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Green parenting: How to reduce waste as a new parent

Making swaps to a low-waste lifestyle isn’t easy and adding a baby to the family can make it even more difficult. 

"The best strategy I’ve found for low-waste parenting is reuse!" said Alisa, new mom and environmental educator, about how she is navigating being a low-waste parent during her daughter, Lily’s, first year.

"I’ve worked in the environmental field for a long time, and I try to practice what I preach. To me that meant approaching my life with a low-waste mindset – trying to bring reusable water bottles, mugs, and bags with me when I was out, really considering if I need something before I buy it, shopping for used goods when I can, and investing in high-quality goods when I do buy new items."

From diapers to growth spurts, kids can create a lot of waste at every stage of their life. Parenting can result in a lot of gear and convenience products, but by choosing secondhand items, making a few easy swaps, and using eco-friendly options, you can limit the amount of waste your household creates.

Mom and daughter choosing clothing to donate

Easy low-waste swaps for new parents

With huge "essentials" lists and lots of baby products in stores, you might be tempted to buy many new items to make sure you have covered your bases to care for your new family member.

When assessing whether an item is needed, consider what you already have that can be repurposed for your baby’s needs. If you feel you need to get something new, consider asking friends and family first to rehome the baby items their children no longer need. Consider what items you can find used and plan to pass them on to someone else when you are done.

"We bought very little clothing, toys, and books new – our friends and family were so happy to give us these items," said Alisa. "If you know enough people that had kids who are now a little bit older than yours, it is not difficult to get stuff used. The caveat is to still be mindful of the things you have – when stuff is free or inexpensive, it’s so easy to just say yes. But then you’re filling your house with stuff that you’ll have to deal with later. It pays to be thoughtful about the things you bring into your house."

Here are some examples for how you might repurpose items you already have instead of purchasing something new for your baby:

Baby food processor

Use instead: Regular food processor or blender

A regular food processor or blender will do the same thing as the baby version, and you can use it long after your little one is off baby food.

Baby laundry detergent

Use instead: “Free and clear” detergent

Choosing a regular “free and clear” product or making your own laundry detergent will save you money and time because you can throw the baby’s laundry in with the rest of the family’s dirty clothes.

Bottle drying rack

Use instead: Dish rack

A regular dish rack works just fine without the additional expense and counter space.

Changing table

Use instead: Changing pad and low dresser

If you’d like a changing area, secure a changing pad onto a low dresser, which you can continue to use after your child is out of diapers.

Diaper bag

Use instead: Backpack or messenger bag

Although you will need something to carry your child’s essentials around in, it doesn’t need to be a bag specifically designed as a diaper bag. A backpack, messenger bag or large purse will do the trick, is more likely to match your personal style, and is more useful in the long run.

Diaper disposal system

Use instead: Trash can

If you empty your trash regularly, a regular household trash can will do. For poopy diapers, flush the solid waste down the toilet to get rid of the main source of bad smells.

Disposable wipes and wipe warmer

Use instead: Reusable wipes and go without a wipe warmer

You can sufficiently warm wipes with your hands a few seconds before using them or use warm water with a reusable wipe to avoid the added expense of a wipe warmer and the electricity it requires.

Baby with cloth diaper crawling

Navigating norms around gifts and registries

Family members, especially baby’s grandparents, can have a reputation for spoiling their new grandchild with all the latest gear and endless gifts. While they have the best intentions, involving family in your low-waste parenting journey often involves changing norms and setting expectations.

"I wanted to encourage people to buy us used goods, but the social norms and expectations around that are hard to move," Alisa said. "We focused on high-quality goods that we thought we’d really need."

Be thoughtful when building your registry and asking for gifts. Prioritize investments in high-quality gear and big-ticket items that may be difficult to find used. Suggest family and friends visit your favorite reuse retailer when looking for gifts for your new baby. Remember that some common convenience products may not be the best fit for your lifestyle, so it isn’t critical to stock up on new stuff before you are sure your baby will even need it. Learn what gear works for you and pass on the rest to another family who would appreciate it.

"Remember that babies don’t need a lot of gear when they come home – your world is really quite small at that stage. You’ll learn what gear would be useful as you go and can then look for that stuff used," Alisa said.

Infant with cloth diaper

Three more tips for reducing waste as a new parent

If you’re ready to make a few larger changes as a new parent, the tips below can dramatically reduce waste in your home.

Switch to cloth diapering

Another large opportunity to avoid waste and save money is to use reusable cloth diapers. Cloth diapers are as easy to put on your child as their disposable counterparts and arguably more stylish. 

"We wanted to do reusable diapers, and were gifted a huge, used stash. That was nice because we got a few different kinds of reusable diapers, so were able to figure out what worked well for us. The kind we ended up liking was not what I expected," Alisa said

Cloth diapers do need to be washed, but this can be simplified by using a cloth diaper washing service such as Do Good Diapers. The numerous benefits or cloth diapering outweigh this additional step. 

  1. Cloth diapers save money. The average family spends $3,000 to $4,000 per child on disposable diapers. Cloth diapers have a one-time cost of $100 to $1,500, depending on the style. Cloth diapers can be used for multiple children, so a family can easily save thousands of dollars by switching to cloth.
  2. Cloth diapers are low-waste. For families with kids using disposable diapers, about 50 percent of their weekly trash consists of disposable diapers. So, although using reusable diapers is a commitment, it has significant benefits.
  3. Cloth diapers have resale value, so many people regain part of their investment by selling them when they are no longer needed.

Remember that cloth diapering doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach. Especially when your new baby first comes home, they may not fit into reusable diapers, so you may have to use disposables for a while. Don’t fret! Using a combination of reusable and disposable diapers in whatever way makes the most sense for your lifestyle still greatly reduces the amount of waste created over your baby’s life.

"It takes a while for babies to fit into their reusable diapers, so Lily was in disposables for a while," Alisa said. "We gave ourselves space to adjust to being parents and integrated the reusable diaper habit into our lives when we were ready."

To make it even easier to use cloth diapers, consider buying them secondhand or signing up for a diaper washing service to reduce your laundry burden. Find several diaper buying and diaper cleaning services on the Choose to Reuse website.

Mom and baby playing with borrowed toysRethink buying new toys

When purchasing toys, check thrift stores, garage sales and online exchanges for gently used toys, and remember to pass them on to someone else for reuse when your child no longer needs them.

Focus on durable toys that won’t break easily, and always be aware of which toys have batteries and can’t go in the trash. 

Consider joining a toy library, such as the Minneapolis Toy Library, to reduce waste, prevent clutter and save money. The Minneapolis Toy Library is a lending program where member families can borrow toys that are geared towards children from birth to five years old. Being a member of the toy library means your kids will get new toys every few weeks that match their development stage. 

Shop for gently used clothes

Babies and kids grow quickly, and all too often those boots you bought on sale last spring end up not fitting when winter comes. Finding gently used clothes at secondhand stores, garage sales, online sale sites or getting them from friends and family will save money and prevent waste. Once your kids outgrow them, you can pass them on for someone else to reuse. "Kids go through gear so quickly that it’s really easy to find used gear that is in really good shape."

Shopping for used maternity clothing is also a great way to avoid spending a fortune on clothing you know you’ll only wear for a short time. "I shopped for most of my maternity clothing used at Bellies to Babies – love it! I made two or three trips to the store throughout my pregnancy, would try on a bunch of stuff, and come away with quite a few high-quality items."

Remember to fix items with small tears, missing buttons, and broken zippers. Visit a Hennepin County Fix-It Clinic for free assistance with mending.

Last word of advice from a new parent

Parenting is messy and the same techniques won’t work for everyone. Remember that it is okay to make compromises and give yourself space to adjust to caring for your new baby. Living a low-waste lifestyle is a marathon, not a sprint. In some instances, even if you have the best intentions, it’s not feasible to eliminate waste in all areas of your baby’s life. And that’s okay!

"Milk storage was the hardest for us to be low-waste and plastic-free. We ended up using plastic freezer bags to store milk (and those are trash after). It’s just hard to have enough reusable containers for storage, and there are sanitation concerns. But like everything in parenting, that’s a phase. We’re now moving away from milk to food and are able to follow our typical routine of using reusable food storage."

Establishing new norms with family and friends is also challenging. Create a new normal by explaining that "this is just how we do things." Change is hard, but by taking baby steps to involve your support network in your low-waste parenting journey, you are playing a part in changing minds and planting the seeds of change.

"Give yourself grace and space. You’re probably not going to be perfect and there are things you will find surprisingly difficult, but just like with everything in parenting, it’s all a phase."