How To Live (Mostly) Plastic-free With Small Children

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When I first started saying to friends and family that I was planning a plastic-free life for my child, this statement was met almost unanimously with the same combination of knowing smiles and raised eyebrows – and honestly, I can’t blame them. At the time I was waddling around eight months pregnant, and also convinced that I was carrying the as-yet-undiscovered secret to perfect parenting. What’s that saying about ignorance again?

Child's wooden blocks

Image courtesy of sciencesque.

There are many things that I said in this smug pre-baby state that I have since had to hastily backpedal on, but somehow the goal of creating a (mostly) plastic-free world for my daughter has been one of the ideals that has actually survived the reality of having a child. It hasn’t always been easy, but it is definitely possible.

First of all, why? Why ban plastic?

This may seem obvious, but plastic is one of the most commonly-used polluting substances human beings have ever made. It is typically created from oil, which has its own issues, but the biggest problem with plastic is that unlike wood, metal, or natural fabrics, plastic doesn’t react chemically with most other substances and so it does not biodegrade.

This means that every single pen cap, dental floss container – and yes, baby toy – you have ever used, probably still exists. Most likely these items are sitting in a landfill somewhere, but it’s also possible that they have made their way into the belly of an unfortunate bird, or to gently swirl alongside billions of other plastic objects in the North Pacific Ocean, making up a depressingly-large floating garbage patch. Clearly, the more we can reduce the amount of plastic we use in our day-to-day lives, the better.

Now, the how. This is the tricky part, right?

There are typically three main stumbling blocks to taking this idea from lofty-ideal to real-life-reality. Let’s tackle them only by one.

Wood kids toys

Image courtesy of Gisele Pereira.

How do I avoid it? Plastic is cheap, easily maufactured, and endlessly adaptable. Furthermore, its bright colors and resistance to breakage makes it a popular choice in the world of children’s toys, dishes, and care items. At first glance it can seem absolutely impossible to avoid, but it is possible, I promise!

It sounds simplistic, but first decide that wherever possible, you will just not buy things made of plastic. Just don’t. Toys can be found made from Eco-friendly options like wood and cloth, pacifiers can be bought in natural rubber, and other things like baby baths can be done without – or bought secondhand, if absolutely necessary.

The next step after deciding on a plastic-free life is to communicate this desire to friends and family members – especially if you haven’t actually had your baby yet. Children are a source of such joy, and many choose to celebrate their arrival with gifts. By gently specifying that you would like to receive gifts made of sustainable materials, you can stem the tide of plastic at its source. Creating a registry filled with plastic-alternatives can be really helpful for gift-givers.

What does a plastic-free life with kids really look like? It will be a little different for everyone, but in our home it looks like this:

Dishes are real dishes. This makes many parents nervous because they’re breakable, but to date my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter hasn’t broken a single one (I, on the other hand, broke two glasses in one dishwashing session the other day.) If you really love your dishes and can’t bear the possibility of of losing one, consider getting a few inexpensive plates, bowls and cups from a secondhand store for your child to use.

Boy jumping in backyard

‘Because I’ve Never Told Him He Can’t Fly’. Image courtesy of Lotus Carroll.

Olive’s toys are made of fabric, or wood – wooden puzzles, sorting toys, and stacking blocks, fabric dolls, animals and games. This past Christmas we created a playhouse made from cardboard, and we use fabric bins, wooden crates, and vintage suitcases to store it all– typically these cost the same or less than similarly sized plastic sorting bins or baskets.

On-the-go snacking involves zippered fabric pouches to store nuts or apple slices, a stainless steel water bottle, and a set of reusable bamboo cutlery.

What about the one-offs? No one is perfect! Don’t expect this of others, or yourself. “Plastic-free” doesn’t mean living a draconian existence where toys are rooted out and destroyed, or gifts rudely refused. You will inevitably accumulate some plastic toys over the course of your child’s life, whether as gifts or giveaways, or as part of party favor bags.

In our house these become the perfect bath toys, or end up alongside the rest of the toys. You’ve got it – you may as well enjoy it! Some care items like thermometers or snot-suckers are inevitably made of plastic – it’s such a ubiquitous material that at times it’s not possible to avoid it entirely. Don’t beat yourself up about it! Focus on what you have done.

Feature image courtesy of Philippe Put

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Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.