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Cloth Diapers Try Pinning Down a Comeback

January 03, 1986|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

They have a motto at Dy-Dee Diaper Service: "Would you wear paper underwear?"

And, according to Dy-Dee owner Brian O'Neil, a second-generation diaper serviceman, the question reflects more than wishful thinking. In the last two months, O'Neil said, "We've increased 200 customers. It was kind of flat before that." From a low point in 1974, he added, "Over the long haul, we've gone up quite a lot."

Making a Comeback

Real diapers, genuine cloth, making a comeback in this age of instants and disposables? Absolutely, concurred Brent Farber, administrative secretary of the Philadelphia-based National Assn. of Diaper Services. Not only are they more ecologically sound, he noted, but "You never have to worry about going to the store."

It may, however, be a modest comeback. A query to the Santa Monica office of a prominent pediatrician drew an incredulous response from the front office: "We haven't seen a cloth diaper in years!"

And in Cincinnati, a spokeswoman at corporate offices of Procter and Gamble, whose Pampers and Luvs brands combined account for half of the $2.7 billion in U.S. sales of disposable diapers annually, said the market is growing steadily and "we project it will continue to increase."

In 1961, when Pampers were introduced, she noted, disposables accounted for only 1% of all "diaper changes," a total retail business of $2.5 million. By 1975, that market had grown to $750 million and disposables accounted for 50% of diaper changes. Today, she said, disposables make up 75% of the U.S. diaper market.

The 25% who have chosen to swaddle their babies in real cotton diapers that require pinning and washing apparently have done so for one of two reasons: Diaper rash or concern for the environment.

Others among the ecologically minded admit that they feel they shouldn't be using the disposables but find them irresistibly easy. Ann JaCoby-Willens, a working mother of two sons, 2 1/2 and 1, spoke of one friend who insists on using cloth diapers because she's convinced that "somewhere in the world there's an island where all the Pampers are being kept. She doesn't want to contribute to the Pampers island."

JaCoby-Willens says that she herself assuages any guilt feelings about the environment in her own way: "I buy those recyclable greeting cards."

Thirty years ago Brian O'Neil, president of Dy-Dee, joined the business started by his father in 1938. Where there were about a dozen competitors serving Los Angeles and Orange counties then, he said, today there are only two, Dy-Dee and Sheckley-ABC, each of which has bought out other competitors through the years.

Even so, O'Neil said, "Diaper services haven't been affected too badly by paper diapers. They've mostly stopped us from growing faster." (A month, or two, or three of diaper service is still a well-received shower gift for a mother-to-be, even if she later switches to disposables.)

In 1974, he said, "We had 1,800 customers at our Pasadena location and 1,000 in Orange. Now we have 5,200 in Pasadena and in Orange there are 3,800. We've bought a couple of other services out since." (Sheckley-ABC, affiliated with a national company and encompassing Tidy Didy, is larger.)

At $9.30 a week for 90 diapers (the number used by the average baby)--deliveries are offered twice weekly--cloth diapers are more economical than disposables, O'Neil pointed out. Because disposables are more absorbent, fewer changes are required, but the total weekly cost is apt to be several dollars higher.

And, as one satisfied Dy-Dee mother pointed out, cloth diapers "make great dust cloths. I keep one in my car to do the windshield. You can't do that with a disposable." (Before signing up, she asked what happened to the worn-out diapers and was pleased to learn that they are recycled as rags.)

O'Neil acknowledges: "One of the problems we've had is the absorbency. Paper diapers were more absorbent. Now we've finally gotten some manufacturers to make thicker, more absorbent diapers." But some things haven't changed: The diapers are still delivered in a rectangular pre-fold and they still require pins. "They tried to invent Velcro fasteners," O'Neil said, "but they just won't hold up with washing."

Dy-Dee makes it a point of telling the germ-conscious that each customer's diapers are kept separate during laundering, enclosed in a net washing bag fastened with an identifying pin. One advantage of this, O'Neil noted, is "if you throw in a T-shirt by mistake, you get it back."

To stay in business, O'Neil said, diaper services "have to get the word out" and, to that end, Dy-Dee each month sends out 30,000 copies of its 60-page newsletter, the Wet Set Gazette, to obstetricians' offices, hospitals and childbirth educators. There is also a small booklet for fathers, "The New Owner's Manual," and Dy-Dee has a lending library of 30 VHS films on childbirth education with just a discreet commercial message at beginning and end. Coming out soon is a booklet in Spanish.

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