Living sustainably as a zero waste family – especially for those with young children – can be problematic. The move from babies, where you in full control, to the toddler to teens stage is more of a challenge as children encounter the marketing madness designed to encourage peer pressure and ‘pester power’.
I well remember the peer pressure on my children to have the very latest trend in toys for Christmas and birthdays – invariable plastic nonsense, but none-the-less it was deemed important for participative play.
From conversations with Hong Kong mums, it would seem that the most successful zero waste families educate their child/ren as to why they may not have access the commercialised goodies their friends enjoy. The following are some of the solutions they passed on.
Start Your Children Young
Lisa Odell, founder of Plastic Free Hong Kong, says the key is to “Start your children young!”
“Teach them sustainable habits from the very beginning, even if they don’t realise that’s what you’re doing. This will encourage sustainable practices as the norm as they mature, so it comes naturally.
“I have a three-year-old son with a baby girl on the way, and found the biggest waste makers are food packaging, nappies, clothing, toys and kitchenware.“
One of Lisa’s tips include only giving your child water as a drink, with occasional pure juice out of a glass bottle with metal cap as a treat.
My top tip would be to introduce your healthy everyday foods as soon as possible. Mix textures and flavours when they are young enough to accept without question. One, it was cheaper; with four mini mouths to feed on a tight budget this was important. Buying pre-prepared packets is not only expensive, but when you consider how many they would need over their toddler lifespan, it would create a mountain of waste. And two, it made introducing one meal for all so easy – and I knew exactly what they were eating. Bubble and squeak – just a mash-up of leftovers – was always a popular dish!
Lisa agreed and also adds: “The issue of going on play dates can be hard as children are offered processed foods, which invariably come in plastic packaging.”
She feels this is just a great opportunity to talk to your child and other parents about why sustainability is so important and has alternatives as healthier snacks.
“We pop our own popcorn, eat fruit sold loose, make banana bread, buy nuts sold in glass jars and bake our own bread. We also buy croissants and bread sticks from a local bakery, which sells them to us in paper bags. These are just a few ideas.”
Hong Kong mum of two, Jo Wilson, agrees that teaching your child from a young age about waste is crucial.
“Initially, I audited my waste, keeping it for a week or two and got my children involved. I looked at the amount of packaging and worked out how to bring food home without adding rubbish to the pile. We now take our Tupperware to the village to buy cheese, ham and eggs, and use a cloth bag for loose veggies and fruit.”
There is no bin in Jo’s kitchen, just a box for cardboard, recyclable plastic, cans, glass bottles – all of which is clean and dry – and composts any organic waste. She serves small portions at dinner so less is thrown away if the children don’t like it. Wherever possible Jo advocates you should try to eat the same food as the children so you eat the leftovers, or can give them extra.
Making Zero Waste Learning Fun
Jo’s family makes regular trips to the beach and she takes great pleasure in turning what is essentially an environmental education, into fun.
“I want them to take an interest I nature – they’re part of it – and help them understand that any form of waste is harmful to the environment”, she explains.
On one occasion she turned a beach visit into a mathematical challenge.
As part of a mathematical exercise they collected cigarette stubs from the beach and calculated how many packets it equated to, the cost and the total of unpaid littering fines that should have been paid. It shocked them both as well as me!”
Another example was with sweets.
“A couple of years ago, my children returned home with a huge amount of sweets generously handed out at our village Halloween night. The next morning we went to clean the beach and picked up so many sweet wrappers. When we got home, I asked the children to sort their sweets into piles: plastic wrapped and not wrapped in plastic, and those that they actually really wanted to eat.
They found for themselves that there was very little that they wanted and they were horrified at the plastic. This year, my son preferred to just hand out paper wrapped sweets and only accepted two sweets, because he said he didn’t want so much plastic rubbish!”
Dressing Your Child
Unlike today, there was no ‘online’ facility in the 80s and so I bought some super quality second-hand clothing from charity shops. To be honest it was more about saving money with four children to clothe, than recycling, but we also passed these on to friends when they had grown out of them, or gave them to Oxfam to send on to less fortunate children.
Lisa also bought or borrowed used clothing from friends and family.
“My circle of girlfriends is great, as we just keep passing around our children’s clothes to each other. Also, here in Hong Kong, there is such a plethora of Facebook Groups dedicated to selling children’s items, that finding good quality, cute clothes is pretty easy.”
Plastic Free in the Kitchen
Lisa told us that she quickly realised after becoming a mother the insane amount of waste created by plastic kitchenware for children. “It eventually either breaks or they grow out of it, and to the landfill it goes,”she says.
“Buy plastic-free kitchenware: stainless steel is a great alternative as it’s equally durable, light and won’t break if dropped. Cups, plates, water bottles, lunch boxes … all can be purchased in stainless steel form. “
The Toy Dilemma
Having a set of twin boys was a challenge when it came to finding toys with any longevity. I clearly remember Fisher Price and Tonka’s claims that their toys were indestructible – well they hadn’t been tested on my two, who between them must of eaten into company profits at a rapid rate with their guarantee return policies. Back in the 80s, we were not aware of the environmental impact plastic would have on our environment and so you can imagine how much plastic has simply been discarded over the years.
My solution was to buy the indestructible: metal cars, Lego, Meccano, and Transformers. These were all handed down to friends and family. My daughters on the other hand, kept everything pristine. Mostly plastic in the form of My Little Pony, Silvanian Families, etc, all passed on to friends, but today some of these toys fetch a fortune. The Fisher Price Garage – three were casualties in our house – went for 149.99 US dollars back in 2014! Some however, are still with us – Angus the Scottie Dog (age 33) and Care Bear (age 34), still loved and cherished.
Fiona, another Hong Kong Mum of a three-and-a-half year old toddler, packs huge punches with her feelings around children’s toys.
“Plastic crap seems to accumulate like magic. Our son has fewer toys than most of his friends, but there still seems to be a lot!
Second hand stuff is great. Our main sources are our friends with older kids; these have proved to be extremely useful, but we wouldn’t have bought them. Those I dislike most are the cheap ones, which contain electrics that break too quickly; so the more we avoid the better. Anything that can stay in one piece and be handed down later I have come to terms with! “
My advice would be to buy toys made with sustainable materials, or used plastic ones. We try really hard not to add more plastic waste into the system by following these two rules. Of course birthday parties, holidays and grandparents often make this a bit more difficult, but every single bit of effort helps. And along the same line, buy other people’s children gifts that are waste free. It often feels like my son has a birthday party every weekend, so taking the sustainable gift route puts my conscious at ease.”
Look out for our final tips for families with teenagers when we talk to renowned zero waste pioneer, Bea Johnson, about family life with her husband and boys.