Plastic Free July: Kid Challenges

Published July 31, 2014

by Heather Doggett, Director of Visitor Programs and Staff Training

Being the mother of a 5-year-old boy, many of the toddler gadgets, chewable toys and baby supplies are behind me. Now, I look ahead to the first school supply shopping extravaganza as my son and I excitedly prepare for kindergarten! It seems like only moments ago I was thinking about diapering options and smashing cooked carrots for home-made baby food. My colleague Holly Fowler (Manager of Conservation Programs) has a nearly 2-year-old, and I’m glad to share some of her eco-friendly tips for parents of toddlers who want to make a difference for their family and for the oceans.

As a five year National Aquarium staff member, Holly has seen the effects of marine debris firsthand and has long been making efforts to reduce single-use items from her general lifestyle. Here, she shares her thoughts on how much more complicated this pursuit can be with a busy toddler in the picture.


Plastic Free July has forced me to really acknowledge something I’ve been vaguely aware of for the past two years - from the first moments after birth, plastic is everywhere in the lives of today’s babies and toddlers. Just about every toy, pacifier, even books and shoes, are mostly plastic. Not all of it is bad, of course. Plastic life support helps many newborns through their first weeks of life, bottles and pumps allow working mothers to continue to breastfeed, and plastic car seats keep our little ones safe. The problem is the onslaught of products and messages telling new parents that life with your child can be better and easier thanks to disposable convenience items. Single-serve packaging starts with formula and only gets worse as solid foods come into the picture. Many baby foods are now offered in plastic cups and the oh-so-convenient squeeze pouches rather than traditional glass. For messy toddlers, you better make sure your outings include disposable bibs, one-time-use plastic placemats, and “take and toss” sippy cups. Having to stop and wash a cup would surely interfere with family time.

Diaper Bag

Pictured above, a mom-blogger shares her diaper bag "must haves," touting the convenience of reusable bibs and place mats.


By far, the defining single-use plastic of babyhood is the disposable diaper. Add to that the diapering “must have” of a special trash can for dirty diapers that puts each one into its own little plastic bag before going into a larger trash bag. Iconic images of babies in white plastic diapers are part of the fabric of the messaging we see in advertising, and many well-intentioned parents never even consider an alternative.

Cloth diapers can be a very intimidating concept for new parents, but the array of types and styles available today make it easier and more convenient than ever. Yes, you have to wash them. And, yes, it can be gross – but let’s face it, the “bad ones” are going to be bad regardless of the type of diaper. The good news is that cloth diapers can benefit baby, parents and the environment alike. The soft, breathable fabric is healthy for baby’s skin, and they’re free of the chemicals found in most disposables. Most importantly to some, cloth diapering can save you lots of money. Then, of course, there’s the benefit of saving raw materials used to make the diapers as well as landfill space taken up by the dirties. A quick web search can pull up resources that break down the cost savings and other values into very convincing details.

Cloth Diapers

Inhabitots Cloth diapers aren’t just more sustainable, they’re cuter!


Now it is time to admit that the life of my almost-two-year-old daughter has not been single-use plastic free. As a working mother, convenience sometimes reigns. I always keep a stash of apple sauce squeeze pouches, because sometimes we’re running around and she needs a snack NOW. And while I’ve had a wonderful experience with cloth diapering, I’ve always used a disposable at night. Even a conservation professional sometimes has to sacrifice her convictions in the name of a good night’s sleep.

The goal is not to drive ourselves crazy doing everything perfectly while raising children, and the same goes for efforts to eliminate plastic convenience items from our lives. For me, it is all about picking my battles and trying to prioritize the items that might make the most difference. Packing a reusable sippy cup and taking it home to wash at the end of the day is hardly any extra effort over buying and carrying disposables, and can represent significant resource and cost savings. You don’t have to use cloth diapers or other reusable items exclusively to make it worthwhile; every individual diaper, or baggie, or plastic straw saved represents a positive impact.

Reusable Baby Food Pouches

A great alternative--reusable pouches with homemade or bulk-packaged food.


So, parents, I challenge you to think about the situations in your daily lives where you can make a sustainable change. Join me in setting goals that are realistic and reasonable, not a quest for plastic-free perfection. After all, with a little one on your hands you’ve already got plenty to worry about!

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Heather Doggett

Director of Visitor Programs and Staff Training

National Aquarium - Heather Doggett

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