1. Cloth-diaper when you can
No doubt about it, it’s so much easier to drop a dirty diaper in the garbage and call it a day. But when you consider the mind-boggling environmental cost of the 27 billion disposable diapers American parents use each year, you’ll probably agree that cloth is the way to go. Disposable diapers are the third single-largest consumer item in landfills, and account for roughly 50 percent of household waste for families that use them. They eat up natural resources, too. Before your baby is potty trained, her disposables will use more than 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum, and 20 pounds of chlorine each year.
Going cloth means you’re adding less waste to our landfills and saving more natural resources. While it’s true that you do use water and electricity to wash cloth diapers, the former is a renewable resource, and we’re not in danger of running out of the latter anytime soon. But the landfills where disposable diapers sit and don’t break down are a finite resource, because there’s only so many places we can deposit waste, says Catherine Bolden, former chair of the Real Diaper Association, a nonprofit advocating cloth diaper use. You’re also putting fewer chemicals into the environment: Most conventional disposable diapers contain chemical byproducts of the chlorine bleaching process called dioxins, known carcinogens that can disrupt the development and function of babies’ endocrine glands and alter normal hormone levels. Once the diapers are tossed in a landfill, those dioxins can leach out into surface and groundwater, potentially polluting marine life and drinking water, Bolden says.
Happily, you don’t have to cloth-diaper 100 percent of the time to make a difference. Use disposables when you and your child are out for the day or when she’s at daycare, and try experimenting with cloth versions in the evening or on the weekends while you’re hanging out at home. “Every cloth diaper you reuse is one less disposable that ends up in the landfill,” Bolden says.
2. Hit the farmers’ market
“Shopping at farmers’ markets and cooking together as a family is not only empowering, it’s fun and delicious, too,” says Terry Walters, author of Clean Food. Locally produced foods tend to use fewer pesticides and packaging, and require less energy to transport to market. Sure, shopping at the farmers’ market all the time might not be realistic, not least because sometimes a preschooler just needs some cheddar bunny snacks. And that’s okay. Even if you don’t live near a farmers’ market, there are other ways to support local agriculture: Shop at grocery stores that sell some produce from local farms (even many conventional supermarkets are starting to do this in the summer months), or eat at restaurants that source locally-produced ingredients. “Every time you choose local, you take another step closer to a sustainable food system, and to the health of people and the planet,” Walters says. And who wouldn’t want that?
3. Shop secondhand
From cribs to coats to soccer cleats, kids need a lot of stuff. If you’re like the average U.S. family, you’ll spend nearly $16,000 on child-related expenses before your baby’s first birthday, plenty of it on gear and clothing. Things don’t change when kids get older, either. Parents report spending nearly $700 per child on items like clothes, shoes, and backpacks at the start of a new school year alone, finds the National Retail Foundation.
And while you can’t control the fact that your child keeps growing and that she needs a tutu one month and a field hockey stick the next, there’s no reason to constantly shell out for stuff that’s brand new. Though safety dictates that certain items—like cribs and bike helmets—are best bought new, relying on secondhand clothing, books, toys, and some sports equipment keeps tons of items out of our rapidly-filling trash dumps (make sure toys or sports equipment are still in working condition, and check cpsc.gov for any product recalls). You can score big at thrift stores or garage sales, as well as on resale sites like thredup.com. You can also host a neighborhood swap; parents can trade baby and kid clothes and gear they no longer need for stuff they can use. Just be sure to tell attendees to bring clean items only, and arrange for a thrift shop to pick up the stuff that no one wants once the swap is over, says Wendy Tremayne, founder of Swap-O-Rama-Rama, a community clothing swap event.
4. Choose organic for non-food items, too
Can you imagine a future without bees buzzing in the summertime, or a childhood that’s completely devoid of the chance to spot a cute little frog while playing by the pond? It’s a real possibility, thanks to chemical pesticides that are used to grow conventional crops all over the world. “Pesticide use can negatively impact sensitive species like bees, birds, bats, and fish, which can affect biodiversity by reducing the healthy mix in the ecosystem of our flora and fauna,” says Kristin Schafer, policy and communications director for the Pesticide Action Network, which works to replace hazardous pesticides with more ecologically sound alternatives.
And when it comes to ecosystems, fewer animals and insects isn’tthe only concern. “Plants can develop resistance to herbicides, then take over and become invasive superweeds,” Schafer says. And to fight those, you need to use even stronger pesticides—and more of them. In other words, relying on chemicals to grow our crops now will only force us to end up using even more chemicals in the future.
Choosing more organic produce, meats, dairy, and other edibles is one of the best ways to avoid pesticides and show your support for growers that don’t use them. But conventionally-grown crops are used to make plenty of non-food items, too, like the cotton for your child’s bedsheets or T-shirts, or the plant oils for her lotion and body wash. That means it’s important to buy organic not just with edibles, but with everything you can. “There are so many chemicals that we’re putting intentionally into the environment, and they’re already out there in levels that we know can harm. The sooner we can reduce [pesticide use], the more quickly those ecosystems can rebound,” says Schafer.
5. Start a carpool
Fact: The U.S. makes up 5 percent of the world’s population but has 30 percent of the world’s cars, which are responsible for more than half of global automotive C02 emissions. What’s more, as we shuffle our kids to school, soccer, ballet, and trumpet lessons, there’s no denying that parent-chauffeurs are part of the gas-spewing problem. But that also means we can be part of the solution. And while getting a gaggle of kids from point A to point B on a bike or a crowded city bus sounds mildly nightmarish, carpooling is one eco-friendlier mode of transportation that’s perfectly suited to busy families. For the uninitiated, here are three quick tips to make your rides that much smoother:
- Make a firm plan Once you’ve formed your carpooling group and mapped out a schedule (Google Calendar makes it a cinch), lay the ground rules with a carpool agreement. (Find a sample agreement at drivelesssavemore.com.) That way, there’s a protocol in place for dealing with things like fuel costs, lateness, or if a parent has to drop a driving shift.
- Keep it simple Encourage parents to provide just one contact number each. “Multiple numbers will only confuse the driver, and not being able to reach the caregiver is anxiety-provoking and time-wasting,” says Topher McGibbon, founder of child transport service Kid Car NY.
- Organize seating Load your car in the order of drop-off so that you don’t have kids getting in and out of the car or climbing over each other at each stop, recommends Barbara Reich, author of Secrets of an Organized Mom.
6. Use green cleaners
Sopping up juice spills and mopping down mud tracks are par for the course while you’re raising a family. But when it comes to leaving the planet clean and pristine, the chemical ingredients found in conventional cleaners only make for a bigger mess. Take triclosan, an antibacterial agent used in many antibacterial cleaners—most of which eventually end up going down the drain and into the water supply, since water treatment plants aren’t required to remove it. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, it’s one of the most common chemical compounds found in U.S. streams. And triclosan poses a big problem for aquatic life, because it’s toxic to algae and can turn into dioxin (yup, the same carcinogen that shows up in disposable diapers) upon reacting with the sun’s UV rays. But guess what? The FDA says triclosan isn’t actually any more effective at fighting germs than plain old soap and water—so there’s really no reason to use products that contain the stuff.
Instead, spring for plant-based cleaners. “They’re made of ingredients found in nature, and are biodegradable,” says Linda Mason Hunter, author of Green Clean. And you don’t even have to go out and buy a whole raft of products. “If you have baking soda, distilled white vinegar, lemons, castile soap, and salt, you really can clean most of your house,” Hunter says. Though store-bought green cleaners get the job done, too—just beware of greenwashing. “Terms like ‘nontoxic’ and ‘natural’ have no legal meaning, so anyone can put them on a product label,” says Hunter. Look for cleaners that are certified by the nonprofit organization Green Seal, which have been tested to meet rigorous environmental standards.
7. Go outside and play
You know that when kids get their entertainment from the great outdoors, they rely less on electronic toys and use fewer carbon-emitting technologies—like the electricity used to power the TV or video game console. That’s a great thing, but it’s a minuscule benefit compared to the powerful effects natural play can have on your child’s capacity for environmental stewardship. According to a 2011 Nature Conservancy report, kids who have meaningful experiences in nature are more likely to care about environmental issues. “The natural world lends itself to imaginative play. Children can do and discover things with a degree of sensory richness and possibility that nothing man-made rivals. Exploring that world gives children a sense of autonomous discovery and competence that’s fundamental to psychological development,” says Louise Chawla, Ph.D., professor of the Environmental Design Program at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Unsurprisingly, kids who live in rural areas have more contact with nature—and more knowledge about it—than their urban counterparts. But whether you live on a country road or in a high-rise building, if your child is like most, she might be more interested in video games or the computer than climbing trees. If the old “Go out and play!” doesn’t work, know that your kid will be more likely to want to spend time in nature if she sees you doing it, too, says Chawla. (Try exercising outside instead of at the gym, or enlist your child’s help when you’re working in the garden.) Getting other families on board with outdoor play also helps. “If you send your child out to play and there’s no one else out there, that’s not very enticing,” Chawla says. So partner with other neighborhood families and encourage everyone’s kids to spend more time exploring outside, like with a scavenger hunt. Your kid won’t just be more excited to run out the door and have fun with her friends—you’ll be planting the seeds for a whole new green-minded generation.