There are tons of suggestions for how adults can reduce, reuse and recycle in their everyday lives. But that advice seems to come to a screeching halt once you become a parent, with a young kids who might wear disposable diapers, down single-serve snacks and outgrow endless plastic toys—- many of which contain hard-to-recycle electronic components. Is it possible to be environmentally conscious and raise a kid, who seems to need a new diaper pail, pair of shoes or car seat every time you turn around?
We spoke to three experts (and moms) who all agree on where to start: the mantra that less is more. And teaching your kids the same — from as early an age as possible — will make being eco-friendly a way of life.
“It’s easy to make little changes — pick one thing and start it, make it work for you,” says Shannon Cowan of Eartheasy. “Once you’ve adjusted to it, move on to the next.”
Amy Mayorga of Minimalista Mom shares the sentiment. “I’ve read that if you do something for three weeks, you’ve created a new habit. So just make these little changes, purchase less in general and you might even find you have more free time because you’re not running around buying so much.”
Whatever you do, include your children in the conversation in a way that makes sense to them.
“Get them thinking about what they are using,” says Jessica Litman, the Organized Mama. “Remind them there is a big world and we all share — maybe something like, ‘You live here with all of your friends, so you can’t use up all the water when you brush your teeth.’ Make it about them but their friends, too, so it resonates that others need resources.”
“My daughter, who is 5, loves to replenish the toilet paper, and is also a big culprit of using a lot of it,” she continues. “So her chore has become replacing it, and in that she sees hers is being refilled the most. Give them responsibility and they might start to realize how much they are using.”
“Don’t say something like, ‘You can’t have that because the polar bears don’t have any ice!’ ” adds Cowan. “Keep it natural when your kids are little and they will learn to respect the choices as they grow.”
Ditch the Toys
Okay, not all the toys, but most. “So much research shows kids need less toys,” says Litman. “Have them play with boxes; those make great toys! Give them paper and crayons and take a step back. It’s important to let them be creative.”
Adds Cowan, “Babies, I think, don’t even need toys. They need contact with you and the world around them — time spent with the people in their lives. As they get older and start to explore more, use things already in your home — dedicate a cupboard to your toddler, filled with safe items like light containers with lids, wooden spoons or small books they can open, look at and explore.”
For special events like birthdays and holidays, Mayorga recommends a no-gift policy, or asking people to donate money or items to a cause important to you instead. But if family members just have to get your little one a present, make it something you need. “Say, ‘My child is about to start swim class and needs goggles.’ Or, ‘We go to this museum a lot and a membership would be amazing.’ Plan ahead and make a list.”
“As a parent,” she continues, “you can control your own buying habits, become more intentional and solve the majority of the problem.” That includes buying secondhand toys (her favorite site is mercari.com, though eBay, Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are good for toys, too) and passing them on when you are done. Local consignment shops are great, too: “Sometimes I find things with the tags still on,” Mayorga says.
She also prefers wood over plastic. “I stopped buying new plastic toys,” she shares. “They break, they’re horrible for the environment because they can only be recycled a few times and then just exist … Wood lasts so much longer! Get a set of wooden blocks and they last from a baby learning to grab them to a 9-year-old building a fort.”
But most importantly, all three moms agree that you should get your kids outside whenever possible.
“It’s good for their mental health,” says Mayorga. Plus, once he got away from the clutter of endless toys, “I saw my own’s son imagination come out,” she adds. “He started to play more independently, for more extended periods of time. I saw a very positive change.”
Use What You Already Have in Your Home
This should be a no-brainer, but if you have more than one child, it’s important to really take advantage of those hand-me-downs instead of throwing kids’ clothes away once they’re worn. Shop your own closet, too, since “by organizing your space you see what you really have and you’re not buying a ton of new things that create overlap,” Litman says.
And while those KonMari cleanouts might feel good, even donating can create waste.
“That doesn’t always lead to sustainability,” explains Litman. “A lot of things get thrown out when you donate — local organizations don’t always have the capacity for everything being donated (especially now thanks to Marie Kondo) and they throw items away.”
She recommends calling donation centers ahead of time to see what they really need. “It takes some due diligence on your part, but it’ll make you feel better in the long run.”
Cloth Diaper — or Try These Easier Switches if That’s Not for You
Mayorga and Cowan agree that cloth diapering is the way to go when it comes to helping the planet, though it seems daunting to many parents.
“If you’re not ready to go all cloth, that doesn’t mean you can’t do one a day,” Mayorga says. “Or you can buy more eco-friendly bamboo disposables. Even starting with just using reusable swim diapers — you have to wash the swimsuit anyway, so it’s a small, easy place to start.”
Cloth wipes can be a simpler switch, too. “I think they’re more effective,” says Cowan. “They grab hold of the mess, are thicker and better protect your hands.”
If the thoughts of baby messes and cloth diapers or wipes overwhelm you, there are other ways to be green in your family’s everyday routines, according to all three moms:
Make Your Own Cleaning Products
“It’s easier on your entire body,” says Litman. Try scrubbing your tub with a halved grapefruit covered in sea salt, or making a mixture of dish soap, baking soda, vinegar, water and essential oil (directions here) and keeping it in a reusable glass bottle.
If it’s too much work, Litman recommends Grove Collaborative. “The waste is all recyclable, but also minimal. It makes your footprint so much smaller in such a simple way.”
Find Like-Minded Friends
All three women agree that having allies makes the process easier. “Once you become aware of the movement, you see other people doing it too and it becomes this cycle of positive feedback,” says Mayorga. “That’s where social media is such a great tool, to see how others are handling things.”
Adds Cowan, “It’s hard to do this alone, and we shouldn’t have to. Especially for kids, it’s helpful to go into other people’s homes and see that not everybody has what they think they have.”
When it comes down to it — you’ve got this.
“Again, start small,” says Mayorga. “But there is so much more we can do. That’s what I’ve learned in this journey: there is always something else you can do to help the planet.”
- Use bamboo toothbrushes
- Shop with reusable grocery and produce bags (keep them next to your purse or in your car so you don’t forget them)
- Use rags instead of paper towels for pretty much everything
- Consolidate your online shopping orders into one or two big monthly purchases
- Compost (local farmers markets often accept your scraps)
- Refuse plastic straws