Words: Annie Ridout
Image: Barney Beech

When our daughter Joni was a couple of days old, I walked into the nursery to find her lying half-naked on the changing unit with my husband leaning over her – simultaneously reaching for a wipe, tossing a used nappy in the bin and frowning. He turned to me. “They’re not very good for the environment, babies, are they?” He was right, they’re not. According to the Environment Agency, 2.5 billion disposable nappies are sold each year in the UK, accounting for 4 per cent of all household waste and they can take up to 500 years to decompose. Now add to the mix wipes, clothes for a constantly growing baby, washing products and discarded toys.

We all know that the world is grossly over-populated, that more babies mean a greater strain on the earth’s resources and that, frankly, the future is looking bleak. And yet we can’t seem to quell this desire to expand our families. My hope is that Joni will grow up to be an environmental scientist, or set up a self-sustaining commune, in which case she’ll counteract the damage she’s already done by simply being born. But she might not, so I’ve decided to explore the best ways to have a green(er) baby.

This is a biggie because there is no alternative to nappies: your baby has to be covered around the nether regions. And so we go into the disposable vs reusable debate. Well, it seems both are as bad as each other – resulting in a global warming impact of 550kg of carbon dioxide equivalents and 570kg respectively. That’s harmful greenhouse gases the weight of a large motorbike being released into the atmosphere over the two and a half years the average child is in nappies.

Reusables would appear to be better for the environment as they don’t end up as landfill but they require washing, which uses energy. That said, there are ways to reduce the impact such as using a laundry service that washes them en masse rather than doing your own small daily washes.

However, it seems the best option with nappies is to use biodegradable nappies, like the Beaming Baby ones I use (not at all smug that I’m getting this right already). They are 65 per cent biodegradable, including the packaging, and contain 30 per cent less chemicals so are gentler on your baby’s skin. This is particularly good for babies prone to eczema or other skin conditions. And the best news? Buy them in bulk and they will cost 22p per nappy – a penny less than Pampers (for size 1).

Again, with wipes, biodegradable options reign supreme. Try Bio Wipies, which you can order online here. They are 100 per cent natural and biodegradable, made using essential oils including ylang ylang and chamomile and cost £0.04 per wipe, compared to Johnson’s chemical-infused Baby Gentle Cleansing Wipes, which will set you back a whopping 2.7p per wipe.

Writer Annie Ridout and daughter Joni in vintage OshKosh dungarees

Ecover, who offer a great range of reduced-chemical household products like multi-action spray, washing powder and room fragrance, say: “it’s not just about banning the nasty chemicals or looking at how well a product works, but about understanding every part of our product journeys: from sourcing the ingredients to finally being absorbed back into the environment, and everything in between”. This ethos should be adopted by all manufacturers. Using these products around the house means you can worry less about your baby licking the table after you’ve cleaned it (is that every baby, or just Joni?) and inhaling chemicals from room sprays and polish.

When it comes to baby lotions olive oil or coconut oil are cheap, natural and gentle. They can be used for cradle cap, dry skin and nappy rash. Weleda creams are also toxin-free; the cream bath is a personal favourite.

The greenest and cheapest way to travel with a baby is on foot or by bicycle. My sister gave me a bike but I’m too scared to cycle in London on my own, let alone with Joni, so I asked cycling aficionado Laura Amiss, artist and mother-of-three, who lives in Holland and uses a bike as her primary means of transport, for some advice. She cycled with all three babies in a sling, a practice not common – or advised – in England. But, she says, “it’s easier to cycle with little ones in Holland as the infrastructure and the traffic laws are in place to support and protect cyclists”.

She also cites a cultural difference in attitude. “Cycling is integral to the Dutch way of life. It’s not uncommon to see people cycling with huge plants or suitcases balanced on the back of their bikes and if you can’t cycle holding an umbrella and two kids on your bike, forget it.” Most people don’t wear helmets, children included, as the Dutch are educated from a young age about being road and traffic aware.

To transport her children and artwork, Amiss uses a bakfiets: a long bike with a wooden or metal carriage at the front. “They are great, you can throw all sorts in for your day out, shopping or school runs.” Bakfiets are beginning to appear in England too, with little red flags to alert passing cars. Soon I’ll be carting Joni around in one, Dutch-style. Watch this space.

Laura Amiss cycles her three kids (one not yet born) home from the garden centre

Plastic is a big no-no if you want to look after the planet. It doesn’t biodegrade, so it never really disappears – lingering long after being dumped. The parts that do break down on landfill sites release toxins that contaminate soil, infect water and harm animals. And recycling it uses lots of energy – so it’s best avoided altogether.

This is how: invest in wooden rather than plastic toys. The manufacturing process has a lesser impact on the environment. You can also save money by using recycled household items. Joni and her baby friends play tug-of-war with the egg carton; it is that popular. Wooden spoons and bowls are a winner – they bang and bash with delight – and empty bottles or lidded pots filled with uncooked pasta or dried lentils make great homemade shakers.

Kids don’t need big fancy flashing battery-operated plastic toys; they need to be given the chance to use their imagination. Teach them to build dens, tell stories, dress-up, turn the sitting room into a theatre.

Babies really do get through clothes quickly so my suggestion – to save money and the planet – is to buy secondhand off Ebay or from your local charity shops; affluent areas often have the best stock. Joni’s coolest clothes were sent by a friend in Chamonix: hot pink OshKosh dungarees and an orange knitted cardigan – both secondhand.

If you’re feeling crafty, you could take up knitting or crochet and make your own. But if you don’t have time – and what mum does – you can buy beautiful upcycled kids’ clothes from Mini Magpie, or organic, fairtrade cotton clothes from Little Green Radicals.

In the early days, when I had to take three changes of clothing for Joni every time I went out for fear of poo-mageddon, the stained tops were a pain. I’ve since learned two earth-friendly methods for removing stains from your whites: hang clothing out in the sun to bleach the stain away or squeeze lemon juice on, rub until it’s gone and then whack it in with your other whites.

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