Getting off to a plastic free start
In their natural state, before they are packaged up neatly in disposable nappies and cute outfits, babies and toddlers are messy. The magic of disposable nappies, which draw moisture away from delicate skin and feature leak guards, has transformed early parenting. Ditto, wet wipes. These are truly amazing products . . . for parents. But both disposable nappies and wet wipes contain mountains of plastic fibres. It takes about 1 cup of crude oil to make just one disposable nappy, and Australians and New Zealanders use about 3.75 million of them a day. In landfill, where they mostly end up, they take about 150 years to break down. In the environment, well, use your imagination.
We’ve come a long way from the scratchy towelling squares we used to fold into triangles and, somehow, pinned to fit our babies. Modern cloth nappies are beautifully designed to grow with babies—using different fasteners—and many come with a detachable absorbent pad and liner and plenty of online help on their use. Some can be used with biodegradable, disposable liners too. The bottom line (pardon the pun): you have to wash them.
There are also biodegradable nappies on the market. Another option is known as toileting or elimination communication, which is, basically, picking up the early signs that your child needs to go and rushing them onto the potty, leading to early toilet-training.
Verdict: Great colours, innovative fabrics and increasing choice in reusable nappies makes a big difference. If you stick to reusable nappies you’ll halve your costs compared to disposables, according to Sustainability Victoria. One new mum we talked to who has done the sums was expecting to save even more; about $2500 over two years, based on 6000 nappies from birth to toilet
training. She did say ‘it’s definitely more work’ (but also ‘I can’t put that much waste into landfill’). Cloth nappies also come out ahead environmentally, even when washing5 is taken into account. Some parents say reusables aren’t quite as good at keeping babies and clothes fresh and dry. A popular compromise is to use reusables at home and disposables when going out. And, while biodegradable nappies sound good, they are not flushable and so likely end up in landfill, just like regular disposables.
What did we ever do without them? Well, not that long ago, our mums used washable cloths, like damp face washers, carried in a reusable wet bag to clean us up. One cloth for our faces, a different one for the other end. In a big mess emergency these cotton cloths could even be safely thrown away. By contrast wet wipes are a combination of synthetic fibres and cellulose. They shouldn’t be flushed—but wreak havoc in our drains anyway—and should only be disposed of in landfill. Fortunately, lots of good-looking reusable washcloths are back on the market (in stores and online)—or make your own out of old towels. More expensive disposable ‘natural’ wipes are also available, mostly in plastic dispensers. Some can theoretically be flushed or composted—but check the packet.
Verdict: Unless you are away from running water, reusable cloths are a viable alternative to wet wipes and, over the long term, they’re cheaper. Washing isn’t too difficult—you just need a bucket, a pair of latex laundry gloves, a washing machine and the sun to dry them.
Even if you are breastfeeding you’ll probably need bottles as a back-up. Invest in BPA-free plastic and silicon teats, or glass bottles with silicon teats. Glass is ideal from a hygiene point of view, but some people are understandably reluctant to use a bottle that could break.
If you cook up baby food yourself, or mash fresh fruit, you won’t be throwing away plastic packaging. This is not, of course, always practical. When buying ready-made, choose glass jars that can be recycled over squeezy pouches. Pouches are rapidly increasing their share of the global baby food market, but as they are made of foil and plastic fused together, they can’t be recycled except by very specialist and not readily available places. Billions upon billions are going to landfill. And while they are handy — they don’t need refrigeration, can be thrown in a bag and reduce spills — they are also attracting the attention of developmental specialists. Concerns have been raised that sucking food down denies young children the essential learning experiences of mastering spoons and forks, and the portable nature of the pouches erodes opportunities to establish regular, sit-down mealtimes. And as they are so easy to eat quickly they may lead to weight gain. These issues are interesting examples of how material can change our lifestyle.
If you do need convenience, lots of companies are now making refillable pouches out of food-grade silicone that you can fill with food you’ve prepared yourself. Great if you are travelling or need to feed in the car or out and about — they can also be prepared in advance and frozen. Similarly, silicone moulds can be used to make ice blocks that help with teething.
Snacks and drinks
It’s very easy to get by without individually packaged kids’ snacks and drinks. If you avoid them, your kid’s diet will be healthier, too. Use small, coloured snack boxes and put interesting nibbles in them yourself. If you don’t have time to cook, some snacks are available without plastic packaging at bulk stores. Kids don’t need poppers with plastic straws either. Fill their own reusable drink bottle with water.
Is plastic bad for babies and toddlers?
Plastic is not necessarily bad for children. However, babies and children are more vulnerable to the chemical additives in some plastics that have been found to disrupt the human endocrine system. These include Bisphenol A (BPA), which is linked to a long list of diseases. BPA has been removed from most baby bottles and toys, but there are still questions about the additives that have replaced it. Other plastics like cling film and some food packaging still contain known endocrine-disrupting chemicals. As Choice reported, these can leach into food, so it’s worth checking if the food you are feeding your children is affected. Choice suggests plastics number 3 and number 7 are
the ones to avoid.
Edited and extracted with permission from Quitting Plastic: Easy and Practical Ways to Cut Down the Plastic in Your Life, by Clara Williams Roldan (Allen & Unwin $22.99)