Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Common Plastic Products for Kids
It doesn’t matter how eco-friendly we try to be before having kids — something happens when we become parents that turns us all into plastic monsters. Between the most obvious offenders like diapers and toys to the piles of baby gear we’re all told we can’t live without, our homes quickly become packed with more plastic than we ever thought possible.
What’s so bad about plastic? Well, we’ve all heard about the dangers of Bisphenol A (BPA), which can be easily ingested or absorbed through skin contact. Once in the body, studies have shown that it can disrupt the endocrine system, impacting things like metabolism, sleep, growth and sexual function. And sure, the FDA banned BPA in baby bottles and feeding cups back in 2012, but you’ll still find the chemical everywhere from sippy cups to packaged foods and teething toys.
Polyvinyl chloride (aka PVC) is another common plastic that often contains lead and phthalates, which may be found in your kid’s bibs, inflatable swimming pools or raincoats. It’s been linked to cancer, birth defects and premature puberty. And that’s just scratching the plastic surface. Plastics are everywhere, and they’re not doing our kids — or us — any favors.
To break the plastic cycle, simply start with a little more self-awareness, and check out these 20 eco-friendly alternatives to some of the most common plastic products for kids.
The popularity of disposable diapers has grown enormously in the last couple of generations, and so has their impact on our landfills. They weren’t even invented until the ’60s, but by 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that American babies went through 350,000 tons of diapers. And in 2014? That number was closer to 3.6 million tons.
Composed of plastics, wood pulp and tissue paper, diapers take hundreds of years to decompose. And yet somehow, they’ve become a must for modern parents. Cloth diapers have come a long way in the last few years, and though some studies have shown that they do use a comparable amount of environmental resources to produce as their disposable counterparts, they’re a plastic-free alternative that will drastically cut down on your waste. And after the up-front investment, they’re a heckuva lot cheaper than disposables, too.
Baby Food Pouches
They’re convenient, they’re healthy and they’re an environmental nightmare. Baby food pouches are a hugely popular way to convince kids to eat their fruits and vegetables. Huffington Post reports that sales from baby food pouches reached $45 million in 2015.
But while they may save us time—and prevent tantrums on the go — these expensive little pouches are made from a hodgepodge of plastics that aren’t recyclable. That means they’re headed straight to the landfill, where they’ll take hundreds of years to decompose.
For something more sustainable, look no further than good-old glass baby food jars. They’re easily recyclable, reusable and produced without all of the ozone-depleting junk that plastics require. Better yet, get out the blender and try making your own purees when you’ve got a few extra minutes. We promise — your baby won’t know the difference.
Once babies start teething, there’s nothing we won’t do to give them some relief. And there are plenty of plastic teething toys on the market promising to soothe your child’s aching gums. The problem is, many of these toys are made from plastics containing parabens and other endocrine disruptors that can interfere with the hormones needed for normal growth and development.
Instead, opt for non-toxic teethers. Durable and naturally antimicrobial, wood was a popular teething toy material long before plastics came along. Want something softer? Try teethers made with organic cotton or natural rubber, like the cult favorite Sophie the Giraffe.
Bath time and plastics go hand in hand, it seems. Rubber duckies, plastic boats, stacking cups and more can quickly fill our tubs, surrounding our kids with plastic soup while they get “clean.”
But the dirty truth is, these toys are made from some of the most dangerous plastics on the market. Even grosser, many of these toys can trap mildew and mold, giving them a short shelf life in your home. Look for natural rubber toys, instead.
Bottles and Cups
From baby’s first bottles to sippy cups and the inevitable avalanche of drink receptacles that will one day fill an entire cabinet in your kitchen, plastic seems to be the only acceptable material for serving kids liquid. And while plastic won’t shatter when broken and is easy to clean, there’s also a chance that it’s made with harmful chemicals that your kid is sucking right down with his or her chocolate milk.
Glass is a classic baby bottle material that’s received an upgrade in recent years, with many modern glass bottles made of tempered glass that resists breaking. Some also come with silicone sleeves for an extra layer of protection. There are also plenty of stainless steel cups on the market if you’re worried about breakage.
Cups, Bowls and Cutlery
Once they start eating solid foods and on into early childhood, kids can be a little clumsy — which is why non-breakable plastic dinnerware seems like the most practical choice for little diners. And just as you may have a cabinet full of plastic bottles and cups, you’ve probably got a stack of plastic plates, bowls and cutlery, too.
As an alternative that’s still durable, lightweight and easy to clean, consider bamboo or stainless steel dishware and cutlery.
Kids’ To-Go Cups
Going out to eat with a kid is an adventure that requires the right supplies. Luckily, many restaurants are prepared with little freebies to keep their youngest customers happy. This includes disposable items like activity placemats, crayons and plastic cups with lids and straws.
They’re a great way to keep the kids hydrated while avoiding spills, but those cups also end up in the trash can when you head home. Avoid contributing to this waste by bringing your own cup whenever you go out to eat — and maybe your own crayons and coloring book, too.
Yes, this is a very general category, but this is where plastics are most likely to overtake your life. Plastic building blocks, dolls, figurines, balls, instruments, sports equipment and more are made from plastic because it’s cheap and durable.
Cut down on the plastic in your house by opting for wooden toys for older kids (just make sure they’re made with non-toxic paint) or cloth toys for younger kids.
Toothbrushes, hairbrushes and combs, nail clippers and files — most options you’ll find in stores are made mostly of plastic. Look for wooden, natural rubber or silicone alternatives.
Resealable Plastic Bags
Zip-up plastic bags can be super useful and convenient for parents, whether you’re packing up a handful of goldfish crackers or stashing away that half-eaten sandwich. Unfortunately, like most plastic bags, they’re not recyclable and can have a devastating impact on our environment.
Instead, try storing your food in glass mason jars, beeswax wrap or stainless steel containers. Once you get in the habit of reaching for alternate containers, you’ll find they’re just as easy to use as plastic bags.
You probably don’t wear plastic shoes yourself. So why do we put our kids in plastic shoes? Brands like Crocs and Native and just plain-old flip-flops are hugely popular with parents, maybe because they’re affordable and easy to clean. They’re also generally not very durable and they get worn down quickly, which means they’re not likely to have a second life as a hand-me-down.
For an earth-friendly option, look for natural fiber shoes like merino wool, cotton or leather.
Holiday and Party Supplies
When celebrating a birthday or a holiday like Christmas, Easter or Halloween, kids’ parties seem to be synonymous with plastic. Disposable decorations, vinyl tablecloths, Solo cups and cheap party favors are hallmarks of kids’ parties. And the holidays? Think Easter eggs, stocking stuffers and piles of candy wrappers, to start.
Break the cycle by going plastic-free for your next celebration. Choose paper servingware, or better yet, don’t go disposable at all. Opt for reusable decorations and favors that won’t end up in the trash when the party’s over.
Plastic bibs are popular because they’re water-resistant and easy to clean after a meal — simply spray them off in the sink and let air-dry before using again. Some can even go in the dishwasher. You can even throw some directly into the trash after one use — how convenient! Other bibs are fabric with a thin plastic backing to help protect baby’s clothes from spills.
Besides the obvious problems we’ve already mentioned relating to exposure to chemicals, plastic bibs have a dicey track record of issues like suffocation hazards. Some vinyl bibs were even found to contain traces of lead. Skip these potential issues by sticking to cotton bibs. Just be sure to rinse them shortly after your baby eats and allow them to air dry to avoid mildew.
Between all the toys, books and gear you inevitably acquire as a parent, it’s a good idea to figure out a smart organizational system if you don’t want your house to become overrun with baby gear. Plastic storage cubes and drawer systems work well in kids’ rooms because they’re usually bright, fairly durable and budget-friendly.
For an alternative that — bonus — looks classier than plastic, look for fabric, woven natural fibers or wire baskets instead. For items that are going into the attic, like outgrown baby clothes or toys, try recycling cardboard boxes or using extra suitcases.
Kiddie pools are great for cooling off on hot days, and they can provide hours of entertainment for little ones. The problem is, most kids’ pools are made from PVC (and that goes for inflatable pool toys and floaties, too). And warm, moist conditions happen to be exactly the environment that causes PVC to leach harmful chemicals. You’d be hard-pressed to find a pool made of anything but plastic, but you can avoid some of the toxicity by skipping PVC pools.
Instead, choose harder plastic options, which are often made of recyclable high-density polyethylene (HDPE). These tend to be the cheapest, simplest, old-school round kiddie pools you may have grown up with yourself. It’s a lot of plastic, but it’ll last longer and you can often even recycle it once you’re done. Look for recycling codes No. 2, 4 and 5.
Creative kids will go through a lot of art supplies — which is great! Except things like markers, watercolor sets, glue sticks, modeling clay and oil paints often come in plastic containers that can be tough to recycle. That doesn’t mean you have to squash your kids’ creative tendencies though.
Instead, look for art supplies that come in biodegradable packaging, or even try making your own supplies at home. A quick Google search will reveal hundreds of simple recipes for fun projects like bathtub paint, play dough, puffy paint, chalk rocks and more. They can often be made with ingredients that you already have in your house, and they don’t require any extra packaging at all.
Plastic and vinyl books are waterproof and drool-proof, but their benefits end there. Really, the kids can wait until after bathtime to read, can’t they?
Instead, just choose paper and cardboard books, and say goodbye to books with vinyl or plastic covers.
A pretty patterned rug or carpet can add a fun, whimsical feel to a nursery or kid’s room. However, many carpets are made from synthetic materials like nylon, polyester, acrylic, latex or polyurethane — all petroleum-based products that aren’t so great for the planet.
Go green by choosing a rug made of natural fibers like natural wool, jute, cotton or hemp.
Jumpers, Swings, Walkers and Exersaucers
Now we’re entering the big leagues. Once baby starts to want to move around, many people rush out and buy giant plastic toys like jumperoos, swings, walkers and exercausers that — let’s face it — will only be usable for a couple of months.
Buying gently used toys and donating yours when you’re done is one way to decrease your environmental footprint with these large-scale toys. But to avoid those pesky phthalates and other chemicals, seek out toys made with more sustainable materials. For example, you’ll find lots of simple baby swings made from wood and fabric on Etsy. There are also some lovely wooden and metal walkers and exersaucers on the market that will be fun for baby while putting your mind at ease.
No matter how hard you try to keep your home free of plastics, there will inevitably be friends and family members who give your children plastic playthings. Whether they’re unaware of your commitment to going plastic-free or they disagree with your views, they’re likely to give things that you may not approve of.
First, try to avoid this by letting your close friends and family members know that you’re trying to avoid plastics in your home. But if you do receive something plastic as a gift, don’t make a big deal out of it. Be gracious and accept the gift just as you would anything else you don’t really want. Then, simply donate it or recycle it.