Yes, that little bundle of joy has a significant eco-impact, but there are easy ways to keep the impact tiny as your little tot grows.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 18 billion disposable diapers—or 3.6 million tons—are sent to landfills each year, or enough, " to stretch from the moon and back at least seven times.” Disposable diapers make up the third largest source of solid waste in US landfills. And because disposable diapers are not biodegradable, it takes more than 500 years for them to break down.
Before you deck out baby's boudoir with a wooden crib, rocking chair, changing table, toy chest etc consider the eco-impact wooden furniture has on Mother Earth. Wood is a growing business with the US representing almost one-third of the global wood-buying market. The earth’s land surface used to be approximately 46 percent forest, but today, nearly half of the world’s original forests have been cut down. An average of 20 million additional hectares (an area the size of England, Scotland, and Wales combined) are cut down every year and in the next 30 years, global wood consumption is expected to double. Although it has taken 8,000 years to lose these original forests, the majority of the loss started around 1980.
The health hazards posed by plastic baby toys have been making headlines, but even more alarming, are the findings that plastic baby feeding supplies and accessories leach the same toxic chemicals as some plastic toys. The effect of this toxic leaching could be even more pronounced since these items are designed to be in the baby's mouth. Due to their origins, all plastic products are detrimental to the environment, but two specific types of plastic—Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polycarbonate—are especially dangerous in baby’s cups and spoons.
Polycarbonate plastic—used in the manufacture of over 90 percent of major baby bottle and sippy cup brands—requires bisphenol A (BPA) to give the plastic clarity, durability, and flexibility, but the substance can liquefy and leach into drinks. BPA has been linked to cancer, impaired immune function, early onset of puberty, obesity, diabetes, and hyperactivity, and is especially dangerous to fetuses and children under the age of 3.
The baby food market is dominated by three brands: Gerber, which controls 70 percent, Heinz, and Beech-Nut. Organic baby foods now represent 2.5 percent of the market and is growing rapidly. In 2006, sales of organic baby food jumped by 22 percent. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), products labeled organic must be produced using nationally approved standards. Farmers who produce organic foods focus on the use of renewable resources and sustainable practices, including soil and water conservation. Organic food is produced without most conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, ionizing radiation, or bioengineering. Organic meats, dairy, poultry, and eggs come from animals that were not given growth hormones or antibiotics.
Proper disposing of all this food packaging is just as important as its components. Over 2 million tons of food bottles and jars (including baby food jars) were discarded in 2005, with only 15 percent being recycled. The remaining 1.8 million tons were dumped in landfills or incinerated.
Baby bedding can be made from natural fibers (like cotton, wool, and bamboo) and synthetic materials (like polyester, acrylic, and nylon). Synthetic fibers are made from petrochemicals, which are non-renewable resources and contribute to the environmental hazards associated with petroleum procurement and processing, including disruption of land and ocean habitats and pollution of air and water supplies. Conventionally grown natural fibers have their own environmental impacts, most notably chemical pollution from pesticides and fertilizers, and dyes, bleaches and treatments. Untreated and organic fibers minimize some of these environmental costs because they are grown and processed with sustainable agricultural processes.
A major detrimental environmental impact of baby clothing lies in the farming of conventional cotton, considered to be the world's most pesticide-intensive crop. Cotton uses only 2.4 percent of the world’s cropland, but accounts for 24 percent of global insecticide sales. In the United States, an estimated one-third pound of agricultural chemicals are used to produce a single cotton T-shirt. The various chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil micro-organisms, pollute ground and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife—including fish, birds, and livestock. Additionally, up to 70 percent of genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds are used in conventional cotton farming in the United States.
The number one concern when buying children’s toys—both for the environment as well as the child’s health—is toxic chemicals. Many plastic toys are made from PVC. PVC contaminates our air and water with potent toxins, like dioxins, throughout its lifecycle (that is, from production to disposal). Teethers, squeeze toys, beach balls, bath toys, and dolls are among the most common toys made from PVC. Phthalates, used in many plastic toys, also pose risks to the environment and children’s health. Baby toys, such as bath books, rubber ducks, and teething rings, often contain diisononyl phthalate (DINP), a plasticizer commonly used in soft vinyl products made for babies. Another phthalate, BPA, is often used in shatter-resistant baby bottles. Dibutyl phthalates and other toxic chemicals are found in play cosmetics, like nail polish. All of these chemicals have been found to disrupt hormones and development, and have been linked to cancer.
Green Your Baby
- bisphenol A (BPA): A chemical building block used to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. Studies have linked BPA to hormone disruption, increased breast and prostate cancer cell growth, and early onset puberty, and obesity.
- dibutyl phthalates: A commonly used plasticizer (a chemical added to plastic to make it more flexible), also found in cosmetics like nail polish. There is public concern about phthalates because of their widespread use and occurrence in the environment. Phthalates can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system, particularly the developing testes, according to animal studies.
- diisononyl phthalates (DINP): DINP is a mixture of isomers, about 95 percent of which is used in PVC as a plasticiser. The US Environmental Protection Agency has found "sufficient evidence that chemicals in the DINP category can reasonably be anticipated to cause cancer or other serious or irreversible chronic liver, kidney, or developmental toxicity in humans."
- dioxins: Dioxins are extremely persistent chemical compounds that are created inadvertently by human activities like incineration and fuel combustion. Dioxins break down slowly so they persist in the environment for many years. Exposure to dioxins may cause adverse health effects, such as cancer, reproductive and developmental disorders, and skin disease.
- genetically modified organism: A GMO is created by merging the genetic make-up of two organisms, resulting in a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.
- phthalates: Phthalates are additives that are widely used in plastics and other materials, mainly to make them soft and flexible. They have applications in industry, in medicine and in consumer products. There is public concern about phthalates because of their widespread use and occurrence in the environment.Phthalates can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system, particularly the developing testes, according to animal studies.
- polyvinyl chloride (PVC): A strong plastic polymer that can be made flexible through the use of plasticizers. These plasticizers, not the PVC itself, can be toxic and carcinogenic. However, the monomer used to make PVC, vinyl chloride, is carcinogenic, posing a serious health threat to the people who work at factories where PVC is created.
- Low Impact Living - Green Childrens' Rooms
- Mother Earth Nursery - Eco Friendly Baby & Family Products
- The Green Guide - Wood Furniture: The Problems
- World Revolution - Forests
- The Nature Conservancy - The Role of Forests in Reducing Emissions
- WoodConsumption.org - RCA Newsletter - May 2001: Campaigns and Events
- Squidoo - How To Find A Safer Sippy Cup
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2005
- WWF - Cotton Farming
- Organic Consumers Association - Clothes for a Change: Background Info
- Organic Exchange - About Organic Cotton brochure