Raising zero waste children

Raising zero waste children

To prepare for our role as parents, we decided to attend the hospital's parenting class. Before the lesson began our facilitator asked if anyone had experience looking after small children, infants or babies. Neither of us could raise our hands.

My experience with babies prior to the birth of my son was limited. Time spent with the offspring of family and friends mainly consisted of cuddles, usually under supervision of mum and dad. I knew next to nothing about what a baby needs. To say I felt unprepared going into parenthood would be a gross understatement. Turns out parenting didn't solely consist of changing nappies, washing clothes and cuddles...there was this whole development thing, making choices that will shape his whole life. And it starts from the beginning.

Within minutes of leaving the parenting class, we begun asking each other questions on how are we going to respond to certain scenarios when they arise. One particular area we circled back to a few times was our lifestyle; how would we deal with this as parents? How can we get prepared? Will living zero waste turn him into a barry no friends at school? What will other parents think of us?

I decided to dedicate a blog post on the subject of raising waste wise children. I need a year of being a parent before I'll feel close to confident writing on the subject myself. So I invited three mothers living zero waste, Lauren, Tammy and Meredith, to share how they do it and pass on advice. Grab a biscuit and a cup of tea, it's a good long post packed with sageness.

Lauren - Hobart, Australia. Mum to three; primary school and high school age.
Blogs at Owlet.com, runs online store Spiral Garden, co-founder Zero Waste Tasmania

Our children have been totally on board from the very start of our move towards zero waste living. We’ve always been honest with them about the state of our environment, and human impact on it, but we balance this with a good dose of nature appreciation. We feel that encouraging a love of the natural environment can result in a passion for protecting it, and so far this has worked well. They’ve gone on to become advocates in their own right, approaching businesses and community groups to ask them to reduce their waste output, and engaging their peers and family members in discussions around waste and environmental concepts. They’re informed and, for them, zero waste living has become normalised.

A post shared by owletmama (@owletmama) on

A key for us in finding a good balance for our family is discussing issues in partnership and giving our children the space to voice their opinions, and make their own decisions. We take them shopping with us and involve them in the process. We encourage them to explore and find out more about things are produced and transported, to ask questions and learn more before making a decision. This means our children are responsible for the choices they make, rather than feeling like we won’t allow them to do or have something they want. We also encourage them to find other ways to make, replace or acquire the things they want. They’re amazing second hand shoppers! And they make their own toys, or we find compostable versions of the things they really want. We’ve learnt alongside them much of the time, and engaged them in processes around the home, like composting, animal care, cooking and preserving. Our children have found our solutions-based approach to living without waste to be encouraging. Often children (and adults, too), can feel the problems of the world are just too overwhelming, but by encouraging our children to become change-makers in their own right, they’ve found strength and positivity and an enthusiasm for zero waste living.

Tammy - Gippsland, Australia. Mother to two, both in primary school.
Writer, speaker and sustainability consultant at Gippslandunwrapped.com

What I’ve learnt along the way, about parenting, is that children will do what you do, not do what you say to do. Any parenting expert will tell you that and I see it happen in my family, sometimes in positive ways and sometimes in ways I don’t want to admit too (anyone else notice their children acting like mini-mes?). Research also shows that leading by example is an important part of creating change because it establishes new social norms, that is, it helps make desired practices commonplace. So, to raise mindful and intentional consumers, I concentrate on being a mindful and intentional consumer myself. Obviously, I also guide my children by discussing my values with them as opportunities arise and this is how long term values are developed in children.

It’s long term, sustainable results that I am after, so I don’t get caught up in achieving some idea of perfection for every situation we encounter. Perfection isn’t sustainable and such expectations create a lot of anxiety and often a sense of failure. Anxiety is crippling many children today so another value that I try to model and instil in my children is that we can strive for awesomeness but still be imperfect. The focus becomes more about the journey rather than the destination and we celebrate achievements. Besides this, kids go through different stages as they develop into adults and that involves testing boundaries, taking risks, understanding the consequences of their own decisions, finding their own path and working out what is meaningful to them. I give my children some space to do this. It will make them more independent, resilient, confident and wise in the long term.

When it comes to influencing others, who can influence my children, I do much of the same. For example, I volunteer at kindergarten, school, and extracurricular activities so that I can have natural conversations, lead by example, and help implement changes. Again, my kids see me take action on things I believe in and sometimes have the opportunity to join in.

Adjusting my mindset to be about the bigger picture of zero waste and plastic free living, rather than the everyday detail is working for us. Prior to this it was becoming clear that I was turning my family off environmentalism. Obviously, there can be more household waste than I would prefer but there is less stress and arguments and I do see my kids developing skills and making decisions that show they are becoming more and more mindful consumers.

Meredith - Vermont, USA. Mother to two; toddler and baby. 
Writer and speaker at meredithtested.com

Hi! I’m Meredith from www.MeredithTested.com, mom of two little girls. We currently live in Vermont, USA. I’ll give away the ending right away: Being a parent presents some of my biggest zero waste challenges, but also my greatest inspiration and motivation. I considered myself eco-friendly and a mindful person before my oldest daughter was born, but she turned my earth-loving world upside-down. My motivation was locked in more intensely than it ever had before. I needed to provide a healthy, safe and non-toxic environment for her both within my home and out in the world. We used cloth diapers from the day she was born and were frankly shocked at how easy they were to use and maintain. We realized that diverting that much waste from landfills was awesome, and having a significant impact on our home environment too.

We didn’t have to take out the trash as much. We weren’t required to buy a special plastic contraption to hide the smells of dirty diapers. And we never had to take an emergency trip to the store at 11pm to buy a new box of paper disposable diapers when we ran out.

Similarly, I find that for a lot of things from diaper balm to crackers, once you have a simple recipe down pat and the basic ingredients on hand, making things from scratch can be easier than having to run out to the store or worry about finding the right brand. I can and do make a lot of things from scratch, but to avoid burn out I purchase certain items (hopefully in plastic-free packaging) if needed.

Reducing waste while caring for babies and kids is different than when you’re a single person or couple. It’s true that we all have busier seasons and days or weeks that are more stressful than others, but kids add an additional layer of the unknown. Whether its medical needs or schooling, trash-filled situations are sometimes harder to avoid and daily control can go out the window fast.

While I’ve been quite vocal on my blog and social media about how you can stick with your zero waste goals even while doing tricky things like traveling with kids, the truth is that they seem to positively attract trash. From plastic packaging on well-meaning gifts from family and friends to stickers and balloons foisted on them by strangers at the market. We appreciate the generosity and while we definitely prefer plastic-free, secondhand presents or experiential gifts (or, frankly, none at all!) we haven’t turned anything down. Except that pack of stickers from the grocery store that I was able to quickly say “no” to before my daughter noticed they were on offer.

My top 3 tips for living zero waste with kids are:

  • Bring wipes everywhere. A pile of cloth wipes and a little spray bottle with water or a mix of water with a touch of Castile soap is a must. Avoid disposable paper napkins and tissues (that don’t really work that well anyway), and packs upon packs of disposable wet wipes.
  • Live by quiet example. This advice is really a reminder for myself. I love chatting but I can sometimes go overboard sharing why I love having a plastic free and low-waste home. Family, friends, and acquaintances you meet through your kid’s school, playgroups and other activities might not be familiar or understand your lifestyle. Lead by quiet example instead of giving a mini-presentation when someone asks about your stainless steel bento box. And of course do your best to answer questions or share your experiences and reasoning if asked.
  • Go with the flow and let some things go. Having kids is taxing enough without putting extra unrealistic expectations on ourselves. I challenge myself and I try hard to stick to my zero waste goals, but at a certain point it’s okay to throw in the towel. Your mental and physical health and the health of your family comes first. Staying up until all hours of the night making DIY diaper balm or bread or … whatever when you really need sleep isn’t going to help your family in the end. If you’re a new mom who needs to give your baby formula, don’t let the packaging or any part of it make you feel guilty. Just feed your baby. If your child needs medicine but the packaging is plastic, definitely go for it anyway. If you need to buy certain foods for your family in packaging on occasion, that’s fine. In the end “going zero waste” is about an overall commitment and mindfulness, and I truly don’t believe there are “fails.” If you’re trying to make this lifestyle work in the long term, you’ll have to compromise a little. Or sometimes, a lot. Forgive yourself, re-focus and move on.

When I read each of their responses, I immediately saw the theme of leading by example. From day one, children are watching, processing what they have seen and wanting to mimic in their own way. From bringing this post together I learnt many helpful hints on raising zero waste children and I hope you have too, parent or not. What tips would you share to a new parent?


  1. Anonymous8/18/2017

    I think bringing children up "zero waste" may be much easier if you start from the very beginning. We (ok, I, hubby is less on board with the idea) started in the middle. My younger two, aged 5 and 7, have taken everything on whole-heartedly, except in the instances of lollies and toys. At that point they find it difficult, and argue the point that I still buy oats and nuts in plastic.

    My eldest, 13, has found it to be a point of rebellion. At some points in time, when she is seeking a closer connection with me, she will show more interest. But when she is seeking to identify as an individual, not under my control in any way (O.D.D.), she decides that plastic packaging doesn't matter, and fair trade isn't important. She had one of those moments looking at school shoes. In the end I put my foot down and insisted on the Etiko converse-style shoes, because ultimately, it is my money (but after finding out it may be a bullying point for her I conceded to removing the labels from the tongues if necessary). It turned out later she was happy with them anyway, she was just being a typical teenager, and feeling contrary.

    The hardest thing can be supplying school uniforms, clothes, shoes and toys that are within a family budget and still an ethical choice. School shirts - I still had to buy them from Best and Less (slave labor) because they are $3/shirt. For 5 shirts that will get absolutely filthy with no hope of removing stains, this is best for my family budget. The other local option is $35 for the logo embroidered ones at Lowes, where I have no idea of the labor practices or material sources. For next year's uniforms I will look online well in advance to see if there are any better ethical options. The Op shops in our area have very few children's clothes, but I did snag a few things from the clothing pool, and have been given some from a friend.

    School shoes I found worked out better to buy the middle-of-the-range shoes, or even the expensive ones. The K-mart (slave labor, questionable materials) ones only ever lasted a term and had to be binned. The more expensive ones are lasting a lot longer.

    As for toys, if I could do it all over, I would have made the 'no plastic toys' rule for my family long ago. As it is, even we struggle to stick with it. I managed to cut most plastic from Miss 5's birthday present this year, but Master 7 came shopping with us for his, and in the end, I had to cave to my husband's and son's choices of lego (at least it has a good resale/regift value) and a couple of cheap plastic toys that I knew wouldn't last, but at least there would be a lesson in that.

    All three of my children have been bed-wetters. Miss 13 up until somewhat recently, Master 7 only once a month now, and Miss 5 - every. single. night. Sometimes twice, a couple of times even 3 times. That adds up to LOTS and LOTS of washing. I have a health condition that translates basically to pain and fatigue. The piles and piles of washing can be a big challenge, and are a sore point for hubby who thinks it would be easier on me if I switched back to disposables. But I just can't go back. It might be the perfectionist in me, or the strong sense of achievement that I have gained from coming very close to reaching our zero waste goals as a family. But I can't go back to disposables, no matter the cost to myself.

    Overall the sense of pride and accomplishment when I hear my children ask questions about products (Miss 13 asked what happens to end-of-the-day Baker's Delight products, saddened that some get binned), or publicly denounce plastic packaged items, or note the sadness and irresponsibility of litter, is worth all of the hard work. Seeing my children go out as advocates for our environment is incredibly rewarding.
    - Jenny

    1. Thank you for taking the time to share you story. I commend parents that take on the challenge of reducing waste with children. It would have hard to have something available to them and then have it taken away. It will be easier (but not always easy) for us. Thank you for taking charge and making it easier for us new families. One day your children will be able to look back with pride their mother cared so much :)

    2. Anonymous4/09/2018

      I have a daughter and when we were transitioning from cloth nappies to regular underwear we had teething problems with bed wetting. But we overcame this with a enuresis alarm. It was a great little investment and something that can be brough online and then passed on to another family or used again for another child. Within a few weeks we had little miss trained to wake up and use the toilet on her own. If may not work for everyone but it is something to consider.

    3. I have never heard of the enuresis alarm. I'll keep that in mind when we are beginning the transition from cloth nappies to using the potty.

  2. Even though I'm quite a while away from having children myself, I already worry because I obviously want to bring children into this world that can bring positive change, it's great to see that many people successfully raise zero waste children, now it's just up to me to get myself to that point where I feel like I'm a good example!

    1. Hi Christine, just being aware is a good example :) and you sounds like a god person.

  3. Beautiful piece of writing! Children will always follow what we do, not what we tell them to do. If only more parents understand this. Thank you for saying this out loud.

    1. The thanks should go to the contributing parents for writing the wisdom on this subject :)

  4. Anonymous10/03/2017

    We used cloth nappies from the start. Really quite easy - just have lots so you never run out. We mainly used modern cloth but now I would actually use old style flat folded flannel (?) or muslin ones. They wash and dry faster and a friend who used them found her children toilet trained earlier. And I'd try elimination communication-with a first baby anyway. We also had bedwetters well through primary school- brolly sheets are the answer as is a training alarm and dietary interventions
    I wish in retrospect we'd imposed a no plastic toys rule before baby number one was born.
    I've found friends and aquaintances to be hugely generous in passing on bags full of baby clothes - everyone gets given too many and they get grown out of and am still part of various chains of passing on older kids clothes (they wear out more now). School/church fairs are another good source of kids clothes.

    1. We used muslin until he was three months then moved to the MCNs and I'll agree that muslins were our preferred. They would dry in hours and super easy to clean. I gave elimination communication a try for two weeks at three months with no success. Maybe I needed to try longer. I'll keep my eyes peeled for some school and church fairs.


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