Based purely on numbers, my family of five is a complete carbon nightmare. According to a study published in 2017 in the journal Environmental Research Letters, the environmental toll of having children is substantial. My three kids combined produce an estimated 175.8 tons of CO2-equivalent emissions annually. To offset their yearly impact, 2,052 teenagers would have to recycle all of their recyclables for the rest of their lives. Did I mention, um, yikes?
Families drive across town for basketball tournaments and piano lessons; children leave lights and gadgets on and refuse to eat their dinners. Convenience is the biggest eco-nemesis of all: From on-the-go snacks and prepackaged vegetables to lightning-fast housecleaning, most mom-hacks require single-use products.
The majority of the families I know genuinely want to make eco-sound choices, but many feel overwhelmed by the thought of adding additional tasks to their already-jam-packed schedules. Sustainable living doesn’t have to be so mind-boggling.
My 2018 New Year’s resolution was to become a zero-waste family. If an entire city (Boulder) could scrape together a strategic plan to eliminate waste, I figured that, given enough time and information, my family could also embrace a super-green lifestyle.
The more specific a goal, the easier it is to achieve. When “zero-waste” seemed insurmountable, I broke down my big resolution into attainable objectives. Objective one: Reduce waste by eliminating paper towels and all those handy cleaning wipes.
Like yours, my kids are professional mess makers, and like most Americans we blew through paper towels. Ripped off square-by-absorbent-square, I’ll admit paper towels seem like a small problem. But similar to compound interest, and plastic straws, small stuff adds up.
Americans use more paper towels than anyone else in the world. In 2015 alone, we bought and tossed more than 7.4 billion pounds of paper towels and other tissue materials, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Between the water and trees that go into making paper towels, and the fossil fuels it takes to produce and distribute them, and the plastic wrap needed for packaging, paper towels are more impactful than they seem.
So I stocked up on dish towels, microfiber cloths, and reusable napkins, and a few weeks later, the only people who missed our paper towels were guests whose kids spilled juice on the floor. I wash dish towels and cleaning cloths on cold, in the same load as our bath towels, so any water waste is minimal. (With water it’s more about the energy it takes to heat it anyway, hence the cold cycle.)
I squirrel away one roll of paper towels for stomach bugs because, barf. Other than that we’ve been paper towel free for two years, in which time we’ve also reduced waste by stowing reusable grocery bags and coffee mugs in the car, and buying fewer toys that would have ultimately ended up in a landfill.
Waste is the downstream of people, so naturally when it comes to families there’s going to be a certain amount of surplus. That’s where composting and recycling come into play, creating closed-loop solutions for what would otherwise become waste.
Denverites only recycle about 63 percent of their recyclables. Fewer residents compost, even though more than 50 percent of what the average Denver household puts in the trash is organic material. After nixing paper towels, I signed up for weekly curbside composting with Denver Composts, a fee-based composting program offered through Denver’s trash collection service. It didn’t take long to teach my school-age children what they should compost and recycle, and pretty soon we were down to just one trash bag a week, compared to the seven-plus we’d previously dumped.
For being so cute and compact, babies are especially harsh on the planet. The average baby goes through 5,000 diapers before being potty-trained, and since the vast majority of U.S. families use disposable diapers, an estimated 20 billion diapers end up in landfills each year. When I was pregnant with my nine-month-old daughter, I invested in a few Rumparooz cloth diapers, and stocked up on gDiapers compostable inserts, so I could reduce some of that waste by cloth diapering at home. I currently use chlorine-free diapers when we’re out and about, but I’m also planning to check out Dyper, a newish subscription service for compostable bamboo diapers.
Being an environmentalist doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing undertaking. The biggest thing any family can do to green up their act is believe—really believe—that lots of low-impact actions add up to make a big difference. Ready to get started? Flip through these pages, find one eco-friendly thing you aren’t already doing, and incorporate it into your family’s daily life. When it becomes second nature, pick another eco-friendly thing, and repeat.
Eco Home Products
These parent-owned Colorado brands are greening up our household chores.
More Conscious Cleaning
Denver-area moms Jennifer Parnell and Holli Schaub were on a mission to clean up the cleaning aisle when they co-founded Humble Suds, a line of safe, non-toxic—and great smelling—cleaning products handmade in Evergreen, Colorado. Made from mineral- and plant-based ingredients like organic raw beeswax and saponified coconut oil, Humble Suds products include all-purpose cleaners and concentrates, an all-surface scrub, dry laundry soap, and a wood and leather balm. Available at select Natural Grocers, refill stores, and boutiques.
Smarter Lawn Care
Founded by Boulder dad of three Coulter Lewis, Sunday smart lawn plan is a customizable lawn care kit that delivers the nutrients you need to cultivate a beautiful, non-toxic lawn, right to your door. Using location-specific climate and soil data, Sunday creates a tailor-made plan for your lawn composed of simple ingredients like organic food waste, molasses, and seaweed. Simply attach the nutrient bag to your hose, spray, and enjoy a chemical-free lawn that’s safe for kids and pets. Plans start at $129 per year.
3 Local Ways to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle
Reduce: Food Waste
Green Family Festival
We Coloradans love our festivals, but they can create a flood of waste. Each year, Slow Food Nations food festival invites people to connect with farmers, chefs, and speakers, and sample food. They work to reduce the environmental impact of the festival by using compostable and recyclable supplies, setting up water refill stations, and hosting a Zero Waste Family Meal on the last night, made up of food leftovers turned into a feast by renowned chefs.
Reuse: Art Supplies
ReCreative Denver saves unwanted and gently-used craft and art supplies from entering the waste stream. As an added bonus, the paper, yarn, paint, fabric, shells, buttons, and any other supply you might need for kids’ art or school projects are made available for purchase at 50 to 75 percent off. ReCreative is also a community art center where kids and grownups can drop in for art-making in the Kids’ Marketplace, Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for a $5 donation.
Recycle: Food and Yard Scraps
Not ready to set up your own backyard compost? If your city government doesn’t offer curbside composting service, check out Rocky Mountain Composting, Alpine Waste, and Compost Colorado to see if they service your area.