I recently read Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson, who, along with her family of four, creates only one quart of garbage per year. I knew we could learn something from a family that can go that extreme (they aren’t big recyclers either!).
I love her ideas–like buying in bulk, simplifying so you have only what you need, and learning to make things at home (like yogurt or bread). I cleaned more of the excess from our kitchen. I bought reusable produce bags (which I love). I’ve tried to look for better packaging when possible (purchasing our milk in glass jar that you return for a refund, for example, and preferring cardboard and paper to plastic.
The craziest thing is how it seems like going zero waste or organic will cost more time and money. But that’s not always the case. Simple, inexpensive, and mindful living often all three go together seamlessly. As an example, I once dreamed up a post about my “lazy” parenting decisions, and the list was very similar to this one.
One thing I found in both The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Zero Waste Home is that neither author is applying their method to the baby/toddler years. These years are sometimes filled with more survival tactics than future years, and it can be extra challenging to cut down on waste or even save money when you’re just trying to survive.
Toddlers often take long (and frequent) baths. They like prepackaged snacks and snacky foods (like squeezable yogurts and juice boxes). They collect tons of toys. And yet each little stage goes by so quickly. As parents, we do need some convenience in our lives and can’t always go full force with zero waste in these years (at least, I’m not sure I can).
I thought through a few things we’ve done (most unintentional) that have helped with this, and a few new ideas for going forward. Please realize that I’m only sharing what’s worked for us or what I want to try, not what I feel everyone should do. I would love to hear your ideas for reducing waste while parenting babies and toddlers!
Cloth Diapers and Early Potty Training
This is a simple way to save tons of money waste, but it involves an initial investment and some extra work (although never running out of diapers is a nice trade-off!). By eighteen months, Liam was mostly potty-trained, which also helped.
Unfortunately, we now go through 1-2 diapers a day (naptime and bedtime) and washing that few cloth diapers (every 2-3 days) seems like a waste of water. Plus the cloth weren’t absorbent enough at night. So I’ve tried to make peace with our 1-2 disposables a day until we get fully night and nap potty-trained. I’m interested to try earlier potty training this time around, but time will tell. (I wrote a little bit about the start of cloth diapering here).
Use Regular Glasses and Dishes
Because I was so fascinated with the Montessori method, we started Liam with a shot glass for drinking (rather than a plastic cup). We don’t have any plastic kid plates or bowls and only two sippy cups getting dusty in the back or our cabinet.
I love that this saves space and that Liam knows how to use regular, adult dishes. We’ve had maybe three breaks, which isn’t so bad. (The only downside is when other kids come, they often are not used to dishes that will break). This seems like an easy way to cut down on plastic use and teach a child about control of error.
Exclusive Breastfeeding/Baby-Led Weaning
Obviously I realize that not everyone can do this. But exclusively breastfeeding (no bottles) saved us lots of money and, I feel, lots of work. Again, this isn’t for everyone (some moms have to use bottles or love using them!) but it worked for us.
By trying out baby-led weaning (letting the baby start with table foods rather than purees) also saved us a lot of time and money. I didn’t have to buy or make jars of baby food.
Again, because of Montessori, we prefer wood and metal toys and toys that encouraged open-ended play. Liam’s favorites are his blocks, his wooden train track and trains, and any cars. He also loves his play kitchen. (Although to be fair, when I was looking through pictures for this post, there were tons of him playing with his favorite plastic toys, as well!).
The biggest thing I’ve learned about toys is to be moderate and thoughtful. It’s easy to think of all the things he might love for Christmas (which I’m doing right now), so we have to be careful as parents not to go overboard. We’re preferring memberships to the children’s museum and zoo now.
Even with books, I try to be moderate. I love having plenty of beautiful books in our library, but I no longer feel like I must purchase every book Liam loves.
Hand Me Downs
We were fortunate enough to get tons of bags of hand me downs from cousins and friends. Clothes can also be a great gift idea, too–my sister has given Liam most of my favorite outfits for him. (Plus it cuts down on the clutter of receiving only toys!).
I was also surprised by how many other baby items we received as hand-me-downs (an exersaucer, two highchairs, and a bouncy seat, for example). Going back, I would have purchased even less before he came and waited to see what we actually needed (and if anyone else had something we could buy/have secondhand).
So many toddler favorite foods (and baby foods too) naturally produce a lot of waste. We’ve done our fair share of buying individually packaged crackers and yogurts. I don’t think this is necessarily bad, but after reading about zero waste, I’ve tried to evaluate what we actually need.
Liam is eating a lot more homemade yogurt (thanks to my mom) and homemade treats (like healthy muffins). I also try to pack more sliced fruit instead of snacks, and I can pack these in containers for him to eat in the car. The secret seems to be in not having the snack foods around in the first place and then he stops asking all day long (although we still love our big bags of veggie sticks).
This is something both Marie Kondo and Bea Johnson advocate–don’t accept freebies. Whether it’s a cheap party favor or a hospital gift bag with formula samples, as I’ve decluttered, I’ve realized that most freebies just end up being wasted. Plus I think it sets a good example for our children when we don’t accept every freebie.
Wipes and Paper Towels
I cringe to think of how many wet wipes and paper towels I went through when babysitting (I had no idea then how expensive those things can be!). I am too irresponsible to be allowed to buy wet wipes (and by that I mean that I will go through a whole pack in a matter of days). So we just don’t. We use towels or washcloths, even when on the road. Or we find a sink and just wash hands (and sometimes faces). Having an extra set of clothes for Liam also helps.
Thoughtfulness and awareness are the biggest lessons I have gleaned from Zero Waste Home. When I buy something disposable, I try to think about it as part of the larger picture of garbage.
As I mentioned above, we’re trying to be more creative about snacks, which has also helped Liam be healthier. He will eat homemade bread with jelly or cheese and he loves leftover soups.
When we run out of Play doh this time, we’ll probably make our own to save money and packaging. However, I don’t think we’re going to be able to give up markers yet (something Johnson recommends in Zero Waste Home).
I’m also more committed to teaching my children to care for the earth and be mindful consumers. Sometimes it feels so overwhelming and as though nothing makes a difference. Zero Waste Home reminded me that is simply not true. We are composting more again, and Liam helps. I try to fill our kitchen with more glass than plastic and to always take my reusable shopping bags when we might stop by the store.
I also don’t want to teach him to love stuff, and so we’re trying to take an active role by thinking through Christmases and birthdays.
Still, when in this phase of life, it is important to be reasonable, so I didn’t say “no” when he asked for a fancy yogurt at the store yesterday, and we still do use ziploc bags (we’ll see about phasing those out). I’m sure we’ll continue to see places where we can cut down our waste (and often our spending, as well).