There are many factors that will affect how long your diapers will last. Some of these are:
The size of your stash.
A small stash that is washed every day or two will wear faster than diapers used in a large rotation and used/washed once or twice a week.
Your wash routine.
Excess washes and rinses, extra high temperatures (sanitary cycle=bad!), and use of bleach,vinegar, and harsh cleaning products will put more strain on your diaper's water proof materials, elastic, and fibers. Always follow your diaper brand's washing recommendations and keep it simple! A quick rinse to help get out the ickies that have been soaked into your diaper for a couple of days, a warm or hot wash with enough of the detergent that works for you and follows your diaper's warranty, and an extra rinse to prevent detergent residue is all you need for your regular routine. Soaking diapers seems to be becoming a common practice, but most manufacturers do not recommend it. Leaving waterproof materials and elastic soaking in bleach water is inevitably going to speed up the breakdown of those materials. Washing your diapers too infrequently can also be a problem that causes premature breakdown of your diapers. Infrequent washing can also lead to problems with mold and mildew in a moist diaper pail. Yuck! Most diaper manufacturers recommend washing every 2-3 days.
The quality of the diaper you buy can vary significantly. Cheap diapers like those coined "China cheapies" or co-op diapers are usually poor quality and will not last as long as higher quality diapers that come with a warranty like you can buy at Kelly's Closet. The most wearable parts of a diaper tend to be the elastic, hook and loop closure, and natural fiber inners. Diapers that utilize a hook and loop closure like Aplix and Velcro are very convenient and easily adjustable, but over time it is normal for the hook and loop to need to be cleaned out to keep it sticky. It may curl from heat in the dryer, and will likely require replacement if used from birth to potty training. The elastic is also sensitive to heat and bleach and will wear out before other parts of the diaper. bumGenius sells a refresher kit to refresh the elastic and Aplix on the 4.0 pocket diapers. Synthetic materials like fleece, microfiber, and bamboo rayon will wear differently than organic cotton and hemp, but none of them will last forever. Think about your clothing. Over time it is normal for it to thin, develop holes, and pill. The same can be expected from your diapers. Organic cotton all in ones will eventually show wear, first at the elastic casings where there is the most friction, and then at any seams and stitching where there is strain on the materials.
And now for some real life examples that show the good, the bad, and the ugly side of using a diaper for two to three years. I'm specifically going to show what happens to natural fibers with heavy use. All of these diapers are still used 1-3 times a week on my current baby who is 10 months old. They have been used in a moderate stash size, seen the occasional bleach or vinegar, experimentations with commercial detergents on my search for the right detergent for us, and always are dried in the dryer. I rarely sun out stains, because I live in Maine and because they will most certainly be pooped in immediately after putting the extra effort into stain removal. ;)
A bumGenius 3.0 used for 3 years.
Two of my favorite one size, all in one organic cotton diapers are GroVia and bumGenius Elementals. (Note that the bumGenius Elementals shown here are the original style. bumGenius has since redesigned them to avoid some of the issues with wear around the elastic and from the strain at the soaker seams.)
The first zinnia elemental has been used for over 3 years and is on it's third baby! (It came to me with a couple of first layer holes in the elastic.). The second is newer, but still on the third baby. I bought this very gently used at Kelly's Closet after it was returned as a part of the Wee Guarantee. My first daughter wore it 1-2 times a week for nearly two years and my current baby wears it twice a week as well. I had the elastic replaced when my baby was born and there are a few first layer holes developing around the elastic. The last is my newest elemental, bought new for my baby several months ago. No holes or wear.
And this is one of my first cloth purchases, a favorite diaper that I've used and abused, a bumGenius Organic, pre- Elemental. Purchased in 2009 and used from birth to potty training. Worn for a full 2.5 years easily twice a week by my first daughter, and still used 1-2 times a week by my baby for the past 10 months.
A nearly brand new GroVia cosmos AIO next to a very well loved one bought for my first daughter in 2010 and used frequently through to potty training in 2012. This was in the last bunch of diapers we used as the stretchy side tabs made it excellent for a trainer until she was diaper free. I am still using this diaper, despite the bad elastic and "ugly" insides.
Even though the fabric has worn and frayed and the elastic is shot, the water proof materials and snaps are still perfect and the cotton is super soft and absorbent. This is a "use at home" diaper and I'm reluctant to send her to diaper heaven until there isn't any more use to be had. Even my most "well loved" diapers look perfectly adorable when worn as the outsides are in great shape.
I will admit that when leaving the house I always bring my newer and prettier diapers. I like for people to see how cute and easy to use cloth can be. But these "reality shots" of my diapers prove that even though cloth wears out, it maintains it's function far longer than it's beauty. These ratty diapers still save me money and our landfills one use at a time. Sadly, many of the one sized diapers from my first child will not last through another child and some are unlikely to make it through potty training with this baby. But after 3-4 years of regular use they were well worth the initial investment!
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