Babies and the Environment

From play time to potty time, babies have an impact on the environment, but new parents can make decisions that will benefit both their offspring and the planet

  • Gabrielle Redford
  • Apr 01, 2006
WHEN MY HUSBAND and I were expecting twins, his colleagues at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drew up a mock environmental impact study showing the year-by-year degradation of the area around our home that would result from raising our offspring. It was a joke, to be sure, but it made us realize just how environmentally unfriendly it was going to be to bring these two little people into the world. Three years and 16,000 diapers later (thank goodness, they’re potty-trained now), we’ve discovered a whole host of ways that new parents can tread more lightly upon the Earth. I can’t say that we always followed these recommendations, but we have tried to make good choices—for our children as well as for the environment.

“The thing that most challenges new parents is they’re made to believe that because this is the greatest time in their lives, they should consume, consume, consume,” says Mindy Pennybacker, editor of The Green Guide, an online resource for consumers, and coauthor of Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet Guide to Natural Baby Care. “But you can channel all of this good feeling into environmentally sound decisions.”

The great diaper debate: The first and perhaps most vexing environmental decision facing new parents is whether to use cloth or disposable diapers. Cloth diaper devotees have long insisted that cloth is better because it’s reusable and so doesn’t take up space in the landfill. The disposable diaper crowd counters that using disposables—since they’re not laundered—saves water and energy. The truth is, it’s pretty much a wash. Several recent studies have concluded that cloth and disposables are equally “unfriendly” in terms of impact on the environment. The one thing that environmentally conscious parents can do is encourage their toddlers to potty-train sooner rather than later. Of course, if you’re already a parent, you know that ultimately this decision isn’t entirely up to you. Having been through it twice, though, I can tell you that bribery works wonders.

Organically inclined: In the first year of life, babies do little more than eat, sleep and poop. And while it may not matter how you dispose of what comes out of your child—at least from an environmental perspective—it does matter what goes in. According to the EPA, traditional agriculture is responsible for 70 percent of the pollution to the country’s rivers and streams. Organic farming not only places less of a burden on the land but also increases biodiversity at every level of the food chain, according to researchers reporting in a 2004 issue of New Scientist. And according to a 1993 report from the National Academy of Sciences, babies are more vulnerable to pesticides than adults because their brains and immune systems are still developing. Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to find organically grown produce and other foods.

Outfitting the nursery: It goes without saying that all parents want the best for their newborn child. Still, it’s helpful to remember that “new” isn’t always better. Cribs and dressers—especially the less-expensive ones—are often made of composite wood and particle board that contain high levels of formaldehyde, which can off-gas for years, notes Paul McRandle, senior research editor at The Green Guide. What’s more, only a very small number of companies make baby furniture using wood from sustainably managed forests as certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). So what’s an environmentally conscious parent to do? Try asking around to see if your friends still have the cribs their children used, look for used baby furniture in the newspaper or check online for FSC-certified cribs.

Suiting up baby: When Lynda Fassa was expecting her first child 12 years ago, she started thinking about what that meant, not only for herself and her family but for the Earth. “I wanted what most people want,” she says. “I wanted a better world for my daughter.” Soon after, Fassa read an article about organic cotton farmers who were trying to farm the land in a more sustainable way. The article—and Fassa’s newfound global sensitivities—inspired her to launch Green Babies, a line of organic baby clothing available online and through certain retailers. Traditional cotton farming uses 25 percent of the world’s pesticides, Fassa says. Organic clothing offers an alternative, as does following the classic mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Before my twins were born, my sister-in-law dropped off more than 10 bags of clothing, neatly labeled 0-3 months, 3-6 months, 6-9 months and so on. For the next two years, I regularly dipped into those bags when looking for outfits for my twins. Then, when we had outgrown them, I passed the bags along to friends. For all I know, those outfits are still on the mom rounds, getting lots of wear.

Toys, toys and more toys: If someone had told my husband and me that we wouldn’t be able to walk from one end of our home to another without stumbling on at least ten plastic toys, I wouldn’t have believed it. But it’s true. I am, simply stated, a mom who is too easily sucked in by the newest educational toy, and many of those toys are made of plastic. That said, there is plastic and then there is plastic. In the last few years, the European Union banned the sale of toys containing polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic after studies found that these toys leached phthalates, plasticizers that disrupt the natural life cycle of some animals. How can you know whether a toy contains phthalates? Soft plastic toys almost always contain phthalates, while harder plastics usually do not. “I recommend that parents avoid soft plastic toys, especially ones that are made out of the country,” says Dr. Harvey Karp, founder of the Children’s Environmental Health Coalition. One alternative is FSC-certified wooden toys. My kids still love to play with their wooden blocks. And though my husband and I stumble on those, too, at least we don’t worry as much about their impact on the environment.

Gabrielle Redford is a senior editor at AARP magazine.

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