Zero waste and small children

On Thursday night, I watched my little friend Peyton while her parents went to a wedding. (It was May the Fourth, so I was like, Star Wars fans? But no, they just wanted to get married on an off day.) Peyton is almost 3 and a smart, good-natured kid — and, tangent, but having conversations with toddlers is just hilarious. So it was an entertaining couple hours is what I’m saying.

The girls, summer 2006

Anyway, though, as I was heating up her dinner and watching her move around the house, I realized that I had missed an opportunity on the blog this year by not talking about zero waste and small children. I mean, part of that is because mine are 12 and 17, so it’s not on my radar. But I do remember those days. Um, kind of. There are actually large chunks that I don’t due to sleep deprivation — Abby started sleeping through the night at 2 months, but Johanna didn’t think it necessary until she was 3 years. I guess that’s why we have photos. 😉

We hadn’t found minimalism yet, let alone zero waste, so my girls’ baby and toddler years — and even elementary for Abby — were “typical.” I used disposable diapers and wipes. I bought fruit snacks and drink pouches. There were plenty of Happy Meals and plastic-wrapped crap toys (well, for Abby at least. Sorry, Jo).

In hindsight, we did some things right without even knowing: We got a ton of hand-me-downs, so we didn’t really have to buy new clothes (all saved for Johanna — my optimism was rewarded! So was Abby’s, I guess, since she started talking about her sister — whom she named Pepsi Shoe Dumer Mew — starting at age 2), I liked to pack loose snacks in containers (just because I trusted the lids wouldn’t fall off and make a mess in the diaper bag), and we came to the conclusion after Abby’s first Christmas that toys and gifts needed to be kept to a minimum (waaaaaay too much stuff). We also used durable dishes for each — although this included plastic dishes, silverware and cups.

Peyton’s parents aren’t minimalists, nor are they zero wasters, and since it’s not something I talk about in real life, they don’t know that we are. But again, heating up her dinner and watching her navigate the house, I was struck by a few things: They had several reusable mugs and cups, for themselves and Peyton, and a drying rack for that purpose; she had reusable dishes and silverware and a really cool highchair with a pop-off tray liner (“Wash my tray now, Trisha! Who made this mess?” I don’t know, kid, it’s a mystery to me too); and her toys were not excessive by any means, nor was her wardrobe. And she’s already potty trained, except for pull-ups at night. (I don’t know, I was impressed by that immensely.)

So it made me kind of think about what I could have done, had I been then where I’m at now, and wondering what parents of small children do — or don’t do. (I just admitted to using disposable diapers, so clearly I am not in a position to throw stones, I’m just curious.) We did inherit actual children’s silverware from Eric’s grandma — maybe I could have looked into a second set, or been better about washing it between uses instead of opting for the pack of plastic spoons. Eric’s grandma also gave Abby a divided plastic plate — although mostly we just put stuff on her highchair tray, until she got older and wasn’t as apt to just chuck stuff onto the floor and could be trusted with our dishes … could I have gotten some kind of stainless steel bowl or plate or bento box that we could still be using to this day? Ditto for stainless steel water bottles instead of plastic sippy cups.

I mean, I honestly don’t know what I would choose today. I do better with older kids, so mostly I was just trying to get through the days back then. In some ways, durables would have made my life much, much easier. And I was at home (for 11 years, so much tougher than what I’m doing now), so I could have made more snacks and things from scratch — I actually did a lot of cooking back then but was more focused on dinner. I’m ashamed that I went for convenience over the overall health of the earth, but that’s where I was at the time, recycling everything I could get my hands on while blithely tossing what I couldn’t.

Anyway, any parents out there want to share with the group what they do on the minimalist or zero waste/minimal waste front with young children? I think that would really add to the discussion, and I’m sorry I didn’t think of it sooner.

Next up: I believe next week will be my last as this year’s blogger…

8 Responses to Zero waste and small children

  1. I’m a minimalist but admittedly far from zero waste. I unashamedly use disposable diapers (sorry earth), but we do try to make an effort to not be too wasteful. My son is 18 months. This will be super rambly.

    Here’s what has worked for us:
    – We just don’t buy things. I think 90% of the baby stuff people recommend that you have is pretty unnecessary. I remember agonizing over what would or wouldn’t be useful when it was time to buy baby gear (and whether I was a bad mom for not getting everything), and, honestly, almost none of the suggested things that we skipped have turned out to be necessary. I think nothing is truly necessary other than 1.) places to put the baby down safely and 2.) reusable rags to clean up. And, you know, diapers and food.
    – Buy used clothing. Babies grow so fast that the used clothing at thrift stores is usually pristine. By the time he’s outgrown them, they’re still in good enough shape to be redonated for another kid (we don’t have any friends or relatives with similarly aged kids, so hand me downs to/from people we know don’t happen. Same concept though).
    – Buy durable, open ended toys. We buy very few toys, but, when we do, we choose toys that can hold up to a lot of abuse and be used in a lot of ways as he gets older. They last longer, they stay fun longer, and we’ll be able to pass them on when he’s done. Balls, books, building toys, and musical instruments (my husband is a drummer. My best baby toy advice is to go check out the percussion section of a music store. They sell a lot of fun, noisemaking items that are cheap and nearly indestructible because they’re intended for adults to bang on them repeatedly in performance).
    – Buy items that grow with them. Other than car seats (some research says the convertibles are less safe for small babies, and we’re paranoids because of family history), we’ve tried our hardest to only buy things that will last for multiple years – things that convert as they age and continue to be useful. The only problem is items where converting means removing a piece – you have to have space to store that stuff if you plan to resell/donate it later.
    – Seriously, just don’t buy baby stuff. I cannot overstate how much baby stuff that gets pushed on new parents is unnecessary. We do have some things that are unnecessary but convenient, but most of it just makes your life more difficult. It also pays to get good at saying no politely so people don’t give you a bunch of waste making baby junk (cheap plastic toys, I’m looking at you!)
    – Look in to Montessori resources. I’m not evangelizing for the educational style (everyone has their own opinions on it, and to each their own), but Montessori is great about teaching kids how to use “real” objects which can help with avoiding disposables. I have found a lot of good advice on how to teach kids to drink from a real glass (plus kid sized glass advice) or use real cutlery from Montessori sources. Also offers good advice on making different areas of the house safe without making them off limits, which has allowed us to skip some baby-proofing products (obviously we have some!) and make the house a source of fun for him.

    The biggest waste area for us is food, so I wanted to mention a few things on that front:
    For babies:
    – Don’t assume that breastfeeding is zero waste. At least not if you plan to work. Of all the baby things we’ve done, pumping is by far the most waste producing activity (other than diapers). Most pump pieces can’t be reused by a second user for safety reasons, they’re all made from plastic, and you’ll have to buy more stuff than you’d like if you’re going to pump regularly and keep a stored supply in the freezer. We had to supplement with formula for a while when he was breastfeeding (weight gain issues), and I honestly think formula was less waste producing than pumping in the long run. I’m glad I breastfed, but it is neither cheap nor zero waste.
    – If you use bottles and need to sterilize, a standalone sterilizer may not be totally evil. I felt so guilty for buying a unitasker like this, especially a plastic one, but we were wasting SO MUCH WATER on boiling to sterilize. Even with reusing the water for other purposes, you still lose some in every transaction. The sterilizer uses very minimal water and a lot less energy that boiling a large pot of water on the stove. We continue to use the sterilizer even now that he’s stopped using bottles for items that need to be sterilized after he gets sick. I’m not sure this was the best choice environmentally, but it’s turned out to be a less bad choice than I assumed when we bought it (I could not boil another bottle and stay sane)

    For toddlers:
    – The biggest help for us has been that we feed him what we’re eating. We try not to buy baby specific snacks or foods now that he’s on solids. Modified baby led weaning for the win! He eats what we eat and we eat what he eats. There are exceptions, we have some pouches for emergencies and we sometimes have to buy him packaged items for daycare because they can’t store unwrapped items (they make most of the food they serve there, but there are occasional requests for extra snacks). We try as much as possible, though, to just feed him our food. It’s so much less wasteful, it saves money, and it’s healthier for all of us.
    – Containers for carrying food about are valuable and I recommend having multiple styles. We already had some anchor hocking custard cups with lids (lids are plastic, bottoms are glass but nearly indestructible – We use those to portion out servings of cut fruit, cheese, or crackers for when we’re out. We can use the lids as a “plate” for him if necessary. With heavy glass, our son, who likes to throw everything, hasn’t yet managed to break one. I’ve also reused small jam jars (no plastic, but weaker glass), but I don’t trust him to hold those himself. We carry a wet/dry bag (from this store – highly recommended that has one side for dry/clean things and one for wet/dirty things. We keep snacks and reusable bags(the cloth ziploc alternatives – a million etsy stores sell them) /containers in the clean side. If he uses them while we’re out, we switch them to the dirty side to bring home. The whole set up is machine washable and parts of it will still be usable by him through kindergarten without being embarrassingly baby-ish.
    – We give him real silverware. We own some baby silverware, but I have found that I hate it (he can’t actually get any food on those stupid plastic forks – argh!!!). He does much better using the small sized silverware (I think it’s supposed to be for desserts?) from our silverware set. We also let him use silverware meant for appetizers (teeny-tiny cheese knife, condiment spoon, and mini-fork) – small enough for him to use and pretty enough that we’ll use them for their original purpose when he outgrows them.
    – And real napkins. We’re so much happier now that we’ve ditched the bibs. We use one of our regular cloth napkins for him to clean himself up and wipe the table after himself. He’s learning how to use the napkin and we don’t have to deal with a bunch of single-purpose items. If he’s eating something super messy, we tie a kitchen towel around him like a bib.
    – Get a dog. Seriously saves us on cleaning supplies after food throwing 😉

    Anyway, as I said, very rambly. I will say that, except for diapers he hasn’t added a lot of stuff/waste to our life. I really love that our house is super accessible to and fun for him without being covered in toys.

  2. My kids are now 9 and 6, but in the earlier years, I did alot of buying second-hand (except for things like car seats and new items that were gifted to us), for clothes, toys, books, shoes, and then either re-sold them after we were done with them, donated or passed onto friends. We did use disposable diapers and wipes (I just couldn’t handle cloth diapers at the time). I made my own baby food and froze it into ice cube trays, but also bought jarred and pouch food for convenience when we were out. I tried to recycle all those containers, though. I later found reuseable food pouches you could refill over and over, but it was a little late in the game for me, but they were a good idea.

    One of my friends had a zero-waste type baby shower (she didn’t call it that, but it was the idea). Instead of playing games, we all brought old white socks and cut them up into rectangles for reuseable baby wipes. She put them into the plastic wipes boxes (sourced from others) and added her own essential oil mix plus water to keep them wet. Then she would use and wash with the cloth diapers. I also brought her some cute kids socks that had holes in them and she cut out the animal faces in the middle of the sock to sew onto her burp cloths. Loved how she repurposed so many things for her babies.

    • I’m actually quite curious about zero waste with a six year old. I’m actually a tad worried about that pre-school/kindergarten/early elementary age. It seems like there could be a long phase of old enough to have real opinions about their things but too young to truly understand why we choose to be minimalist/low waste (or more accurately, too young to put abstract ideas over immediate desires).

      • Johanna was in early elementary school when we started using reusable lunch containers, and it wasn’t an issue — nobody seemed to care, least of all her (but then, she’s a pretty mellow kid). The great thing about that age is they get super excited and into things, and can understand concepts like reusing items to help the earth. I think too if they grow up with things a certain way, it’s not weird to them, just everyone else. 😉

    • Oh, I love that shower idea! Very creative!

      Pouches didn’t exist for either of my girls, but we still had those … what are they even, dissolvable baby cereal things? … that we did buy.

  3. I have a 21-month old now, so here are the ways I have found to reduce waste.

    As others say, just feed her normal food. In the puree stage, I made big batches of cooked food and put it in my blender, then froze it as ice cubes. For going out and about, I put ice cubes in some (plastic) lidded containers and let it thaw until needed.
    One common snack for her is just cut-up cubes of bread. Most of those puffy toddler snacks and crackers are just carbs anyway, in different forms, so I figure bread is just as good.
    Our bulk section also has a few cereals, like O’s and some flakes, as well as some crunchy rice crackers, for when I feel lazy or want a change from the bread. I buy these and then put them in plastic containers for travel.

    I’ve also gotten lots of use from my collection of rag wipes made from old pyjamas. For dirty hands, spills, etc. I travelled recently (long-haul international flight) and wipes plus a wet bag and a bottle of water were actually more convenient than disposable wipes, because you couldn’t always find a trash can to dispose of something easily. I could sit in my airplane seat and have all I needed without getting up.

    For dishes and silverware, I bought some Corelle basically-unbreakable plates at Goodwill, little saucer size. None broken so far. Also some old Goodwill metal forks and spoons, just picked out small ones. We have teaspoons with our cutlery set, so for a long time we just spoon fed her with those.

    We’ve gotten a lot of use out of the Lifeflow glass bottles, with the nipples when she was a baby, and then switched them out for the sippy lids when she got older. The lids are plastic, but I love that you can continue to use the same bottles throughout. It cuts down on clutter. She only has one sippy cup, which we wash each evening. I feel like you can reduce a lot of clutter just by avoiding having so many duplicates of everything.

    When I need to entertain my daughter, I have gotten so much mileage out of just giving her different household objects: containers with lids from the kitchen (big hit), a pile of shoes, a bag of clothespins, a box of little travel cosmetic containers, my purse, a couple of saucepans, a spray bottle (nozzle closed) and a cloth to pretend cleaning. A bag full of papers to recycle once brought tons of happy times, although it made a big mess strewn all over the living room! I figured 3 minutes of cleaning up was worth 30 minutes of peace 🙂

    Obviously there’s a lot of other STUFF that comes with kids. Some of that I just accept, especially in the case of family gifts (some family are far away, so giving gifts is one way to participate in our daughter’s life – understandable). But where possible, we have asked for specific gifts that were useful, like a high chair or clothes instead of toys. I also opt for longevity in baby gear: the items that can be adjusted to use with different ages.

    It helps to avoid going to Toys R Us altogether! You don’t miss what you don’t know exists!

    • This is fantastic advice too! Thank you! My girls’ favorite thing was to just open up the tupperware drawer in the kitchen and go to town …

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