For even the most environmentally conscious, becoming a parent involves a bit of a mental reset. After all, children come with a lot of stuff. From clothes and shoes to car seats, books and toys, kids are constantly outgrowing the things that they use. And yet, it is possible to achieve an environmentally friendly family life. Below are some tips to start you on your way.
Parenting can be hard work in itself so it’s important not to put too much pressure on yourself. As environmental blogger Anne Marie Bonneau has said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”. And this holds true not just for zero waste, but for all of your environmental goals. Going green doesn’t have to be 100% all of the time; just try to seek out greener options where you can and remember, even the smallest start is still a start.
Showing them why
Show your child why you care about the environment and you’re already on your way to a greener family life. When children really see, feel and experience what’s going on outside the front door, they begin to understand why we make greener choices. So, leave the car at home and try to get out for a walk or cycle regularly to point out the wildlife, feed the birds, climb trees, roll down hills, splash in puddles, scrunch leaves and watch the sky. Picking up litter while walking with children also shows them, without saying a word, that the environment is important.
As they grow, talk to your child about our planet and sustainability in an age-appropriate way, focusing on what we can do rather than how bad climate change is so that they don’t become anxious. Maybe you could plant a native tree with your child, or subscribe to a nature magazine. The Irish Wildlife Trust, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Geographic all send out children’s nature magazines full of interesting facts and fun activities.
Lead by example; if you’re already living a relatively green lifestyle, then children will think it’s normal to do things like recycling, reusing, cycling or walking rather than being driven and so on. Getting your child involved in environmental decisions within the family is important so that they can get onboard with these values, and pass them on to friends, classmates, teachers and others. You could get involved with their school too; even schools who have been awarded green flag status can be helped to engender an eco-conscious attitude among students.
Less is more
The “less is more” mantra is another good starting point. Sure, children need things but they don’t need as much as you might think. In fact, there’s an argument that babies don’t even need toys. Our homes are bursting with tactile and shiny objects and babies will happily entertain themselves by banging spoons against pans, playing with water and measuring cups or rummaging around in the soil.
Because kids need contact with you and the world around them, being played with and talked to will benefit them more than lots of toys. Think about what you really want and need for your child. To simplify things, before you buy or accept anything, first ask yourself, “Do I really need it? Or will my child only use it a handful of times?” Family and friends may give you gifts for your child, so consider asking for the things that you really need or for second hand or homemade cards and gifts.
As they grow, you can continue teaching them to value experiences over things by getting them involved with volunteering or community groups – drama groups, choirs, sports or whatever works.
With 4,500 nappy changes before you (the approximate number you’ll grapple with in the first three years), your choice of nappy is an important one. Today’s disposables are something of a masterwork; tailored to gender and age, leak proof and filled with a moisture-absorbing gel to keep skin dry. However, every standard disposable ends up in landfill, where it can take up to 500 years to decompose.
With this in mind, some parents choose eco disposable nappies, which offer the convenience of a standard disposable but with a more environmentally friendly method of production and disposal. Manufactured partly or wholly from plant-based materials, they contain few or no chemical gels, are usually unbleached, and break down faster than disposables. In the long term, they’re more expensive than standard disposable and reusable nappies but bulk buying online can save money here. You’ll find them, along with biodegradable wipes and nappy sacks, on sites like earthmother.ie and ecobaby.ie, as well as shops like The Organic Cotton Shop in Cork and Evergreen in Galway.
Another option is reusable nappies, which won’t take up landfill space and can be used for more than one child. Made from natural fabrics – organic cotton, hemp and bamboo nappies, and organic wool waterproof over-pants – they’re easy to put on and can be machine washed. One piece and two piece reusables are available. Just remember, you may need to factor in the cost of things like nappy liners, grips and a bucket with a lid. Also keep in mind that, while they don’t release greenhouse gases while in landfill, greenhouse gases are generated by the electricity used to wash or to tumble dry them. If you need some guidance, Cloth Nappy Library Ireland, a non profit organization that loans out reusable nappies, is a good place to start. Reusable wipes, nappy bags (called wetbags) and nursing pads are also available from sites such as those listed above.
Books, toys and clothes
Reduce purchasing by borrowing or renting wherever possible. Libraries are the obvious resource for borrowing books – you’ll find age appropriate environmentally themed books here too. You can also get into the habit of borrowing or swapping books and toys with friends and other families.
It’s a little harder to borrow toys than books. However, a start was made when Ireland’s first toy library arrived in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan last year after a group of volunteers got behind the idea of providing toys without increasing waste. Soon after, DluluKaloo, which also rents toys, was launched in Greystones, County Wicklow.
If you can’t borrow or swap, then go for second hand. Get into the charity shops or trawl sites like www.adverts.ie, www.donedeal.ie, www.freecycle.org or www.ebay.ie. When you buy second hand from a seller on one of these sites, it’s a nice idea to ask the seller about the history of the toy, book or clothing. That way, when you give it to your child you can tell them its “story”. For example, “This book came from a little girl in Waterford. She loved it because it’s about a bird, and birds are her favourite creatures…” This will make the item more special and personal than something bought from a shop.
Try to avoid gendered toys and clothes, as they’re a huge source of waste. A generation ago, toys like bikes and scooters, and clothes like t-shirts and pyjamas, were often sold in gender neutral colours like yellow, red and green. These days, they tend to be sold in gendered styles, and colours like pink and blue. This is because marketers have realised that a parent who buys, for example, a pink bike for a daughter may be reluctant to pass that bike down to the girl’s younger brother. A blue bike is purchased, and two bikes are sold instead of one. To counteract this waste, buying unisex items is a good way to go.
Finally, if you are going to spend your money on something new, look for items that are designed to last. Something that’s well made may cost more, but it will likely be used for several children compared to a cheaper alternative, which may fall apart and go straight to landfill. When you’re finished with your clothes, books and toys, pass them onto somebody else.
Repairing, repurposing and recycling
Children, especially the very young, can be destructive so get into the habit of repairing and repurposing, rather than replacing. YouTube is an excellent resource here with its multitude of videos to guide you through maintaining, repairing and upcycling your baby-related equipment. Just remember, it’s better to have a professional repair certain items such as high chairs and prams, for safety reasons.
When an item has come to the end of its life, recycle it where possible. Some baby products, like car seats and buggies, can be difficult to recycle because they’re made of a mix of materials. In these cases, it’s worth contacting your local council for advice on how to best dispose of your item.
Running the household day-to-day
A respect for the environment can be cultivated inside the home too. Your green lifestyle will become your family’s lifestyle, and they will carry it forward in their own lives.
Teach them where their food comes from by getting them involved in cooking. Show them how to reduce food waste by buying only the amount you need, cooking from scratch, using up leftovers, and freezing. If possible, buy local, organic or plastic/packaging-free, or start conversations about reducing the amount of meat the family eats or growing food, if you have space.
Show them how the house runs and bring them into conversations about it. Show them how and where to recycle, or even compost. Explain why it’s a good idea to conserve energy by turning off the lights when you leave a room, or to conserve water by turning off taps when brushing teeth, or taking short showers or shallow baths. Try to avoid single use items, sending them off to school with reusable water bottles and paper bags or lunchboxes rather than packaged or clingfilm-wrapped food.
Discuss why a second hand piece of furniture, or a toy or a jumper might be better than a new one, or why you’re using an eco-friendly cleaning product, or hanging clothes out to dry rather than tumble drying. As they grow, bring them into major purchasing decisions for the house, like whether or not you really need a car, or a dishwasher, and, if so, whether you can find one that is less harmful to the environment.
Finally, learn from your child. After all, a growing child who is engaged with their environment will likely come up with the most innovative, and greatest, ideas for your family.
Alison Bourke is a freelance journalist, working in print and radio. She lives and works in Dublin.