10 tips for raising a Zero Waste baby

Reusable cloth diapers
© Michael Graham Richard

Here are some practical ideas for how to ditch the disposables.

Welcoming a new baby into your family does not have to mean that you’ll be hauling extra bags of trash out to the curb each week. In fact, a newborn can be incorporated fairly easily into a Zero Waste lifestyle, or at least one that tries to minimize household waste.

Many websites offering advice on how to raise a ‘green baby’ urge new parents to purchase clothes and diapers made of natural fibers, exclusively organic formula and food, non-toxic skincare products, non-plastic toys, etc. All of these are valuable suggestions, but they can be extremely expensive, while doing nothing to address the serious issue of how much waste North American families create. A truly green baby, by contrast, is the one whose lifestyle is least consumerist and most minimalist, whose parents don’t go out and stock up on a mountain of unnecessary new items in order to get it through the first year of life.

Having had two children, with a third due to arrive any day, all of the following suggestions are things I’ve thought much about and implemented in my own life. The result has been minimal financial outlay (contrary to what most people will tell you about how expensive babies are) and relatively little household waste, in keeping with my quest for a Zero Waste lifestyle.

1. Use cloth diapers

Cloth diapers are a no-brainer when it comes to wanting to reduce waste. Look for second-hand diapers, which are very cheap and easily found online or at local parent-swap sales. Insert washable, reusable liners to increase absorbency and reduce mess. There are biodegradable, flushable liners but they can clog toilets and septic systems. I’ve always washed my kids’ diapers in a single wash cycle of hot water and natural detergent with a cold rinse and hung them out to dry in the sun to get bleached.

Alternatively, you could teach elimination communication from an early age and avoid many years’ worth of diapers altogether.

2. Use washcloths instead of wipes

Disposable baby wipes are not necessary. Yes, they’re convenient, but they generate a whole lot of bothersome chemical-laden waste. All you need are baby washcloths to clean baby’s bottom. Use warm water and soap, or mix up a natural solution of organic soap with essential oils and store damp ready-to-use cloths in a wipe warmer. Toss into the diaper bin when you’re finished. I always take a washcloth in the diaper bag to wipe sticky hands and faces; it goes into the laundry when I get home.

3. Look for zero-waste skin care products

There are wonderful natural skincare products available for babies, but most come in plastic packaging. The good news is, you don’t really need anything special to keep your baby clean. In fact, using fewer products is probably healthier for your baby’s skin anyways. Stick with a mild bar soap, such as olive oil or chamomile, which can be purchased package-free at your local health food store. Moisturize and treat diaper rash with coconut oil or olive oil, which can be bought in glass jars or with reusable containers at certain bulk food stores.

4. Buy used clothes

There are so many used baby clothes available that it makes very little sense to buy new. Most are in nearly perfect condition and they’re usually cheap, i.e. $1-$2 per piece at my local thrift store. Then you don’t have to worry about off gassing from new clothes or needing to pay a premium for organic bamboo sleepers in order to avoid those same fumes. Also, you likely won’t need nearly as many clothes as you think, and most of those super-cute newborn clothes won't fit anyways if you're using cloth diapers, which are much bulkier than disposables.

5. Get a stash of cotton flannel cloths

In our house we call them ‘burp cloths’ and they get used for everything – swaddling newborns, toweling off, wiping up spit, and protecting parents’ clothes. Have a rag bag accessible for cleaning up messes (there will be many!) and throw them in the laundry when you’re done. You’ll never need paper towels.

6. Breastfeed if you can

Breastfeeding is the greenest way to feed your baby because it generates no waste. By breastfeeding you can avoid a lot of wasteful packaging that comes with buying formula, bottles, bags, nipples, and sterilization gear. You can also save lots of money, anywhere from $1,200 to $3,500 in that first year.

7. Make your own baby food

Instead of spending several dollars per jar of organic puréed fruits and vegetables, you’re better off making your own. Make large batches, store in reusable containers, or freeze in an ice cube tray before transferring to a container. As my sons got older, I used a great little hand grinder to mash up whatever the rest of the family was eating right at the table and that worked very well. Try to stay away from those non-recyclable on-the-go food pouches.

8. Choose toys carefully

There are many plastic toys on the market that break almost instantly, and then they have nowhere to go but the trash. Babies and young children really don’t need that many toys, so prioritize quality over quantity if possible. There are great wooden teething toys out there that are much safer for baby to gnaw on than cheap, imported plastic.

9. Talk to family and friends

People love to give baby gifts. While their generosity is a wonderful thing, it can result in an overwhelming number of clothes, toys, and gadgets that you really don't need. Hint at wanting more practical gifts, such as freezer meals, gift certificates, financial contributions toward a single larger item, or free babysitting.

10. You don’t need that many gadgets or fancy parenting aids

Don’t worry! Most of those expensive, plastic-clad gadgets that promise to improve and ease your parenting journey are not necessary. From iPad-charging strollers to built-in onesie monitors to fancy swings to germ-eating humidifiers, you probably won’t ever miss them if you don’t buy them.

Tags: Babies | Kids | Zero Waste

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