Mama wonders how environmentally friendly it’s possible to be with kids
Words Helen Bowman
For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how to reduce my family’s environmental footprint. Earlier this year, we almost moved to the country in search of a slower, more mindful pace of life – one that might encourage a closer connection with nature as well as the opportunity to consume less. For various reasons, the move didn’t happen, but a feeling that our family life was unnecessarily wasteful continued to grate. I’d always thought of myself as environmentally aware, but now I had two young daughters to think about: the future of the planet just got personal.
I know many parents feel the same. It’s difficult, when presented with the boxes of disposable nappies and wipes, the plastic tubs of creams and lotions, the dozens of travel pouches of baby food, the rapidly outgrown clothing and the small mountains of unloved toys, to feel that you’re not privileging transient experience and momentary convenience over the long-term health of the living world.
The truth is, people aren’t great for the planet. But that doesn’t mean we can (or would want to) blithely rationalise our impact away as a tragic inevitability. While mo’ people generally equals mo’ problems, we still need a functioning planet for our children to call home. A planet that can sustain life while inspiring wonder. So how to minimise our environmental impact in the here and now?
The first step, as I found out to my increased consternation, is to transform that vague, gnawing worry about ‘the environment’ into a more solid sense of precisely how negative your personal impact is. For example: I thought that most plastic was recyclable. My local council always instructed us (or so I thought) to use our recycling bin for ‘metal, plastic, glass and paper’ – and in my ignorance I didn’t think to unpick those generalisations all that much.
It turns out that of the 3.4 million tonnes of plastic discarded in the UK each year, only 1.5 million tonnes are recyclable. And of that number, only 500,000 tonnes are actually recycled. This means, for example, that most of our food containers – pouches, plastic films, bottle tops and ‘mixed plastics’ – go directly into landfill. And guess what? The recycling symbol – those circling arrows we all recognise, and in which I had always placed a stupidly blind faith – doesn’t mean ‘recyclable’ at all; it simply denotes that a manufacturer has made ‘a financial contribution’ towards the collection and recycling of packaging, usually in lieu of using recyclable materials for their own products.
One reason for this waste is that many of the recyclable plastics we use in our daily lives – baby food pouches being a particularly relevant example – are not recycled by most local councils. Happily for my family, Ella’s Kitchen pouches can be recycled by specialist company Terracycle (terracycle.co.uk), which focuses on the recycling of hard-to-process waste; there’s a collection point close enough to my home that we’re able to store up our used pouches and do drop-offs every couple of months. But what about everything else?
The best solution, of course, is to reduce the amount of harmful waste you produce from the outset. It’s a minefield out there, not to mention inconvenient – moreso because plenty of the big brands seem happy to mislead or obfuscate rather than doing their bit.
And of course, it’s even harder with little ones to look after – little ones who would rather you be continuously wiping their nose than Googling ways to go plastic-free. But what follows are some relatively simple ways I’ve found to do a little good. Because after all, it’s not our world we’re trying to save: it’s the world we’ll leave to our children.
Be wise to the effects of plastics
Everyone’s talking about this right now, in no small part due to the devastating effects plastic pollution is having on our oceans, as highlighted in the BBC series Blue Planet II. The truth is, there’s a fair bit you need to know if you’re to understand how plastic recycling works in the UK. Start with a quick glance at the various plastic recycling codes, which seem designed to obscure as much as they explain. A good resource to the meaning of these codes, the main types of plastic they denote, their various toxicities and environmental impacts can be found at lifewithoutplastic.com.
Use eco-friendly beauty and cleaning products
The beauty and sanitary industries are some of our worst environmental offenders; as a result, many of us look into chemical-free alternatives while pregnant. There are good aluminium-free deodorants on the market these days, as well as natural detergents and cleaning products that eschew harmful manmade chemicals. The Ecover (ecover.com) range is famously gentle, and means you don’t have to fret when baby crawls all over your freshly mopped floor.
Rethink your brand loyalties
Did you know that the UK’s leading nappy brand scores the lowest marks on almost every ethical standard, from animal testing and workers’ rights to environmental impact? It’s like buying nappies from Darth Vader. The good news is, there are better alternatives.
A growing number of parents in the UK are switching to reusable cloth nappies, but if that’s too extreme a step, try the biodegradable nappies made by Swedish company Naty (naty.com). They’re made from organic cotton and plant fibres which break down naturally when disposed of – important when you think that the average child can go through 6,500 nappies in two and a half years. That’s over 10 tonnes of waste you could save from permanently sitting in landfill. Just make sure you dispose of them in a biodegradable nappy sack.
The same logic applies to wet wipes, which have seen a huge rise in use over the last 5-10 years – as evidenced by the sheer number of them found clogging up our sewers and (worst of all) our beaches. Most wet wipes contain plastics and polyester and don’t break down. But switching brand can help: Jackson Reece (jacksonreece.com) makes widely available biodegradable wet wipes from cellulose, a plant fibre. They disappear completely within eight days in a sewage treatment plant or six weeks in a compost heap, and are great for kids with eczema or sensitive skin. The fact that they’re made in Britain also means they leave a smaller carbon footprint getting from the factory floor to your doorstep.
Refuse and recycle excess packaging
When it comes to food packaging, it really can seem impossible to avoid harmful plastics. But as already mentioned, your impact can be improved by finding out if companies like Terracycle operate collection points in your area and taking tricksy packaging to them. Besides which, it’s always worth sending an email to the Customer Service department of your supermarket of choice, to politely remind them that their customers are concerned about the volume of non-recyclable materials used in their packaging. They may not take action as quickly as you’d like, but they will be listening.
Buy less, buy better
You can also help to save the environment (and some cash) by buying fewer toys and clothes for your little ones – and making sure the ones you do buy are chosen with at least one eye on their ecological impact. Wooden toys generally look better than plastic ones anyway – check out Sarah and Bendrix (sarahandbendrix.com) and Garbo and Friends (garboandfriends.com) for inspiration. Environmentally, it really can pay to shop small, with many independent brands placing a firm emphasis on sustainability. Support eco-conscious brands and you’ll be supporting the planet. Everyone’s a winner.