Zero Waste Childhood
I don't need to lament our planet's current waste problems to you. If you need an update check out this or this or this or this or this. There's no real way around it: the amount of plastic waste our society produces is primarily from single use packaging, cannot be fully recycled, is poisoning the majority of our ocean, land, animals, and people. Something has to change, on a high regulatory and corporate level. But seeing as that change can be slow and feeling powerless can be detrimental to our mental health, lots of people are choosing to fight the system and do everything we can not to produce landfill waste.
I've heard from lots of families that this fight feels both harder and more urgent when you have young children. We all want to leave the world a better place for our children, and suddenly that future of ecological ruin doesn't seem so far off. At the same time, children have a lot of needs. It can be harder to shed all earthly conveniences and go live a Walden Pond-esque brand of minimalism when there are mountains of dirty things to wash, hungry mouths that apparently you are responsible for feeding, and you'd trade your left pinky toe for any gizmo that will just give you five minutes of quiet (or so I've heard).
Thankfully, all hope is not lost. Small shifts in our daily habits and household systems can make us and our children happier and healthier, and we can take much the same approach to minimizing our families' impact on the environment (which will also make us and our children happier and healthier). I've complied a list of tips I've collected to help make this transition easier for families, as well as a list of what WE are doing at Brooklyn Morning Garden--both as a way of staying accountable, and to share the reasoning behind some of our less traditional choices.
What we do:
Encourage toilet independence and support families using cloth diapers.
Use reusable, non-plastic everything: bowls, napkins, cups, towels... Children learn to value the things they use when they use real things and help care for them. More on practical work with children and how it supports their development here.
Serve a menu of unprocessed, whole foods, the ingredients for which are bought in bulk.
Request that families bring a wet bag to send home children's wet clothing.
Teach good habits for dealing the waste that does inevitably find it's way into our space by maintaining clearly organized recycling bins and engaging the children to help sort.
Compost! Our neighborhood doesn't have municipal compost yet, so we maintain a compost bin in the corner of the yard. Managing the compost becomes a part of the daily practical work.
What you can do:
Slowly swap single use and/or plastic items for reusable, biodegradable, and fully recycle-able alternatives, or decide to do without them altogether.
Use cloth diapers, toilet train early. Much more on this to come, but this is advice I have as a teacher as well as an environmentalist. No washing machine? Check out a diaper service like Diaperkind.
Pack whole foods (berries, nuts, peas, beans, popcorn if you're really ambitious...) as snacks in small glass or metal jars, rather than pre-packaged, processed, more expensive options. We all did just fine growing up without squeeze pouches of baby food.
Create a checklist when leaving the house, and teach your children to know it and eventually carry their own. Water bottle? Cloth bag? Napkin? Snack jar? Utensils?
Invest in a wet bag for all those times you would otherwise hurriedly scrounge a plastic option (kid pees pants, kid poops pants, unexpected splash pad, improvised splash pad in neighbor's lawn sprinkler, kid pours entire $8 smoothie down their front...). They're stash-able and washable.
Eat a primarily whole foods diet and shop in bulk. Banana chips require packaging, a banana makes it's own compostable wrapper. The bulk section at your local health food store/co-op is cheaper than buying the same rice or nuts pre-packaged, allows you to get just as much as you want, and you can use cloth drawstring bags or jars to shop, eliminating waste.
Below, I'm also sharing some of the items I've found that can help replace their less sustainable counterparts. Of course, the most sustainable thing you can buy is nothing at all--or baring that, something that has seen a previous life with someone else. My friend just keeps a regular fork from her kitchen in her purse for when she needs one when out and about, as did I for years. I also re-use the fabric pouches my *artisanal* linen clothes get shipped in, and buy Mason jars at tag sales. But I also know that the mental burden of switching our habits to more sustainable ones can be overwhelming, and that being pointed in the direction of a replacement product can make that transition a lot easier.
What about you? What changes have you made to minimize your family's waste?
While we're on the subject, a quick note about water bottles. Unlike many daycares and playgroups, we serve our students water out of glasses. Toddlers are perfectly capable of drinking from a glass, and it helps to develop important motor function and hand-eye coordination that only drinking from a sippy cup can impair. Obviously, when out and about, water bottles are super convenient, but I recommend the type with a screw-off top (this is a non-plastic option) or a lid that allows for natural sipping (like this).