Striped wooden toy zebra

Plastic-free with kids

For Plastic Free Friday, Bettina (aka @plasticfreehackney), mother of 2 small children, tells us about her plastic-free family life. It's not easy, but it can be done.
  28 Feb 2018    |      6 min
Children enjoying playing with plastic-free toys
Children don't need plastic...
Credit: @PlasticFreeHackney

After years flirting with a plastic-free lifestyle (plastic bags and I parted ways more than 15 years ago), I decided to fully embrace it last year.

I could no longer tut-tut about the amount of plastic on a beach, or get angry about plastic litter on the street, while my own bin filled up with all the plastic that sadly goes hand in hand with modern life. I also worry about the kind of world my boys will grow up in.

After stumbling across the zero waste community online, I had my epiphany and began cutting down on the waste my family creates – especially plastic.

Bringing up kids these days can seem like you’ve signed up to a plastic tat subscription service.

Changing our plastic habits

Living plastic free didn’t happen overnight, but as the past year has progressed I’ve found it easier and easier. Old habits have been replaced with new, better habits. Now I can’t imagine living any other way.

One of the hardest challenges has been accommodating the needs of my 2 small boys, Dominic (5) and Dexter (2). Bringing up kids these days can seem like you’ve signed up to a plastic tat subscription service. But although some plastic is unavoidable, it’s not impossible to drastically reduce it.

Yellow bananas, green apple and glass of milky smoothie
Healthy, plastic-free snack food

Plastic-free snacking

Food on the go creates a huge amount of plastic waste. The alternative does require a bit of preparation – single use plastic is usually designed for convenience, after all.

It’s become second nature to leave the house with our reusable steel water bottles – an infinitely better choice than a plastic bottle of sugary fruit juice. If we’re in a café the boys can have a juice, in a glass, plastic straw free of course.

Instead of processed fruit snacks wrapped in plastic I pack real, fresh fruit. Bananas and apples are easy to chuck in my bag and a much healthier choice. All plastic free and much cheaper.

Plasticless mealtimes

At home I cook for the boys as much as possible – nothing fancy, but it’s healthier, and plastic free.

Pasta and pesto, a firm favourite, is made with pasta I’ve either bought unpackaged from bulk stores or a brand in a cardboard box. Pesto is widely available in recyclable glass jars – my local deli even refills my own jars. Eggs, fish fingers etc come in cardboard boxes. Our veg comes plastic free from the greengrocers.

Shop selling loose nuts, beans, eggs etc
Package-free bulk options at the E5 Bakehouse shop, London
Credit: @PlasticFreeHackney

At home the boys eat using stainless steel cutlery, and have real plates and drinking glasses. So far the only breakages have been caused by me. If you’re worried about having your best china broken you can buy cheap plates from a charity shop, or find tableware made of bamboo, tempered glass or stainless steel.

Small boy with metal spoon and ceramic cup
Kids are fine with real, non-plastic cutlery and crockery
Credit: PlasticFreeHackney

Can you avoid plastic toys?

When my boys were babies and I could control the toys they played with, it was wood all the way. But now that they can articulate precisely what they want (namely Playmobil and Lego), plastics have made their way into our home. To counteract this, I have a pretty simple rule for toys: no new plastic.

Toddler playing with colourful wooden toy crane on wheels
Wooden crane: £3 bargain from school fair
Credit: @PlasticFreeHackney

Last Christmas all toys, plastic or not (they also love wooden Brio trains) were bought second-hand from local charity shops or eBay. There’s a huge amount available, most in excellent condition. And as a welcome bonus, much cheaper than buying new.

I’ve realised that kids really don’t care whether it’s brand new or just new to them. If they put it on their Christmas list and Santa delivers, it’s all the same.

Cutting plastic demand, gradually

By buying second-hand I feel I’m not creating a demand for more plastic to be produced. I'm also saving plastics from ending up in landfill. Plus I avoid all the associated plastic packaging that comes with new toys.

Of course the boys will still receive the odd plastic gift or party bag fodder that will be plastic, but as friends and family have become aware of my change in lifestyle they are more considerate and respect that.

Books are great presents (and if they’re on a topic that teaches kids about the environment, even better). But I’m also a realist, and accept there are going to be plastic gifts. In which case I’m always gracious and see it as a tool to educate the boys on why they need to look after their belongings, so they can hand them on when they’re older. Plastic is forever, after all.

Building a plastic-free future

I’ve found it’s important to educate the boys on the reasons behind our plastic-free life and not just dictate to them, so that they can feel involved.

Children tend to have a closer affinity to animals, so explaining the harm that plastics are causing to fish, birds and mammals it really resonates with them.

While my youngest son has only ever known a plastic-free existence, my older boy is a convert and, if anything, is even more zealous than I am.

Friends of the Earth’s #PlasticFreeFriday is a great campaign. Going plastic free (or dramatically reducing your plastic consumption) is a gradual process, and dedicating one day a week to it really focuses you on how much you use.

I urge everyone to take the pledge and give it go. If we all make small changes and are more mindful of the way we consume we can hopefully create a cleaner, greener world for our children to grow up in.

A few of my favourite plastic-free swaps for kids

Multi-coloured wooden pencils with shavings on desk
Wooden colouring pencils can be more creative than felt-tip pens
  • Colouring pencils over felt/fibre-tip pens – the shavings can be put in the compost bin and are plastic free.
  • Bubble bath bars from Lush – crumble a bit in the bath and swirl for a plastic-free bubble bath.
  • Experiences over things – last Christmas my sister and I agreed on taking our kids to the theatre over physical presents, a trip they’ll remember long after a toy has been forgotten about.
  • Stainless steel straws – I carry these in my handbag so if the kids do want a straw we can skip the plastic.

See more from Bettina's plastic-free life.