There’s a fascinating snippet of history about the worldview of plastic in the 1960s told in Recycling! Is it BS? by How to Save a Planet.
The hosts share editor of Modern Plastics, Inc. Lloyd Stouffer’s famous statement that “The future of plastics is in the trash can”, a deliberate declaration by the industry to influence modern wastefulness at the 1963 National Plastics Conference.
Today’s parents are among those most affected by this push. Ethical, sustainable consumption at the individual level can be daunting especially because consumerism is such a powerful beast, to paraphrase Healthy Children Project’s Dr. Karin Cadwell. It’s the power of what happens to us when we’re walking down the supermarket aisles.
“If it’s there, I must need it,” goes our inner dialogue. It’s the psychology that infant formula and processed food companies prey on.
It’s why so many of us fill our carts with single-use pouches full of super-glop (term coined by Healthy Children Project’s Cindy Turner-Maffei) that we toss to our littles ones while we’re on the go. The Packet Apocalypse, where stocked shelves offer an overwhelming array of mostly highly processed snacks and meals in plastic, has largely replaced the art of dining and sharing meals, just as plastics have largely replaced reusable, more sustainable products.
Parenting plastic-free can seem unattainable, but there are simple adjustments we can make as we strive toward sustainability and address the climate-crisis we find ourselves in.
Practical plastic-free suggestions
Of course, breastfeeding is the ultimate example of waste-free food.
This piece details the environmental impact of powdered baby formula milks sold in North America. It’s not intended to shame formula feeding families, rather hold companies and governments accountable.
For families who feed their babies differently than exclusively at the breast/chest and require other materials and tools, Healthy Children Project faculty and guest blogger Donna Walls advises using bottles made of glass, stainless steel or bamboo with silicone nipples. Avoid latex which can leach nitrosamines, she says.
When pumping is part of infant feeding, Walls calls on us to investigate and invest in breast pumps from companies that reduce the amount of plastics in the pump.
“Avoid pumps that are made from PVC plastic, phthalates (labeled as DEHP or DBP), BPA or BPS or formaldehyde),” she explains.
Business owner and Milwaukee mom to three-year-old Avery Jenna Meier, who appeared on a webinar on plastic-free parenting with Plastic-Free MKE over the summer, recommends searching for second-hand items that can be sterilized like bottles.
Beyond human milk feeding, Walls suggests using glass or ceramic jars which can be reused after purchasing salsa, sauces or condiments in lieu of plastic.
Walls also suggests swapping plastic wraps for beeswax covered fabric as container coverings.
“At the grocery store, bring your own containers for bulk food purchases and bring your own non-plastic bags for produce or deli items,” she offers. “Invest in plant- based ziploc storage bags, often referred to as bio-plastic or ‘plantic’, and made from beets, corn or other plants.”
Melding convenience and sustainability
Meier says that baby-led weaning was amazing for reducing unnecessary waste.
“…You aren’t buying baby food and for the most part, your child is eating the same meal as you so it just cuts down on separate packaging and waste,” she begins. “…As my child grows and we are on the go a lot more and packing daycare lunches, the single use packets become a lot more tempting. And they’re ubiquitous, like even if I don’t buy little packets of something, he comes home with birthday favors or holiday treats or all sorts of things I wouldn’t typically buy.”
Meier recognizes the grey areas in convenient choices.
“It’s not all good or all bad,” she says. When buying packaged food, Meier opts for organic options, B corp companies, and local options.
“I also shop at my local co-op instead of the big chain stores, so overall my money is going to a better business,” she continues. “We buy locally made frozen pizzas and I feel that it’s a way to have the benefit of a quick meal on a hectic night while still supporting my local economy.”
There’s a way to simplify efforts toward sustainability.
“Even if you find yourself opting for convenience 99 percent of the time, at least there is that 1 percent that you are sticking to,” she explains.
It’s veggie broth for the Meier family; they never buy it packaged.
“And it’s a great one for teaching little ones because they can help with every part,” she explains. “We save veggie scraps in a bag in the freezer and then we have enough we make the broth, doing each part of the process together. So that is one ritual that has made it into our lives without feeling like I have to force myself to do it because we truly enjoy it.”
Walls echoes the sentiment of simplicity coupled with convenience and addressing the climate-crisis.
“Making better, more environmentally conscious choices is really about making small changes in our everyday habits,” Walls says. “For example, making sure you always keep reusable bags in your car or keeping a supply of cloth produce bags in your purse or diaper bag. Once you have made the initial investment in earth-aware supplies, it is really just a matter of making new habits.”
Sustainability and health
Meier goes on to suggest that sustainable living is about becoming present, intentional, and conscious of all of our daily habits and choices.
“Including our food choices, which is such a big one because we eat all day, every day!” she exclaims. “Processed convenience foods do the opposite of connecting us to our food. They make it so we can eat mindlessly and not think about the input or the output. We don’t make the food ourselves so we don’t look at the ingredients. We don’t have to deal with the trash ourselves so we don’t mind throwing the packaging ‘away.’”
This satisfies the goal of consumerism, Meier continues.
“Of course our health suffers. Not only are we eating crappy food that makes us sick, but we give up our agency and are disempowered in our own lives. All of this has effects on our physical, mental, and emotional health. Becoming intentional in our day brings agency back into our lives. Choose with care and notice how different food tastes when you choose it intentionally for reasons that align with your values. If supporting organic growers or local farmers is important to you, buying from those businesses will bring joy and fulfillment into your life. If you are inspired by living low waste, shop in the bulk section. You will be giddy as you unpack your groceries. It really is that simple. Living in line with our ethics brings harmony into our lives and in turn, benefits health in all areas.”
Individual and systemic action
As we address the climate crisis, there’s an argument pertaining to individual efforts versus policy impact that goes something like this: Individual efforts make a miniscule difference unless individuals are sharing their eco-friendly practices.
Meier lives by example.
“When you adopt the mindset of becoming an example of how you want the world to be, you find it easier to live in line with your values,” she comments. “You are now an ambassador of the lifestyle you want more people to live. And when you see the ripple effects of your actions, you recognize your responsibility and role and how important it is. When I stopped confronting people and started focusing more on myself, I saw much greater effects. People started coming to me asking questions more, or giving me new ideas. I found community in places I never thought I would. And I stopped thinking I had all the answers and was able to learn and grow so much more with that different attitude. I love the idea of calling people in instead of calling them out.”
Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Healthy Baby Guide and Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Healthy Pregnancy Guide offer Take Action Tools which amplify individual voices while targeting systemic change at a policy level.
For instance, the action tool populates emails to representatives urging support of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 which aims to tackle the exploding crisis of plastic pollution and transform waste and recycling management in the United States.
There’s a petition that puts pressure on corporate plastic polluters exploiting the pandemic too.
Meier says she would love to see single use plastics banned.
“This would make it easier to avoid and they are just so prevalent and irresponsible,” she says. “We know better as a society; I’m sure it’s something most would agree on.”
The Plastic-Free MKE Coalition is a collaborative of organizations, including Meier’s business, doing their part to reduce single-use plastics.
Walls is responsible for creating the Green Team at Miami Valley Hospital which became a model for shifting individual responsibility to systemic responsibility.
Since then, Walls says she has been heartened by the strides we are making in creating “greener” families.
“I see marketing aimed at young families focusing on eco-friendly products and more educational information available on the health benefits to children and all family members,” she says.
On September 9, ANU Institute for Climate, Energy & Disaster Solutions; ANU Gender Institute; BPNI/IBFAN South Asia; Australian Breastfeeding Association; WBTI Australia; Alive & Thrive Southeast Asia will present Breastfeeding: where healthy and sustainable food systems begin. Register for the free event here.