Individuals kicking the plastic habit: is it enough?

Let me just preface this by saying that I think Beth Terry is fantastic. In case you don’t know, Beth has a website (really, it’s more than just a blog) called My Plastic-Free Life that basically documents her journey of giving up plastic and encourages others to do the same. I’m relatively new to it, but she’s been around since 2007.

It’s great, don’t get me wrong. Plastic is evil; it never goes away and it’s probably not all that good for you (but what is?). I’ve been trying to reduce our plastic consumption too, and have made some big steps: swapping to cloth nappies/diapers and wipes, purchasing metal water bottles, and banning liquid soap from the house. We’ve also been cutting down on tissues and packaged cleaning products, and I’ll continue to cut down as I’m able. Suggestions welcome.


Firstly, the whinge. It’s hard. It’s time-consuming. And it’s expensive. Especially with kids. Many of Beth’s recommendations centre around going to the farmers’ markets with your own cloth bags (not just to carry shopping in, but to bag each type of fruit, vegetable and legume). And buying bread that’s not packaged. And asking every online retailer you ever shop with to please not wrap your products in plastic. I could go on.

Do I have to point out how much all of this is not going to happen? Yes, certainly we could plan better and always have green bags with us, but sometimes we don’t and need to pick something up on the way home. You know, so as to feed the kids and all. Farmers’ market? Butcher? Deli? The supermarket is one of my coping mechanisms as a working mother; often our shopping happens late at night when everything else is shut. And don’t even get me started on the suggestions of “just make [bread/crackers/jam/sauce/tofu] yourself”. In all my spare time, sure. I’ll also get my own cow and milk her.

Then there’s the plastic that kids just attract, like magnets. Not just food packaging, but toys. Toy packaging. Toys begged for. Toys given as gifts. And soon enough, there will be toys bought with own money. Not to mention other miscellaneous stuff, like potties and high chairs and car seats. These things are mentioned in a guest post on My Plastic-Free Life, actually; one commenter suggested taking presents away before the kids get them. That might work for our baby, but I’d like to see someone try that trick with our almost-five-year-old.

Still, gradually we can educate and improve and make better choices, especially as our finances improve with time. Sure.

But then, secondly. Really, what’s the point in making these reductions? There’s the feel-good factor, doing something positive for the environment. But in the scheme of the world’s population (not to mention industry) it’s insignificant. I don’t think our tip is appreciably smaller because of the disposable nappies that we didn’t dump in it.

To me, the only real point is to make a point. To show that it’s possible, and then to push for legislation. Because the mounds of plastic are not going to go away because I carried a few organic veges in a hemp bag. They’re going to lessen, maybe, when the companies making them are forced to do better. When bottled water is taxed at 1000% or more. And when we start pushing, as cliched as it may be, for a better future for our children.

Really not that difficult

Nothing in this post is new as such, but I’m hoping that it might be new for someone. If you don’t think cloth is for you; if you think I’m crazy or “too” concerned about the environment (is there such thing?); if you don’t have kids but might in the future — just hear me out anyway. Give it a few minutes of thought.

Because things have changed. Using cloth nappies (or diapers) is not as hard as it used to be. Really. There’s no soaking, no folding, no plastic pilchers, and a lot less leaking.

As a brief intro to the method, I invite you to spot the difference:

Cloth Disposable
Put nappy on child Put nappy on child
Take nappy off child when wet/soiled Take nappy off child when wet/soiled
Place wet nappy in wet bag, or rinse first if soiled Place wet nappy in bin, or place in nappy sack first if soiled
Empty wet bag into washing machine when full; turn on washing machine Empty rubbish bin into council bin when full
Hang nappies in the sun to dry and disinfect; when dry, snap together and put away Rush out madly to restock nappies when you’ve run out or they’re on sale

The main reason why it’s so much easier is the materials used. Modern cloth nappies are made of bamboo or hemp (often organic, if that floats your boat) or microfleece; these are more absorbent and dry faster than the cotton squares that your parents may have used. They’re also shaped more like a disposable nappy and fasten with velcro or snaps, rather than dreaded safety pins. Wet bags contain the smell and eliminate the dangers of full nappy buckets for small, mobile children.

Yes, there’s some extra washing, but it’s not as though you need to take them down to the river and scrub them by hand. If you use cloth full-time, you’re looking at three extra washes per week, max; some people run the nappies on a rinse cycle first before adding other clothes.

The main benefits, apart from the obvious environmental ones, are a saving of thousands of dollars per child, and the elimination of some of the nasty chemicals used in disposables (eg, sodium polyacrylate [now banned from tampons] and various carcinogens such as dioxins). An appeal for some is how cute and colourful they are; so much nicer than being covered with the same generic cartoons every time.

There’s a bewildering array of brands and styles that suit different needs and tastes, and that’s why trying before you buy makes sense. Many companies offer trial packs and there is even a nappy library. I’ve been availing myself of the latter (and have paid for the service, for anyone watching for conflicts of interest). I considered reviewing the brands I’ve tried so far, but decided it’s overload. Just ask me if you’re interested.

Don’t leave it to the genes

Here‘s why I’ve always been opposed to the movement pushing homosexuality as being OK because it’s “probably genetic”. I’m young enough, educated enough and idealistic enough to think that that shouldn’t be necessary at all; it shouldn’t matter whether people prefer men, women, both, neither, or anywhere in between. But I’m sympathetic to the reasoning behind the “genetic” movement; it’s a more realistic stance in one sense, as it recognises that there’s a long way to go before that’s a widely accepted belief.

Still, it’s a dangerous tactic, pinning everything onto genes. The genome is a Pandora’s box that’s been open for almost 10 years, and it’s to be expected that geneticists will go digging for anything that anyone hypothesised is genetic in origin. Behavioural traits are no exception.

But the relationship between genotype and phenotype is far more complex than was previously thought. Let’s put aside the rights and wrongs of antenatal treatment of genetic quirks that may cause “abnormal” sex and gender; this topic has been covered in the article linked in Begley’s article (linked in the first paragraph) and elsewhere. What I suspect will emerge over time is that, like many complex behaviours (or even complex physical attributes), homosexuality and lesbianism won’t be pinned down to one gene. What they will find is that all (or most) women with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) will be lesbians, but not all lesbians will have CAH.

In the meantime, women and their fetuses are put at risk of side effects of medication not being tested in randomised controlled trials, all in the hope of preventing something that’s arguably not a disease (by which I mean CAH, not its corollaries of lesbianism or aspirations beyond playing and keeping house). This is not smart; parents are being promised something that is not achievable, meritorious, or helpful for their children, who will grow up in a more inclusive environment than exists currently. I hope they will, anyway.

Your life in landfill

The proverbial straw, for me, was the disposable toothbrush. Of course, most toothbrushes are disposable (except for these), but I’m talking about the single-use variety. Apparently these have been around for a while, but (because I spend so much time avoiding popular culture) they’ve only just caught my attention. Could there be anything more absurd? Can they possibly do a better job on-the-go as a stick of chewing gum?

Presumably, we’re just too busy to plan ahead for our one-night stands… or whatever other occasion you might want to brush your teeth when not in your own bathroom. Likewise, too busy to put a tablet of Berocca into a glass of water.

Isn’t it about time that there was some kind of regulation governing this type of ridiculous product? Clearly, people can’t be relied upon to make intelligent, sustainable choices about these things. Tissues, paper towels, single-use plastic containers, bottled water… all these things are not only going into landfill, but also cost energy to manufacture.

I’m well aware that as a parent using disposable nappies (aka diapers) it’s hypocritical to say this, but at least nappies are used for a finite period of life. And I am actually giving cloth nappies a go. I’m probably better placed to do this than most women, as my husband does all our laundry: for too many families, cloth nappies are just another burden on women. So I’m all for seeing our disposable lives as a community problem that needs to be solved collectively.

That’s why I think we should deal with the most inane of these products first and work our way up to the ones that are actually useful — it might be worthwhile to create recyclable or biodegradable versions of these. (There are already several brands of biodegradable nappies). Half a brain and half a conscience should be enough to deal with this kind of rubbish.

Parenting: the evidence

My son is nine weeks old now and I’m tired. I know that’s a given at this stage of life. But I have this persistent feeling that I should be getting more done. Life doesn’t stop when a baby’s born; there’s still a house to clean, bills to be paid, brains to stimulate (mine as well as his).

The thought of getting him onto a routine seemed really attractive. I borrowed a suitable book from the library and started the mental preparation for it. There were lots of useful ideas in it, but I had some misgivings, mainly about the frequency of breastfeeds suggested for his age. The author also admitted that the book was based on her anecdotal findings rather than medical recommendations.

So I decided to return to first principles and do some research. But it was initially difficult to find information on my specific question: How many feeds should a baby have in 24 hours? I found some interesting websites on evidence-based parenting and breastfeeding, and many interesting Cochrane reviews (current and planned).

I got side-tracked by a feminist critique of expectations placed on mothers and the World Health Organization’s breastfeeding guidelines (despite the WHO not being in our best books right now, I was interested in how firm they were about not introducing solids before 6 months; no big pharma behind that one, surely).

Still nothing concrete, although the WHO did recommend feeding “on demand”. But looking at the WHO site made me think more internationally. I wondered how women in other cultures feed their babies, and also how other mammals (especially our closest relatives, the chimpanzee) fed theirs.

Then I found an anthropology on Google Books, Hunter-gatherer childhoods, with a lot of interesting info. Apparently, mammals that carry their infants with them also feed them more or less continuously; evolutionarily, humans fall into this category. Hunter-gatherer women follow this model, essentially practising attachment parenting — they feed their infants constantly, carry them most or all the time, and sleep with them at night. Like other continuous-feeding mammals, their milk is more dilute than spaced feeders like rabbits, which leave their young in a nest or burrow and feed them at intervals.

Most women in developed countries feed more like rabbits than chimpanzees; for the most part, their babies seem to manage OK, but there’s no definite research into this. Certainly humans are very adaptive and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle can’t suit women who return to work, or who have limited support.

Still, I think it’s valuable to try and match our lifestyle to our design as closely as possible. I’d be interested in research into how different feeding patterns can affect health later in life, as well as general infant wellbeing (we always hear that colic doesn’t exist in developing countries, for example).

In the meantime, I’ve put the idea of a routine on the back burner. But it seemed like as soon as I relaxed about it, he started sleeping better anyway. They’re always one step ahead…