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.

I want my (M)TV [but not too much]

This post was written at the request of Mary Finucane, a blogger I like rather a lot. Mary has been blogging at Disney Princess Recovery since she removed all Disney Princess branded items from her home, and has provoked many interesting conversations about marketing to children, among other things.

Every so often, we really surprise people by not having a television. Technically, we’re not completely without one, as we have a special aerial thingy (that’s the technical term) that plugs into the computer. But it’s not plugged in all the time. You can’t just plonk down in front of the TV and watch it for hours. You have to actively want to watch something, and be willing to sit in an office chair to watch it. The same goes for our DVDs.

So yeah, no TV. It is unusual but my husband and I both grew up without one, because of our religious backgrounds. When we got married, it felt like something worth continuing, both for ourselves and for the kids we were hoping to have.

Maybe it’s because my exposure has been so minimal, but I get very drawn in to anything audiovisual. Even if it’s not very good. So I like to make an active choice about whether I’m going to watch something. I tend not to follow many shows at once. I avoid reality TV. At worst, I replace the time I would have spent watching TV on the internet, but at least that has the potential to be interactive. At best, I read, write, or do any number of better things in that time.

As far as kids go, we never let our daughter watch anything at all until she was two, mainly because that’s what’s recommended for kids’ eyes. After that, we let her watch a little bit. Sesame Street podcasts were a real lifesaver on the bus. She got a Wiggles DVD as her reward for giving up her dummy (pacifier) and she collected a couple of others. But I was staggered at how well she knew all the popular characters without ever seeing them on TV. Dora, Ben 10, Barbie, Disney Princesses, Yo Gabba Gabba and more were all familiar faces. Children are marketers’ dreams; they absorb every instance of every brand. So I was pleased that we’d set things up so that it would be hard for her to get over-exposed.

Now, she’s a savvy four-year-old. She can’t set up the TV, but she can put a DVD in the drive. She plays computer games that will supposedly teach her how to use a mouse and keyboard. So it seems more important to limit her screen time now. We don’t have a set time limit, but we try not to let her play or watch for too long on any given day (maybe half an hour to an hour at most), and we aim to have plenty of days with no screen time at all.

In terms of content, we’ve been pretty laissez-faire. At her age, I think her body image will be more shaped by positive, healthy comments from her parents than by whether Barbie could physiologically exist. And I’m happy for her to explore all kinds of portrayals of women, as long as they’re positive in some way. So Barbie and Disney Princesses aren’t banned in our house (although they might be if she got too obsessed with them, like Mary had to do). We allow some branded toys in the house, but try to keep control of it. Being relaxed has led us to making some mistakes, though, like assuming that she’d be OK with Toy Story 3 because she enjoyed the previous two (it was scary and she was traumatised).

So when Mary says

I’m guessing that since your home is tv-free, you are likely a mindful consumer, more aware of internal vs. external influences. I think that is an incredible form of protection.

I’m not sure if I’m quite living up to her expectation. I guess I try to be mindful without being extreme, but it doesn’t always work. The best I can say is that I’m actively parenting, trying not to repeat mistakes, and above all gauging what’s good by listening to my daughter and thinking about it and talking about it as a family. So far I think she has a healthy psyche, so I’m hopeful.

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.

Time to grow up, Australia!

Rudd’s plummet in the polls is interesting from a psychological perspective, even though it’s obviously not over yet. And Ross Gittins’s article on the topic got me thinking that politics is disturbingly similar to parenthood. (It’s not the first time I’ve thought so; the idea often crosses my mind when considering Middle Eastern politics.)

Apparently, what we really want from our leader is a bit of tough love. Someone who’ll do the right thing for the country (and world, in the case of climate politics) even if it hurts us a little. And because Rudd hasn’t don’t that, he’s become less popular. Instead of telling us that we can’t have any more lollies, he’s allowing us to keep the jar.

Perhaps our whole model of politics is wrong. We don’t need one Prime Minister (or better yet, President); we need two: a soft one and a strict one. How many parents operate like this? As children, we want as much as a softer parent will allow us, but we know that the stricter one is right.

Adding a new political role goes against my tendencies towards libertarianism and anarchy, but if my other ideas about politics were taken up (becoming  republic, so we ditch the governor general; abolishing state government; dramatically reducing politicians’ paychecks and superannuation) it would more than balance out.

Jokes aside, it is kind of sad that we can’t have a political system based on the opinions of mature adults. Instead, when we’re not being cynically manipulated for a politician’s career, we’re disappointed because we’re not being babysat enough. Can we just grow up and get on with it already?

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…