How To Live Mostly Plastic-free With Small Children
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 universally with a 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 convinced that I was carrying the as-yet-undiscovered secret to perfect parenting.
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.
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First of All, Why Avoid 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 petroleum, 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 are swirling alongside billions of other plastics in the many garbage patches in our oceans. Maybe they’ve broken down into microplastics and are in that bottled water you’re drinking right now. 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 one by one.
How Do I Avoid Plastic?
Plastic is cheap, easily manufactured, 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.
It sounds simplistic, but first decide that, wherever possible, you will just not buy things made of plastic. Just don’t. You can find toys made with eco-friendlier materials like wood and cloth, find safer pacifiers made of natural rubber, and simply do without other things like baby baths. Or you can buy them 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 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 prefer gifts made of sustainable materials, you can stem the tide of plastic at its source. Creating a registry filled with plastic-free alternatives can help guide gift-givers.
How Does Plastic-Free With Kids Really Work?
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. To date, my 2 1/2-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 losing one, consider getting a few inexpensive plates, bowls, and cups from a secondhand store for your child to use.
My daughter’s toys are made of fabric or wood — wooden puzzles and games, sorting toys, and stacking blocks, and fabric dolls and stuffed animals. This past Christmas, we created a playhouse out of 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 tubs.
What About the One-Offs?
No one is perfect. Don’t expect this of others, or yourself. “Plastic-free” is an ongoing goal. It 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 bath toys or just end up with the rest of the toys. 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. Originally published on March 12, 2015, this article was updated in September 2022.