About a year ago when Henry was 3 and a half years old, we were in the thick of trying to night train him without a whole lot of success. With multiple night awakenings with soaked bedsheets, jammies and disrupted sleep for both Henry and I, we resorted back to night-time diapers.
One evening, I was putting Henry to bed in our usual routine; bathtime, jammies, two books in bed, song and story. A pattern repeated hundreds of times over. A treasured part of my day, snuggled next to my son, curled up in his toddler bed recapturing the highlights of the busy hours that had preceded our quiet bonne nuit. On this particular evening, I could sense something that wasn’t right. He was solemn with something hanging heavy on his heart. I asked him if he was feeling sad to which he nodded his blonde curly head, explaining that his night-time diaper was going to kill whales in the ocean. Unbeknownst to me, Blake and Henry had been watching bits of the BBC’s Blue Planet series which had prompted a discussion between them about plastic and the health of the Earth’s oceans.
In this moment, my heart broke for Henry. I can recall experiencing similar sentiments as a child, even from a young age; I had felt hopeless and utterly devastated at humanity’s treatment of our planet. Having been raised in a socially and environmentally-conscious household, I had been well aware of the negative effects of our species on the natural environment. As a kid, I would often embark on self-motivated, after-school ‘garbage picking’ adventures; walking the length of our rural neighbourhood road picking up trash and bottles from the ditches. Later, as and adult, I continued my environmental advocacy within the Queen’s University environmental group, but as life got busier and busier with medical school, residency, full-time work and kids, I found myself slipping into bad habits. Grabbing a to-go coffee without my reusable mug, using the car when I could have biked, shopping mindlessly at the grocery store without paying much attention to packaging and continuing to eat meat in our diet.
Henry’s heart-crushing sadness over the use of disposable diapers was a reminder that made me realize how much we had a lot to do as a family to improve our environmental stewardship.
Astonishingly, three year-old Henry wasn’t the only one who has been impacted by the BBC’s Blue Planet series. One article cited a whopping 88% of people who watched the series have now changed their daily behaviours to be more environmentally conscious as a result!
Over the past year, with inspiration and help from like-minded families and with much motivation and support from Blake, our family has made a number of impactful changes. We are certainly not perfect, but I’d like to share with you the changes that we have made to our day-to-day lives. There is nothing complicated about it, it just requires a bit of thought and commitment.
If you’re a parent like me reading this, looking into the eyes of your littles one and knowing that their future health is in jeopardy might be all the motivation that you need.
Ok, I’m not asking you to totally ditch the bacon, but it is well known that the impact from livestock production heavy drives climate change and is extremely inefficient in the land surface area and water requirements compared to plant-based agriculture.
Eating less meat is simply the most efficacious way to make a major impact. If you’re going to make one change in your family’s lifestyle, reducing your meat consumption is the most bang for your buck.
For us, inspired by my vegan brother, John, we have simply increased our plant-based meals to the majority of our weekly menu and splurge on meat only once or twice a month. With the kids, we are a bit more lenient, but Blake, someone who two years ago existed entirely on animal protein now doesn’t even eat meat on special occasions!
There are infinite blogs, Insta feeds and cookbooks out there that can be the source of inspo for pant-based, family-friendly meals. Start small. Try Meatless Mondays and grow your veggie recipe repertoire from there.
The vast, vast majority of single-use plastics ever created STILL EXIST somewhere – floating in the ocean, buried in a landfill, ingested by a wild creature… Plastic can take hundreds of years to breakdown.
Let that sink in for a minute.
That plastic fork and take-out container that you used for five minutes to eat your salad at lunch will literally be on Earth for another 200+years. If that doesn’t make you stop and think, I’m not sure what will.
Blake said something to me recently that has hugely changed our use of plastic in our household. He shared with me that he thinks of any piece of single-use plastic that passes through his hands is his forever. I now often think of this as I debate whether I really need that takeout coffee if I have forgotten my reusable mug or if I can find a different treat at the grocery store that isn’t entirely wrapped in plastic. If I’m not ok with having that plastic as ‘mine’ for the rest of my life and beyond, I just don’t buy it.
So, make a commitment. Think of Blake and really ask yourself. Is this single-use plastic SO needed that I am ok with having it as mine forever?
Bring your own beer! Just kidding – bring your own bags! Refuse plastic bags and make a promise to yourself to always have your own bags when shopping. This is such a simple, simple change to make.
First, acquire a bunch of reusable bags. Get them at your local thrift store, pull them out from under the kitchen sink or borrow a few from a friend. Now, tonight before bed, put at least 3-4 in your car, one if your purse and one in your workbag. Next, simply refuse to touch a plastic bag again.
The next time you have to carry out all of your groceries in your arms, you’ll never, ever forget again!
Along the same lines as above, one of my pet peeves is seeing people at the grocery store putting their produce into single-use, plastic bags. Think about it – your broccoli made it all the way from California without it being quarantined in a plastic shield, so why are you paranoid about it being contaminated on the simple journey from your cart to your fridge?! The worst is seeing people putting veggies and fruits like bananas or oranges in a plastic bag. They already have a natural protective outer layer!!
Ok, sorry, rant over.
Again, same principle as the points above. Those produce bags that you used for 10 minutes to transport your apples to your fridge crisper will end up floating in the world’s oceans for decades and decades after you have long forgotten about them.
Easy fix. Go on Amazon, purchase reusable produce bags or better yet, if you’re handy, sew some of your own. Then, pack 4-5 of them in your reusable shopping bags that are already in your car. Commit to never using a plastic produce bag again. If you forget, carry out those peppers in your arms, my friend! In a true pinch, grab a paper bag from the mushroom section. Not ideal, but better than plastic.
This is what our cart generally looks like these days.
Just a quick note while we are on the subject of grocery shopping. We live in a town of 5000 in rural, isolated Northwestern Ontario. Our options for grocery shopping are limited to Giant Tiger and our local store. We used to shop at Giant Tiger due to cheaper prices, but this is what the produce section looks like at GT:
And this is what the produce section looks like at our local store.
So, if you have options, it might be worthwhile comparing retailers and shopping at locations that offer you choices to reduce your waste. If you don’t have options, speak up! Request a meeting with the managers or owners of your local store to share your ideas.
Recently, after watching this CBC Marketplace documentary, I approached our local grocery store about trying to increase options for shoppers to buy in bulk, bring their own containers and buy produce that was plastic-free. I ended up meeting with the store owner along with a colleague of mine for a very interesting (and hopefully fruitful) conversation.
Whenever possible, look for products that you can buy in bulk and bring your own containers. The bulkfood store is a super fun place to shop – aside from the staples, you never know what you’ll leave the store with 🙂
You may have heard of ‘zero waste kits’, but no need to get fancy. Get yourself a water bottle, a coffee/tea mug, reusable cutlery and dedicate those items to your work bag, purse or backpack. Never leave the house without them. If you forget, no coffee for you and you’ll be so grumpy for the rest of the day that you’ll never forget again!
At restaurants, when we order drinks, we simply request ‘no straws please’. If we have leftovers that we’d like to bring home, we ask what the restaurant’s takeaway containers are made of. If plastic or styrofoam, we just ask for a large piece of tinfoil! If we were more organized, we would bring our own Tupperware container, but the tinfoil always does the job in a pinch.
I promise that you don’t have to be a hipster or a patchouli-smelling Ani Difranco enthusiast (although there is nothing wrong with that either) to clean up your bathroom waste. There are so many accessible options out there these days to replace self-care items that are either packaged in plastic or are made of plastic (i.e. try bamboo toothbrushes, shampoo/conditioner bars, silk dental floss, etc.). I won’t re-invent the wheel here. Check out this article on how to revolutionize your bathroom. If your local drug store doesn’t inspire you with options, look online at retailers like Well.ca. Just be mindful, however, of the carbon footprint of ordering online. Do an order with your neighbour or just stock up at once.
I personally really love these shampoo/conditioner bars. They are pricey, but are so luxurious that I look forward to using them every time!
Again, we are certainly not perfect, but there are such easy ways to ditch the singe-use plastics in your kitchen. Use up that last roll of plastic wrap, then never buy it again. We use washable beeswax wrap (i.e. Abeego) or just use a Tupperware container for leftovers.
For Ziploc bags, we simply wash them and re-use them, or use silicone bags that can be put in the dishwasher.
For Henry’s lunches, we bought four of these little baggies at the start of the school year, wash them in the dishwasher and use them every day for all sorts of snacks in his lunchbox.
I’m not going to lie, I used to be the first one to fill my online cart up with clothes that I didn’t need from the Gap just because I saw an online banner for a 50% off sale. I also used to addictively browse the Joe Fresh aisles when I really should’ve been sticking to my grocery list at the Superstore.
I get it. As a society, we are addicted to ‘Fast Fashion’ – cheaply made, low-cost, trendy clothes that are worn for a season (at best), then get turfed to the landfill to be replaced by the next hot item.
I definitely recommend watching this episode of the CBC’s The Passionate Eye. It will hopefully be the beginning of changing the way you look at buying clothes for you and your family.
In our home, the kids’ clothes are almost exclusively hand-me-downs. Any new items they have in their wardrobes are gifts from family.
For myself, I try to buy clothing items sparingly and only if they are well-made and are timeless in design. My girlfriends and I often organize clothing swaps (which are also great excuses for a night of drinking wine and visiting) to prevent pieces that still have lots of life in them but are perhaps no longer fitting or no longer loved, from going to the garbage. This minimizes wardrobe items that end up directly in the landfill.
I am a minimalist and cannot stand clutter around the house. I annoy Blake endlessly by constantly purging unneeded items, but I also fiercely protect our space by preventing excessive stuff for entering our home in the first place.
Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but this goes for kids items too. It is partly a self-serving strategy, but I can count on one hand the number of times that I have bought the kids brand-new toys. Our kids know it will be almost always be a hard ‘No’ when they ask for toys at the grocery store or wherever else we may be. It’s not that I’m trying to deprive my kids, but they simply do not need rooms full of plastic junk and toys that are played with for ten minutes, then cast aside. Ask yourself, is that plastic toy that you gave your kid to try to get him to stop whining for five minutes worth a lifetime or more in the landfill?
For our kids, we focus on weekly trips to the library to ensure we have new books to entertain them on wintery evenings on the couch, we trade toys between neighbours with similar-aged kids and if there is something that the kids are particularly obsessed with, we try to find it used; we ask our friends, look on Kijiji, post a request on Facebook or browse the second-hand stores. If we can’t come up with their wish-listed items in these ways, we simply just don’t buy it.
There are definite exceptions, but this is generally the rule. It might sound extreme, but their lives are full to the brim with happiness achieved by other non-material means and I am not stumbling over and cleaning up kid-clutter day-in and day-out. Parenting win!
Often when I chat with others about use of plastics in our day-to-day lives, the topic of recycling often comes up as a reason to not worry about our consumption of single-use plastics.
The truth is, the vast majority of plastics that you wash, carefully sort and leave out in your blue bin actually end up in the landfill. You don’t have to do too much in-depth research to realize that less than 10% of plastics get recycled into another product, leaving 90% to float in the world’s oceans, fill up our landfills or be being dumped in poorer, developing countries in South East Asia.
Even more sobering is that it developed countries like Canada and the US previously sold their plastics to China for manufacturing, however about a year ago, China abruptly stopped importing ‘recyclable’ plastics.
All of a sudden, millions and millions of tonnes of plastics had nowhere to go. Think about that for a minute. Now, plastic ‘recyclables’ are baled up, shipped to landfills and overseas to countries like Malaysia.
I encourage you to take ten minutes while you drink your coffee this morning to watch this clip from the CBC News that helps recapture the events over the past few years. I promise it will make you think again about ever relying on your blue bin as a way to ‘save the planet’.
So, if you’re feeling consoled by your recycling efforts, think again. Recycling truly provides false reassurance to the consumer. Remember the three Rs that you gamely memorized in grade three? Reduce, Reuse and Recycle? I challenge you to change the mantra and teach your kids to REFUSE, Reduce and Reuse instead. Recycling is, unfortunately a non-solution to our society’s laziness.
If you’ve made it this far, MANY THANKS for reading. I realize that this topic is not lighthearted or joyful. It’s not glamorous or flashy and will actually make you feel like Henry – saddened and lost but there is hope.
The best way to create change, is BE the change.
Cliche, I know, but start with small, manageable steps just within your day-to-day life with your family. Talk to you kids about why being an environmental steward is important. It helps them understand their place in the world, their need to think critically and to act selflessly.
Start organizing events within your friend groups, church groups, Mommy/Daddy playgroups, etc. to do toy or clothing exchanges. Talk to your local stores if you’re not pleased with the options for plastic-free shopping. Use social media to share your concerns, ideas and successes with your friends, family and colleagues.
I would also be so happy to hear from you if you have any tips to share or any comments on how we can further improve our waste-reduction and climate change action! Again, thanks for reading 🙂
Love this! Thank you so much for sharing. I more than 100% support everything you noted, except that online shopping is always associated with a larger carbon footprint compared to shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. Outside of the community benefits of shopping locally, online shopping can actually often result in a smaller carbon footprint:
Thanks Sharon – I appreciate the feedback! Thanks for sending the article as well.
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