Zero Waste Childhood

I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time now and I suspect it will lead to a series of more specialised posts on this topic. Setting out on a zero waste journey with three young children on board poses more challenges than setting out on the same journey with only yourself or yourself and a willing partner on board. If I was single and attempting a zero waste lifestyle I would eat meals that I could create from zero waste ingredients and avoid places or activities that weren’t in keeping with my zero waste principles. If it was only me and my husband there would be a few compromises to be made I suspect, but generally he would support my cause. With children however, it’s a different story.

Let’s look at a best case scenario:

You buy any baby equipment you need second-hand and packageless. You breastfeed and use cloth nappies. You only buy sustainably-sourced toys, hunt for all their clothes in charity shops and borrow all their books from the library. You politely ask friends and relations to adhere to zero waste principles when they give your child a treat or gift, and they do so. You somehow manage to find a school that operates in line with your zero waste lifestyle. You politely decline party bags, free gifts from well-meaning shop owners and all those other little bits of plastic tat that seem to creep into childhood. You shop locally and in bulk for food and other household supplies and use all your own containers. You make all their food from scratch, they are the best eaters ever and never leave anything on their plates. You live within walking distance of anywhere that they ever need to go and your children are happy doing all the zero waste activities that you can find in the local area. Your children grow up surrounded by children all living the exact same way, they never rebel against the lifestyle they have grown up with and go on to live in their own zero waste home as an adult.

Hmmm, unlikely, isn’t it?

Now let’s look at a more ‘normal’ scenario. Or, more precisely, our own scenario, which I’m classing as ‘normal’ for the purpose of this article.

Your family didn’t start out as zero waste (it wasn’t a ‘thing’ back in 2006), but you were still eager to do your best by the environment and what you felt was best by your little family. You had three babies, spaced approximately two years ten months apart. You breastfed and used cloth nappies part-time. You cooked baby food mostly from scratch and also used some convenient pouches now and again. You bought some clothes, toys and books new, found some in charity shops and had some kindly passed on by friends and family. You are delighted when friends and family support your zero waste aims, but you aren’t comfortable with dictating what can and can’t be given as gifts and treats to your children unless the gift or treat is totally unsuitable in your eyes. Your children get invited to birthday parties, you don’t want to put your child in the position of being the only one who doesn’t receive a party bag, however politely it is done. Your children go to toddler groups, breastfeeding support groups, nursery, preschool and school, all of which involve bringing home ‘stuff’ most weeks. Your children have interests and it’s nice for them to explore those interests, whether in a group activity that requires equipment, or in the home that requires materials and equipment. Your children have friends who don’t live a zero waste lifestyle, in fact they all live different lifestyles and that is good. Variety is the spice of life and your children need to learn that not everyone thinks, feels and acts the same as they do. Your children are independent thinkers, who question things and eventually question their own upbringing and home lifestyle. They inevitably rebel against this for a while and may or may not return to the lifestyle they grew up with when they have their own home and their own family.

That sounds a bit more likely, doesn’t it?

I think as most children grow up they feel the need to ‘fit in’ with whatever group they identify with at some point. They may not want to look exactly the same as their peers or be into the exact same things, but if they stand out, they want to do so for the ‘right’ reasons. I understand this, I’ve been a child myself. I remember the agony of wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes and the joy of validation when wearing the ‘right’ thing. So when one of my children says, ‘Do I have to? No one else is taking that/dressing like that/doing that.’ I give in, immediately and graciously. I gently question their desire to be like everyone else and then I leave it. I can only think of a handful of people at school who genuinely didn’t care if they fitted in and thrived on their individuality. School is a difficult enough time, without me forcing my children to be different when they’re going through a ‘fitting in’ stage.

Life in a family is about compromise, just as compromise is an essential skill out in the big wide world. I expect my children to learn to compromise, so I should model that by compromising myself. I tend to find that the children, like most of us, don’t like being forced to do something, but if I can get them to come round to an idea in their own time they are much more open to it. My eldest daughter, who tutted and sighed about my zero waste aims when I first started in earnest in September, has now decided she wants to save the planet. She loves customising clothes she finds in charity shops and supports my Nestle boycott. The teachers at school tell me that my middle child, our youngest daughter, has been telling them all about recycling when they covered it in class. It does go in. You don’t change the world by criticising and alienating people. You change the world by getting people on side and encouraging any efforts to make a difference.

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