pants that trap heat.
Mrs. Chapman, who had her fifth child one year ago, says a cloth diaper ``lets a baby breathe and be cool on a hot summer day. You can tell when babies wet a lot easier - so they get changed more often.''
Both advocates of disposables and of cloth diapers contend that their method prevents diaper rash. But ``it's an ongoing controversy,'' says Richard Rosenbaum, a pediatrician and medical director of Rocky Mountain Medical Corp. ``The studies I've seen have conflicting results.''
Arma Ware, executive director of the Kings County Nurses Association, believes the ``convenience factor,'' more than anything else, is likely to sway people one way or the other. Her organization is endeavoring to get parents ``tuned in,'' at least, to diaper industry issues.
``If people have the proper information, they will make the right choice for them.''