With Some Extra Effort, You Can Raise Kids without Drowning in Plastic

It’s the last day of our Plastic Free Challenge. You made it! Great job! Pats on the back all around! I know we’ve all become much more aware of the plastic that is (was!) such an integral part of our daily life, and we’ve rethought our relationship to it in a lot of ways.

It’s got me thinking about the amount of plastic I’ve used since I had kids. I mean really, having kids these days is a plastic fiesta. And now I’m feeling pretty guilty about how much plastic we’ve used and thrown out over the past 16 years. I’ve become painfully aware that every diaper, every sippy cup, every Barbie—it never goes away. My kids’ plastic is forever! Ack!

To make me feel better, let’s take a little trip back in my fantasy time machine and see where things could have been different.

Ages and Stages: Plastic Free Babies

Baby showing off her belly button and cutie cloth diaper.

Poop Patrol: The first change I’d make is to use cloth diapers. According to the EPA, my sweet little girls each produced 2,000 pounds of plastic and poop trash in their two (ahem, plus?) years of diaper-wearing. Across the US, that adds up to 27.4 billion diapers per year, creating 7.4 billion pounds of trash annually—enough to fill the Washington Nationals stadium 7 times over. Yikes. It seems like a no-brainer to use cloth diapers now, especially since they get simpler to use and cuter every year. Here are some great resources for cloth diapers. You can also find great used cloth diaper sales and swaps online, particularly on Facebook. And Fluff Love University is an essential site for cloth diaper use, care, and troubleshooting during your kids’ earliest years.

Bottle Kings: For baby bottles, Klean Kanteen stainless-steel bottles are top rated, dishwasher safe and super durable. There are also a lot of nice glass baby bottles available—check out these options for Plastic Free baby bottles. Life Factory glass baby bottles are available at MOM’s, and they can evolve with your child from bottle to sippy with a simple swap of a mouthpiece. Another cool option is the DIY Mason jar baby bottle kit—it includes silicone pieces that can be interchanged with any Mason jar you already own. (Hot tip: You can also find sippy tops for your Mason jars.)

Plug ’Em Up: For pacifiers, look for them in natural rubber, which is safer than sucking on plastic chemicals like BPA. A great list of options can be found here.

Reduce or Reuse: Obviously the list of baby necessities beyond these basics is endless, and rethinking before buying anything is key. I wish I had said to myself, “Can I borrow a high chair, pack-n-play or jumpy seat, or buy a secondhand one, so I’m not bringing new plastic into my house? Or get a wooden high chair from Ikea or Keekaroo instead? And do I really need this stuff cluttering up my house anyway?” I’ve had a handful of friends ask for only hand-me-down or secondhand items at their baby showers, instead of new stuff, and I love this idea. With the number of kid-specific online yard sales these days, buying new rarely has to be your first option.

Of course, every family is different, and we all have our own needs based on our specific situation. If you’re just trying to make it through the day, as I often was in those years, you shoot for doing your best. We can all just think about our options and make choices to go Plastic Free whenever it works for our family.

Little girl on the farm with her cloth snack bag

Next Stage: Plastic Free Toddlers and Kids

School Days: It’s hard to skip the plastic with school supplies, but there are some places you can avoid it as long as you shop with awareness—paper covers for spiral notebooks and cardboard-covered binders are big ones.

Lunch Bunch: In my time machine trip, I would’ve made the change to Plastic Free lunch packing much earlier. We finally got it down to a science this year but probably threw away 10,000 zip-top bags in the meantime. Ugh. I know now that it’s so simple. Anything that could be bought in an individual package or go in a zip-top bag can just as easily go into a small size Tupperware (which is still plastic, but if you have it, you might as well use it). You can also use wax-covered cloth sandwich and snack bags, which you can buy in cute patterns or make yourself.

We just replaced our leaky old cartoon-themed thermoses for soups and chili with a super cool stainless-steel thermos from Hydro Flask. Highly recommended to keep things hot all day, and much more respectable for a 12-year-old’s lunch box. Add some bamboo utensils and you’re good to go. More info on this can be found in our Plastic Free lunch post.

Dinner Time: Unless you use your normal dishes for your toddlers—a brave choice that I totally respect—the options for totally unbreakable nonplastic dishes and cups are neither vast nor very cute. But for everyday use, stainless steel Life Without Plastic cups and dishes are a great bet. Bamboo bowls and utensils from Bambu are essential; you can also get basic bamboo sets in fun colors from Ekobo. I love the adorable little woodland animals on the kids’ dish sets I had when my kids were little, so here is a great alternative from Avenue Petit Lou.

Fashion Plates: Kids start to care about what they’re wearing early on, so it’s important to let them know why we’re choosing Plastic Free fibers that come packaged without plastic. They care about the oceans and marine animals that are being harmed and will be on board with sustainable choices. There are many choices for organic cotton and wool kids’ clothes online (PACT Kids is a great one), but it’s hard to know if they’ll come shipped in plastic. As with everything, ask. Call the company up and ask if they’ll ship it Plastic Free. If they do, great; if they won’t, you’ve at least shown them their consumers care about the issue.

Obviously buying in a local brick-and-mortar store is better because you avoid the shipping issue—in Northern Virginia, Pink and Brown Boutique stocks organic clothing and green gifts and toys, and Hanna Andersson is a great choice for organic cotton clothing. Better yet, if I had it to do again, I’d shop in a secondhand store like Unique or Pennywise with my own reusable bag—hello, zero-waste (and wallet-friendly) purchase!

Plastic Free kids on top of the world!

Play Time: The toy issue is a tough one. Kids want the hot toys, and it’s an individual decision about what you want to bring into your home. But when friends or family want to give a gift, even through the lens of my time machine, I’d make the same choice—welcome whatever it is and use it with happiness. You’re not going to be able to avoid all plastic with toys, so just make wise choices where you can, use hand-me-downs, buy those Little People or Legos secondhand, and have fun playing.

Back to My Present Reality: Plastic Free Teens

Out and About: My 16-year-old daughter is participating in the Plastic Free Challenge with me, and she’s gotten really into it. I asked her where her biggest challenges were so far this month, and she said she noticed her plastic use mainly when she’s out with her friends. She started bringing a reusable cup to Starbucks; her friends thought that was cool and now it’s their trendy thing to do. (In teen-speak, it’s aesthetic. Also lit.)

The last time they went to the movies, they ended up with plastic cups and bottles, so they decided next time they’ll bring a tote bag with empty reusable cups and water bottles. They’re planning to ask permission to bring them in—even if the management says no, this is a great opportunity for the theater to rethink what they’re doing, and their request brings attention to the issue for the kids around them.

My 12-year-old daughter has started asking for cones instead of cups at Ben and Jerry’s, so that’s been her big contribution to the teens eating out dilemma.

Reusable Water Bottles Are Lit, Fam: Of course for teens, the aesthetic reusable water bottle and straw cup is a must. Stainless-steel ones are available in tons of patterns from Swell and Corkcicle. Corkcicle also makes great stainless-steel cups and straws that are perfect for the after-school iced mocha runs. Both brands make a stainless-steel stemless wine glass with a lid, which is a perfect container to bring to Ben and Jerry’s for your ice cream if you’re not in the mood for a cone that day.

Some other typical teenager plastic sources we’ve identified include online shopping, makeup and body care. Make sure you check out our recent posts on Plastic Free shopping and Plastic Free bathroom routines for more info on these.

Stylish Online Shopping: My kids love shopping on Amazon, but invariably everything comes wrapped in tons of plastic. So one of the changes we’ve made is shopping online at Etsy rather than Amazon, because you can contact the seller and ask for Plastic Free shipping materials. A great find on Etsy has been the makeup and body care products from Charlottesville-based TWINK beauty. Two other online beauty and body care brands that are Plastic Free are Kjear Weis and Elate, with cool refillable makeup palettes made from stainless steel and bamboo, respectively. Both will ship without plastic packaging.

Primp and Polish: For standard body care things, there’s always the DIY route for deodorant, lotion and other body care items. You can get great safety razors, reusable makeup pads, menstrual products and hair products from The Package Free Store. My girls also love the cute cardboard packaging of the MeowMeowTweet deodorant, and the streamlined natural look of their Brush With Bamboo toothbrushes.

Mall Mavens: Of course it’s good to go brick and mortar, which brings us to the mall because, teenagers. Our best Plastic Free find there has been teen cult brand Lush for their great-smelling paper-wrapped soap, bubble bath and shampoo bars. At Sephora we found natural makeup from Josie Maran with refillable, recyclable compacts, and glass and metal containers from teen favorite RMS Beauty. Sephora also stocks the pricey but Plastic Free, sustainable and responsible skin care products from Tata Harper.

Whew, sixteen years of parenting and plastic consumption has just flashed before my eyes. I’m so thankful for all I’ve learned from taking the Plastic Free Challenge. I can see that it’s a long road to make new habits automatic and new lifestyle choices seem normal, but it gets easier every day. So we’ll just keep at it and keep doing our best, because our kids’ future depends on it. Now let’s lift those stainless-steel wine glasses and give a cheers to everybody’s great effort in the Plastic Free Challenge!

If you didn’t get a chance to do the Plastic Free Challenge, you can still follow along with #PlasticFreeDMV for tips and ideas for a Plastic Free lifestyle in the DMV. Check out 350fairfax.org for more info, and make a plan to join us when we do it again next year!

–Bobby Monacella