How to Reduce Your Kid's Single-Use Items

Close up portrait of sweet toddler kid eating fruit puree from plastic doy pack, sitting in stroller, outdoor snack time


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When you have kids, you realize you are using even more tissues, paper towels, water bottles, snack packs, and sandwich bags. Plus, if a newborn is in the house, you add some new items to the list; the demand for diapers, wet wipes, and baby food pouches is endless.

These disposable items are designed for convenience. You use them once and throw them in the trash, leaving you more time to manage work-life responsibilities. But this throwaway lifestyle poses a significant threat to the environment, contributing to climate change and affecting not only your future but the future of your kids.

The good news is that you can take some actionable steps to reduce the use of these single-use items in your family. Let's examine how your family's use of single-use items affects the environment and what changes you can make to reduce waste.

How Your Family's Single-Use Items Affect the Environment

Research shows that many environmental problems are tied to human consumption and population growth. Plus, with an overabundance of single-use items available in the stores to entice us, we continue to use more of them.

The more single-use items your family uses, the more it affects the environment primarily by producing unmanageable waste, creating plastic pollution, and using resources. Here is what you need to know about how those single-use items that seem to make your life easier impact the environment.

Produces Unmanageable Waste

Single-use items go from curbside trash to landfills. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 32% of all municipal solid waste—which includes various items consumers throw away after they are used—was recycled and composted in 2018, while 50% was sent to landfills.

What's more, this waste generation is not slowing down. It continues to pile up in packed-to-capacity landfills, creating more environmental stress.

And as garbage decomposes and produces methane and other greenhouse gases (GHG), it puts our health and the health of our planet at risk. In fact, the excessive use of single-use items by families is only aggravating the situation of excessive litter, which waste management services cannot manage.

Creates Plastic Pollution

If you notice, most disposable items you use for your kids are made from plastic or they have some plastic in them—whether it is a disposable diaper, a juice carton, or plastic packaging around your favorite products.

Plastic packaging, including plastic bags, accounts for nearly 40% of total plastic usage in the world.

In 2018, the EPA estimated 14.5 million tons of plastic packaging and containers were thrown in the trash while only 13.6% was recycled, 16.9% was incinerated, and 69% was sent to the landfill. In fact, plastic is the second most common waste material that is landfilled, including the ones that you think are recyclable.

Because plastic can take many years to degrade—approximately 10 to 500 years for single-use plastic items—they occupy landfills for a long time, leaching harmful toxins into the soil and groundwater as they break down.

Plus, truckloads of plastic items do not even make it to the landfill and end up in oceans and waterways affecting marine life. In addition to being detrimental to animal life, environmental plastic also has a significant impact on human health.

Another problem is that plastic production is a significant contributor to global warming. In fact, this petroleum-based product creates billions of tons of greenhouse gases (GHG) from production processes, transportation, and the extraction of fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal. 

Uses Valuable Resources

Single use-products, whether plastic or paper, use vital resources, which are in short supply. For instance, plastic production uses non-renewable resources, like oil and gas while paper products are made from trees. Even though trees are a renewable resource they still are not always grown sustainably. 

Paper also uses more energy and more water to produce than plastic. Plus, transporting a heavier product like paper also makes a larger contribution to vehicle emissions, along with GHG emissions from manufacturing and recycling processes.

How to Reduce Environmental Harm From Single-Use Items

If you are like most people, you are familiar with the 3Rs of sustainability are Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. You also probably try to do your part by recycling. 

But recycling is only part of the solution and is actually the last step in the hierarchical management of waste. If you want to have a noticeable impact on reducing environmental harm, you need to focus on reducing and reusing products first, especially when it comes to single-use items.

Using more single-use items means more waste and recycling facilities just cannot keep up. Plus, for many products, recycling is not economical or even available.


Interestingly, the concept of recycling can have the opposite effect on consumers because they tend to buy more single-use options when they know recycling is an option. Thus, the answer to sustainability lies in reducing the use of single-use items and using items that are reusable instead.

Common Single-Use Items For Your Kids 

Some of the most common single-use items used are diapers, wipes, paper products, juice cartons, snack packs, and plastic products. Using these products increases your family's carbon footprint when you consider the time, energy, and valuable resources that go into producing and transporting these products, only to be disposed into the trash after one use.

Just to get an idea of why reducing the use of single-use items is so important, let's look at some of the common single-use items that you may use and the impact of these items on the environment.

Diapers

Babies use an average of eight to 12 diapers in a day. If you do the calculations, you can understand that is a staggering number of diapers in a year for just one baby.

Plus, all those diapers get thrown in the weekly trash and end up in the landfill, heightening the problem of excessive waste. According to research, disposables make up 50% of the household waste in a family with a child in diapers.

How Diapers Hurt the Environment

Disposable diapers contain some wood pulp and paper but mainly contain various plastics and petroleum-derived products. Diapers also are not biodegradable and the plastic elements hang around for many years as they degrade slowly, while bacteria and pathogens from discarded poop find their way into the environment, potentially contaminating the soil and waterways.

The harmful effects of single-use diapers do not just stop there. Disposable diapers use 20 times more raw materials, like crude oil and wood pulp. The manufacture and use of these diapers amount to 2.3 times more water wasted than cloth diapers.

Wipes, Paper Towels, and Tissues

How many times in a day do you reach for a wet wipe, tissue, or a paper towel to clean spills, wipe leaky noses or clean your baby? According to statistics based on U.S. Census data and Simmons National Consumer Survey, 16.31 million Americans used pre-moist wipes 31 times or more within a week in 2020. That is a lot of wipes, along with the number of extra wipes used when you have children.

Also known as nonwovens—fibrous synthetic or natural materials bonded together with resin, chemicals, or pressure—wet wipes, clog up waterways, and sewer systems. They also endanger marine life if they are not disposed of properly. 

Even if you do not flush the wipes, wet wipes end up in the landfill, and because they contain plastic, they do not break down easily. 

Paper towels and tissues products such as toilet paper, facial tissue, and napkins may be considered a good eco-friendly option. But these products, too, have an environmental impact, as they aggravate the ever-increasing waste problem, especially when the demand keeps increasing.

Snack Packs, Single-Use Juice Cartons, and Plastics

Individual snack packs and cartons make it convenient for the kids to grab and go. But these items contribute to waste pollution, as well as food wastage, as kids generally do not consume all of their snacks.

Most snack packs, food pouches, and cartons are made from composite packaging—a mix of paper, plastics, and metal joined together with wax or resin. These products also are difficult and expensive to recycle.

They require specialized solutions to separate materials before they can be recycled properly. As a result, composite packaging is usually incinerated or landfilled.

Plastic bags, sandwich and snack bags, straws, and disposable water bottles also need to be considered. As you already know, these single-use plastic products have a devastating impact on the environment, increasing waste, affecting animal health, as well as increasing environmental pollution.

How to Reduce Common Single-Use Items Used For Kids

You may think that reusable items are the answer to this dilemma. But while reusable alternatives are quickly becoming popular as sustainable options, they are not always the best for the environment.

One study shows that reusable products are made from environmentally intensive materials and it takes more energy to wash them while producing more greenhouse gases. The study authors stress that reusable is not always the best option.

Instead, there is a need to extend the product's lifetime and to practice the best washing behaviors. Here are some suggestions for how you can reduce the use of some common single-use items in your family while using simple strategies to keep the environment clean.

Make Sustainable Diaper Swaps

Without any significant recycling and composting facilities, disposable diapers are harmful to the environment. But you can make some easy sustainable swaps to reduce the impact of single-use diapers, such as cloth diapers and biodegradable single-use diapers.

Cloth Diapers range from basic flat cloth diapers to all-in-ones, including those with leak-proof outer cover and absorbent inserts. Made from a variety of eco-friendly and unbleached materials, such as cotton, bamboo, wool, and hemp, cloth diapers are the most environmentally friendly option as they can be rewashed and reused. And they ensure waste matter goes into the sewer, rather than the trash.

Another “green” alternative to single-use disposable diapers is single-use biodegradable diapers, which use sustainable production processes and are made from materials like recycled paper, wood pulp, bamboo, and corn. 

Some biodegradable diapers can also be composted, but only in specialized composting facilities. So, it’s important to look out for a diaper composting service if you choose to use these types of diapers.

Use Cloth Wipes

Instead of single-use wet wipes for your baby, swap with washable cloth wipes. Made from cotton, linen, hemp, or wool, these wipes are a chemical-free alternative to disposable wet wipes. You can also use reusable washcloths with safe cleaning products for babies.

As for disinfecting wipes, most messes can easily be cleaned with a cloth and an eco-friendly cleaning agent. There are even some non-toxic biodegradable alternatives for conventional wet wipes made from natural fibers. But they need to be composted and never flushed.

Refrain From Flushing Wipes

Whether you use single-use wipes, or biodegradable ones, or even those that are marketed as “flushable," do not flush the wipes. Make sure you dispose of them in the trash or add them to the compost heap.

Use Green Paper Towels

Besides washable clothes, use paper towels and toilet paper made from recycled paper or sustainable materials like bamboo, which reduces the harmful impact on the environment. Also, use FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council) paper products, which indicates that the items are made from responsibly managed forests.

Buy in Bulk

Buy yogurt, dry fruits, juice, and other snacks in bigger packages rather than in individual-sized portions. Doing so not only saves you money but also ensures less packaging waste in the landfill. When you consume less of these individually packaged food and drinks, the benefits also pass on to the environment because fewer resources and energy are used in production and distribution.

Get Reusable Containers

Use eco-friendly reusable containers and lunch boxes to pack snacks for your kids when you are on the go. For baby food, invest in reusable food pouches. And when at home, use child-friendly bowls, plates, and cups, which can be washed and reused anytime.

Use Reusable Food Storage Bags

Opt for a reusable non-toxic sandwich and snack bags made from waxed fabric. Or you can wrap sandwiches, muffins, and other snacks with beeswax wrap. This is a great alternative for cling wrap too and you can use it to wrap over food containers to store in the fridge or freezer.

Beeswax wraps are washable and reusable, and even prevent food spoilage because of the inherent antimicrobial properties of beeswax.

Buy a Reusable Water Bottle

Swap disposable water bottles with a reusable stainless steel drink bottle for your kids. These are not only eco-friendly but also durable and best of all can be rinsed and reused. If you choose to buy a reusable plastic bottle, make sure it is BPA-free.

BPA or bisphenol A is a chemical used to make certain plastics, such as polycarbonate plastics typically used in food and beverage containers. It is also used in epoxy resins used to coat inside metal products like food cans and bottle tops. Research has shown that BPA leaches from these containers into food and beverages and can have harmful effects on human health.

Use Reusable Straws

Ditch disposable straws and invest in some washable stainless steel or bamboo ones. Food-grade silicone straws are also a suitable replacement for single-use straws. Although you should know that silicone straws can only be recycled in specialized facilities.

Another convenient option, especially for younger kids, is to buy reusable straw cups or sippy cups for babies. Ultimately, as your children get a little older, you can do away with straws completely.

A Word From Verywell

Both single-use and reusable products come at a cost to the environment, and it can be quite confusing for you and your family to make sustainable changes. Having said that, single-use products have a much bigger environmental impact with larger greenhouse gas emissions and waste generation. Plus, they contribute to the ever-growing problem of plastic pollution, which is detrimental to our planet and our health.

Ultimately, you and your family need to make some smart changes by researching your best options for reusable products. Choose products that have the lowest impact on the environment and modify the way your family consumes and disposes of products and their packaging.

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