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In America’s “linear economy” where products are designed to be used once before they are thrown away, it is almost impossible to achieve “zero waste” without devoting your life to it. It’s an especially tricky suggestion for busy parents who don’t have time to make custom-made yogurt for picky kids who just protest that it’s “weird.”
So let’s manage expectations by first calling these tips “low-waste”, or better yet, “lower waste”. We’re not all going to successfully change our consumption habits overnight and produce a tiny trash can for the week (especially if you live with little gremlins who need goldfish crackers on demand).
But while it may seem far-fetched at first, there are some relatively painless ways you can reduce waste while raising the little ones.
Save the glitter for school
One of our personal favorites, the suggestion to get “fun” art projects out of your home, is a breath of fresh air. (I didn’t do this personally, but other explanations about this technique made vicariously easier.) Consider a guideline that leaves art projects with glitter, scented stickers, pipe cleaners, felt balls, and confetti for school or friends’ homes. You can still let your child run around with scissors, paper (more on this below), and natural objects like leaves and pine cones. Just imagine lackluster floors and extra closet space.
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This seems obvious, but: Don’t throw away any paper that has only been used on one side. Whenever the kids come home with piles of completed schoolwork, keep whatever you need and keep the rest in a paper drawer for year-round use. (The same goes for those annoying one-sided printouts from your office.)
Buying experiences, not things
Does your child really need another Twisty Pet or a 327-piece Lego set? Instead of the usual influx of toys on special occasions, consider purchasing membership in a local museum, aquarium, or amusement park. With age, experiences can shift to concerts and sports. (Note: It is helpful to forward a request to family members and friends to do the same.)
Use reusable plastic bags and containers
Using small plastic containers for your kids’ daily sandwiches and snacks (instead of a fresh ziploc) can go a long way in reducing your plastic bag waste. After lugging around apple slices, pretzels or cheez-its, all they need is a quick rinse at the end of the day.
Make your own cards and wrapping paper
Instead of spending $ 5 on kids’ birthday cards, which have a lifespan of around ten seconds, help your wallet and our landfill by letting your child make homemade cards. There is nothing sweeter or more appropriate for a five year old’s celebration anyway than a child’s crooked drawing of a birthday cake with infinity candles. (And a roll of brown butcher paper is the perfect backdrop for creative and functional gift wrapping paper for children.)
Buy used (or not buy at all)
In the case of toys, clothes, shoes and books (which children can grow out of within a few months), it does not make sense to buy new things from a waste-free or financial point of view. Browse your local thrift stores, flea markets, Goodwill, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace, or create a toy and clothes swap among friends to minimize the clutter and cost of all those Paw Patrol PJs and Magna-Tiles.
Use the collection canister scooper
This doesn’t mean breaking the aisle of pirate loot at Costco (although we don’t judge if you do). It means that you are using the bulk of the grocery store for all of your grains, nuts, legumes, flours, and snacks like sesame sticks and chocolate energy balls. (If you continue down the zero-waste path, you will find stores that sell everything from laundry detergent to honey in bulk.) Bonus? Kids love to use the Scooper in the bulk containers of grocery stores.
Bring your own bags to the supermarket
One of the easiest things you can do to reduce your environmental footprint is to cut down on the use of single-use plastic bags (which Americans use over 100 billion each year). Instead of packing two items in one oversized target bag, keep your own supply of plastic, paper, and cotton canvas bags handy to use with every purchase. (Extra points if you actually think of getting them out of your car before you go to the store.)
Make your own detergents
If you’re like me and the smell of strong bleach-based products irritates your nose and throat, now you have two reasons to make your own cleansers. Not only will you breathe better, but you’ll also reduce the amount of packaging in your home. Start small by ditching the store-bought counter spray and making your own using vinegar, water, and a few drops of lemon-scented essential oil. Click here for more information on natural detergents.
Without broader support from businesses and governments, it is difficult for individual consumers to truly be “zero waste”. But we can all make small changes to reduce our environmental footprint.