Parenting in a Toxic World Filled with Plastic and Waste

Reusable, metal lunch boxes

I’m a Zero Waste advocate, a lawyer, and a passionate believer that we should hold polluting corporations accountable. I’m also a spouse, and a parent to two amazing, spirited young kids, ages 2 and 4. Almost every day I feel the guilt-ridden tension between working to build the just and sustainable Zero Waste world we all need, and just trying to get by with two young kids in the toxic, climate-damaging, waste-filled world we’re stuck with right now. I do my best to make choices that will hopefully create a better world for my kids, but I know that individual choices mean nothing without the systemic changes we all need.

If the last 4-plus years of parenthood have taught me anything, it’s this: Parent guilt is real. Especially when struggling to make good choices for your kids and for the planet. And almost every year, a new study, report, or article comes out that says having kids is, more or less, the worst possible thing you can do for our climate and our environment. Yes, parent shaming is just as real as parent guilt.

Of course, most viewpoints that blame parents for our environmental crises are questionable, if not downright incorrect. And in any event, shaming people for exercising their bodily autonomy and having children, choosing to not have children, or making any other reproductive choice is, to put it gently, a hugely problematic way to spend your time. None of that changes the fact that parents are often stuck between a rock and hard place when trying to make decisions that impact their kids, the health and safety of their communities, and our climate.

This is especially true when it comes to plastic waste. It feels downright impossible to clothe, feed, teach, comfort, and entertain my kids without feeling wrapped, tangled, and buried in a pile of toxic plastic and unnecessary single-use junk.

But the plastics in our lives aren’t just a waste and climate problem. They also poison us at every stage of their deadly lifecycle. And because young children are particularly vulnerable, toxics in plastics pose an acute risk to our kids. Our children are exposed to toxic chemicals from plastics in their toys, in their baby bottles, in their diapers, in their food, on the playground, and simply by breathing the air in our homes. Researchers have found microplastics in both baby formula and breastmilk, and even in placentas.

Add all that up, and young children may be ingesting up to 15 times as much microplastic as adults. The plastic crisis is overwhelming. And that sense of dread is magnified exponentially when I think of my children – or anyone else’s children – being exposed to all this poison.

Then, of course, there’s the packaging. So much plastic packaging. Does your kid need new sheets? They come wrapped in plastic. Books? Wrapped in plastic. Clothes? Plastic. Snacks? You guessed it, plastic.  And despite what big corporations may want us to believe, almost none of this packaging is recyclable.

As if all that weren’t enough, plastic is far from the only waste-related conundrum faced by parents. So much of today’s consumption-crazed culture is aimed at kids and overworked, over-stressed, burnt-out parents. And that results in trash. Way too much of it. Not just plastic and packaging, but food, clothes, and yes, lots and lots of dirty diapers.

Food waste, of course, is a problem for everyone, not just parents. But add a few picky, temperamental eaters into the mix and all the sudden it takes on a whole new dimension. Textiles, too, are a significant part of our overall waste stream, whether or not you have kids. But small, growing bodies create a particularly rapid cycle of finding, replacing, and discarding clothes.

Last but certainly not least: Diapers. The bane of so many parents’ existence, in so many ways. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, disposable diapers make up 1.4% of all the waste we throw away each year. That may not sound like much, but it’s a shockingly high percentage. That works out to 4.1 million tons of waste burned and buried in the U.S. each year – just from diapers!

There’s an important connection among food waste, textiles, and dirty diapers beyond just the parenting struggle. Food scraps, textiles like cotton and wool, and the paper and feces in dirty diapers are all organic materials. When these types of waste are buried in landfills or burned in incinerators, they release climate-damaging gasses like methane and carbon dioxide. So all those half-eaten sandwiches, ripped pants, and dirty diapers leave a climate-damaging legacy long after we throw them “away.”

Like I said, parenting in a world filled with plastic and waste is hard – and the guilt is real. Many of the products and systems we have no choice but to rely on not only poison our kids, but also contribute to a toxic, scorched future.

Whether out of guilt, hope, love, or just a desire to do our small part, many of us parents try to change the status quo where we can. My spouse and I do our best to limit the plastic in our lives and especially our kids’ lives. We used non-toxic glass baby bottles when the kids were younger. We look for non-plastic toys as much as possible. We try to avoid unnecessary packaging and plastic food containers. And we shop at low waste stores when we can. We’re lucky to have access to curbside composting and a network of family, friends, and even strangers with whom we can share used clothes, books, toys, and more. And, like a growing number of parents across the world, we’ve been able to rely on reusable cloth diapers.

Sometimes these options are cheaper, but they can often be more expensive. My family is unquestionably privileged to be able to make many of these choices. Safer toys can cost more. Getting to a reuse store requires a car. Reusable diapers take time and a washing machine. These choices work for my family, but they don’t work for everyone. And in any event, individual choices may help with parent guilt, but they’re not real solutions.

The only real solutions are systemic changes, grounded in just and equitable policies, that build a new status quo for everyone. Individual attempts to avoid single-use plastic, for example, will only go so far when the fossil fuel industry is spending billions to keep us hooked on plastic. We need laws and programs in place that put an end to the toxics in our lives. That make safe, reusable packaging, clothing, and yes, diapers, accessible and affordable regardless of privilege or wealth. That replace toxic, climate-damaging landfills and incinerators with waste-reduction and composting.

The good news? Just Zero is working on many of those solutions right now. But we need our lawmakers and regulators to roll up their sleeves, do the hard work, and stand up to deep-pocketed corporate lobbyists. And of course, our team is here to help; it’s what we do. Whether you’re a new parent, a parent to a teenager or adult, a grandparent, or someone that has zero interest in being a parent, please join us in building this new world.

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