Zero Waste Kids


Rebecca writes:

We are a family of four living in the mountain west in the U.S. My husband and I both work full-time, and we have two boys, 4 and 1. We are not completely zero-waste yet, but I feel very good about the amount trash we generate as a family of four and about the changes we’ve made. 

My biggest advice to new parents is to keep a consistent lifestyle after you have kids: kids can eat the same food you eat, wear second-hand clothes if you wear them, and find their toys and gadgets used, just like you do. Babies need very little: a few soft and simple clothes, a place to sleep, a carseat if you have a car, bottles if you need some, diapers, maybe a cloth carrier or backpack. Any baby gear you want can be found in excellent condition from private sellers or even thrift shops. Thrift stores have especially nice clothes in sizes 0-12 months since most babies grow out of them so quickly. My biggest realization as a new parent was that we could still get things AFTER the baby was born! For some reason, I imagined we would never leave the house, but taking a little excursion with the baby was sometimes welcome. If you find you need something, you can always get it later. Or, wait a couple of weeks and you may not need it anymore--babies change quickly.


Food


For the most part, our kids eat what we eat. Cynthia Lair's Feeding the Whole Family was very influential to me in this regard. Since we eat over 95% of our meals at home, about 90% vegetarian, and largely cook from zero-waste ingredients, this is the diet our kids end up eating too. 

We eat oatmeal for breakfast every weekday, which we all love, but eggs, pancakes, shakes, or muffins baked without a paper are also popular. During the year, my son packs a lunch, usually bread and cheese and a cookie from the freezer, and he drinks a cup of water from school with it. I wrap everything in a cloth towel and put it into his lunch sack.


My kids do not expect "kid food" because we never have it around. I often bake batches of cookies and freeze them to dole out from time to time, and my older son loves raisins and plain cereal from the bulk bins. That said, if my older son's friends offer him a packaged snack, I never say no. I want my kids to be gracious and friendly and recognize that other people can have different values. 

For babies, I breastfed my second baby for six months, which was great for both of us and completely zero-waste! (I wasn't as successful breastfeeding my first, so don't feel bad if breastfeeding didn't work out for you.) However, when I went back to work, I had to supplement with formula. Babies have really specific nutritional needs and I don't think there is a good zero-waste alternative to formula. From an economic standpoint, however, formula is highly regulated in the U.S., so unless your baby has a sensitive stomach or food intolerance, generic formula is perfectly fine. I did find glass bottles second-hand, though. I also made my own baby food by cooking and pureeing vegetables—not because I am fancy but because it was so cheap and easy.


Diapers


We used cloth for both of my babies at home after about four weeks when they were big enough for the adjustable one-size kind. I bought older pocket diapers from Craigslist and replaced the elastic in the legs myself, but there is a healthy resale market for almost new cloth diapers as well. Our care-giver uses disposables, but we use cloth at home—over 50% of the time. When my oldest was toilet training, we used extra-large cloth diapers at night until he was able to stay dry all night. I feel like Pull-ups are a marketing ploy.

Cloth wipes are fairly easy to throw into a diaper pail and then into the laundry with the diapers. I use the Chagrin Valley diaper cream. It comes in a reusable tin and works well with cloth diapers. They also sell salves that can replace over-the-counter ointments for scrapes and burns. 

Clothes


I have a small second-hand wardrobe for myself and my kids. Just like creating a capsule wardrobe for yourself, creating one for your kids takes a little time and involves a bit of trial and error. Now I know which colors, patterns, and fibers I prefer, but if I buy something that I don’t end up using much, I don’t hesitate to put it back into circulation by donating it right back. I frequent a couple of thrift stores and use Ebay as a back-up for specific needs. I do laundry once a week, so each of my kids has about 8 shirts, 7 pairs of pants, a sweatshirt, and a jacket. Almost all their clothes can mix and match, which makes it easy for my oldest to pick out his own outfits. We live in a four-season climate, so I have a similar number of items for warm weather.


Toys and Presents


We haven't yet bought them any birthday or Christmas presents ourselves, thanks to the generosity of our families, and we just don't buy things for them otherwise. They don't see many commercials and we don't go shopping except to the thrift store, so they don't really ask for things. As I write this, it all sounds kind of miserly and extreme, but in practice it really doesn't feel that way at all. We spend lots of time going to the pool and the park, hiking, going to community festivals, and just playing at home in a kind of boring, low-key way, and they still have more than enough toys to be happy (see the photo of what they have accumulated in gifts in just four years; it includes more plastic than I would like but they play with everything). My mom was a kindergarten teacher so I’ve also inherited a lot of children’s books. I'm sure their desires will change as they get older and we'll probably adjust our habits. I always had an allowance and part-time jobs in order to buy the things I wanted as a teenager and I imagine we might do something similar with our kids.


Our kids are young enough that we haven't yet entered the world of extreme birthday parties. When we do, we'll probably request "no gifts" for our kids and skip goodie bags for the guests. To me, the party itself is the present for everyone. As for gifts for other kids' birthdays, I try to think of what I would have wanted as a kid. I loved receiving new crayons and art supplies, books, sheet music, and even money; I also think kids would like gift certificates that reflect their interests. I also make cloth pouches from repurposed fabric and zippers and could imagine filling them with some bulk candy or a couple of dollar bills for younger kids. If you have a larger budget, tickets to a movie or a zoo or another local center for the child and a parent or the whole family would be really fun.

So, we are not completely zero-waste, but when shopping for my kids, I follow the same rules as I do for myself: keep purchases minimal, buy high quality, second-hand, unpackaged, or in glass, paper, or metal packaging as a last alternative. For babies and toddlers, you can often borrow from someone or just wait a while and you might not need it anymore! Minimalist and zero-waste blogs have great resources and inspiration.

Thank you for sharing, Rebecca! Click here for more zero-waste baby must-haves. Read Meredith Tested, Allotment Recipes, Greener Family and Gippsland Unwrapped to see how parents who work full time live zero waste.

Paris to Go

23 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post Rebecca. Your kids are truly blessed to have such a hardworking and caring mom. The best thing about the cloth items you make them is they never outgrow them. I can say after four kids that the cartoon characters and Superhero backpacks get old really quick. With my youngest two I finally learned and their neutral items have stayed with them until middle school. Birthday parties were such a nightmare even when they were younger that they used to beg me not to take them. Some of these "extreme" parties are more about the adults than the kids, that's for sure. My daughter went to one that had a manicurist when she was in 1st grade! Good for you for teaching them that there are more important things in life than material goods.

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    1. Thanks so much for this comment! I bet your kids are blessed to have you as a mom too. I am not looking forward to crazy birthday party expectations but can only hope that things are shifting a bit now as more people burn out on over-the-top consumerism. I do think that experience-based parties are a fun idea--but maybe not manicures for first-graders!

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  2. You are a talented seamstress, Rebecca! Your approach is so realistic and balanced. The best part is your kids' toys encourage creativity. They have to use their minds and imaginations to play with them, rather than some mindless video game.

    This is the first zero-waste baby post that I could relate to. Not to diminish stay at home moms (which seem to be the majority of zero wasters, correct me if I'm wrong) because I know what a demanding and stressful job that can be. It is simply not my situation however as my husband and I both work full-time. We are nowhere near as far along as you but your words and philosophy inspire me to continue reducing our trash. It is so easy to justify packaged "convenience" foods because of our jobs and reading how you do everything (with twice as many kids!) renews my resolve to make healthy foods at home.

    May I ask, do I understand correctly that you were living sustainably before having kids? Or did having kids make your more interested in zero waste? Having a baby made me realize the need to change my lifestyle, but at the same time, I fell into old habits I'd broken while still childless, if that makes sense. That's why this post was so helpful.

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    1. Jessica, Thank you so much for your comment! When I fall short of my ideals, I try to remember that doing something is better than giving up when I can't do everything, and I'm sure your family is doing a lot toward the zero-waste goal!

      I discovered Bea Johnson's blog when my older son was about a year old. At that point, I hadn't given much thought to garbage aside from recycling, though we were already doing cloth diapers, thrifting, and cooking at home just from financial necessity. Discovering zero waste definitely solidified my aspirations, though. Now I have realized that I hate extra driving and shopping, that going to the mall makes me feel overstimulated and crazy, and that I can make most things better at home (coffee, presents) than I can buy them. On the other hand, I love thrifting, mending, and baking, so those parts are easy for me. My husband does the majority of the cooking and shopping, so I have to give most of the credit for our progress there to him! So I guess my answer to your question is that we are still doing a lot of the same things we did before with had kids, just with a different focus, and we have just eliminated a lot of the non-zero-waste things we did but didn't like from before. One thing that has made cooking at home easier for us is cooking one or two big meals on Sunday night that we can eat for a few days or freeze half of.

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  4. Thanks for this post, Rebecca! Very practical and non-judgmental, best one I've seen yet on ZW kids.

    I completely agree that babies don't need very much, which I didn't think about when my first child was born (I hadn't discovered ZW yet, and was a nervous/excited first-time mom-to-be). I bought into all the hype and ended up with way more stuff than I needed. I used to buy clothes, even second hand ones, in sizes way ahead, partly b/c some of them were so cute admittedly, and "surely I would use them". :) I ended up with many things I didn't use (wrong size for the season, etc.), so now I just buy what I need at a given time, one size at a time. And in much smaller quantities (like the capsule wardrobe you mentioned) - kids are like adults in that they tend to wear their favorite things over and over, so they don't mind at all. Kids are expensive in some ways of course, but not nearly as much as people say, if you only buy what you really need, and try to do second hand. And the love they need most is free!

    One other thing - we used cloth diapers but disposable wipes for my first child, but for my 2nd we are using cloth diapers and cloth wipes. The cloth wipes I "made" by cutting up my husband's old cotton t-shirts into wipe-sized rectangles. They are so absorbent and soft (I also actually made a second set that I use as "kleenix"). And I found a wonderful and easy recipe online (link below) for baby wipe solution, that can be made ZW, with basically just olive oil, essential oils, castile soap and water. I put it in a glass spray bottle and spray it on my homemade wipes with each use. It works wonderfully, and seems to be more gentle and soothing than even the "sensitive" commercial stuff.

    http://www.diynatural.com/homemade-baby-wipes/

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Jill! I love the recipe you've linked to! I mainly just use water and a little soap, but this would be much more convenient. I'm going to try it!
      Also, I agree with your conclusion on just thrifting clothes based on current needs. I used to buy things ahead too but would find that my tastes would change or our life would change in the meantime (my older son now wears a school uniform four days a week, for example). I now only buy things for the next year, with the exception of shoes, which I buy a size or two ahead if I find something good.

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  5. I agree with Jill, this is the absolute best ZW kids post. First because you're doing it for the right reasons. I also think you're going about it the right way. You're not denying your kids anything and you're filling it with valuable experiences and time spent together. I like how your kids do not have to "refuse, refuse, refuse," but are allowed to be kids and friendly to all. Perhaps your kids are too young for this, but what do you do about Halloween? I'm at the point where we already don't celebrate Xmas, because it's gotten too commercial, and do an experience-based fun vacation with the kids instead (last year, it was Norway and they got to go to "Santa's home." This was already such an upheaval with our family, so I'm worried about what to do for Halloween (but if we continue doing a traditional Halloween, I worry about the trick or treating, the safety, the candy, and so on). I'm a paranoid mom, I know!

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    1. In France, we are lucky, we don't have to deal with the kids wanting to celebrate so much. It is seen as a marketing ploy, or a mostly American thing. There was a time when my oldest was firstborn that it was a success with many people buying costumes and having parties. Since then it's declined greatly. My kids are happy with candy from the bulk bins already.

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    2. Thanks for your comments, Tamara and Celine! Halloween where we live is a big deal and my four-year-old looks forward to it all year. I view it as an experience that we all share: I make their Halloween costumes, we carve pumpkins and roast the seeds, and we go out trick-or-treating together on foot and see everyone else's decorations. It's really fun to be out at night with all the other families. Some families race their kids around by car to get as much candy as possible, but we walk the whole way, which naturally limits the amount they can get. In the end, they will end up producing a little bit of trash, but I feel this is a good compromise for the experience that we share. My kids never get packaged candy otherwise, so it is truly a treat. Other families may have different solutions, like not participating or refusing all candy packaged in plastic, but personally this is not something that I want to do at this point. We refuse a lot of things in other circumstances and eat zero-waste treats most of the time. As my kids get older, my feelings may change too. As for candy not being safe, I'm not sure that has ever actually happened! The time I heard about growing up turned out to be a hoax.

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    3. I'm learning so much from this post and your comments! With the candy, I don't worry about it being poisoned or anything. I do worry about getting hit by a car from some of those racing families you mentioned! That is my biggest safety concern, which is why I still won't let them go alone even though they'd probably like me to. For the candy, I'm always afraid they're going to eat their way to a stomachache. I try to fill them up with healthy foods beforehand but that's the one day of the year where they push away their dinner, excited to eat as much candy they can in one night! Sorry for the thread hijacking, ZW-wise, I got off-topic there. I usually make their costumes at home and I like your explanation for the packaged candy. There are some things that are worth producing a little trash.

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    4. I think that most of the time, what kids want most is the excitement of expectation, the novelty, and the sense of inclusion. I've seen families who successfully substitute in Fall Parties, Barn Dances, Halloween Parties, etc. instead of partaking in the other stuff. The kids get to invite their friends, dress up, and have lots of fun and games (and package free food) while the parents don't feel like they're abandoning their values. It obviously takes more work than going trick-or-treating, but it might be a good option for those who are really bothered by the idea of packaged candy. That said, I don't think it's a terrible thing to let kids have the "forbidden fruits" at times- not just because perfection is impossible, but also because it can help give them a sense of control and perspective!

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    5. For candy wrappers there are some recycling and upcycling options: http://earth911.com/food/what-to-do-with-your-leftover-candy-wrappers/

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  6. Hi Rebecca. Thank you for the great ideas! I share your philosophy in how I live and raise my children. I especially loved your quote “…it all sounds kind of miserly and extreme, but in practice it really doesn't feel that way at all.” I feel richer living a more sustainable lifestyle. I’d love for you to check out my blog on the topic. Bringing together like-minded community can make a difference. Thank you! http://thebeautyinsimple.com/

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Julie! It looks like you live near the mountains too! I was raised in the plains, so it's strange to think of my kids as "mountain babies."

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  7. nice post, great ideas. i must say though, i was somewhat taken aback that your son eats bread, cheese, and a cookie for lunch on most days. those are pretty poor in nutrition for a growing being...maybe throw in some veggies, nuts, avocado, eggs, or other protein of some kind?

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    1. Hi, Thanks for your comment! My son eats a late breakfast and an early lunch, so he isn't that hungry at lunchtime. I have tried packing other things--fruit, vegetables, etc.--and while he eats many of those things at meals at home, in his lunch they come home uneaten. This is a lunch that is quick and easy to pack, zero-waste, requires no cooling for short periods, and which he consumes completely. Also, his pediatrician assures me that he is developing superbly both physically and cognitively, but thanks for your concern!

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    2. You shouldn't move to France then, where bread, cheese and a cookie are a very standard lunch :) Because of our jobs, we moved to just outside Paris for two years when our children were younger. I was a little alarmed at the diet at first, but realized it was wholesome compared to what they were eating in their school in the USA.

      Bosco sticks, french fries, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if they forgot their lunch, with no options for gluten-free eaters or other allergies. I was surprised at how my children, who always got the flu and cold once a year like clockwork, thrived on the French diet. Of course, they also benefited from being outdoors more, and being more active.

      But such a lunch is not uncommon in other countries, and I see the French kids developing quite well, without the diabetes and obesity plaguing children stateside. My children didn't stop growing during those two years, either. On the contrary, they outgrew their clothes and shoes almost as soon as I bought them, it seemed!

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    3. I love this article because it is such a balanced approach, and so simple and frugal. I don't really believe in "kid" just because it's so much easier for me and healthier for my son.

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    4. I love this article because it is such a balanced approach, and so simple and frugal. I don't really believe in "kid" just because it's so much easier for me and healthier for my son.

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    1. My parents didn't believe in kid food either! Your son will have a much broader palate than a lot of people when he grows up

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  9. Any baby gear you want can be found in excellent condition from private sellers or even thrift shops.http://firstbabylaptop.com/

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