10 Easy Ways to Lower Your Family’s Environmental Impact

Family in front of their house

We often use Earth Day as an annual check in on our environmental impact. So, how are you doing? What are you doing right, and what would you like to change? Here are a few areas where you can lower from family’s environmental impact.

1. Choose Energy-efficient Transportation
One of the biggest changes we can make is how we move ourselves around. Use public transportation when you can. Buy a car that uses energy efficiently. Travel long distances by plane seldom. With technology available for long-distance meetings, it’s less important to travel as much. This makes a big difference.

2. Use Home Energy Wisely
Start by using energy wisely. These are the common pieces of advice you hear: don’t use lights in the daytime, don’t leave appliances plugged in, etc. Each of these baby steps is a good start. It also makes a bigger difference when you choose energy-efficient appliances when it is time to replace.

3. Buy Renewable Energy
Another step you can take is to buy renewable energy. My family pays for wind energy, which is an option with our power company. Even better, you could install solar panels. Small systems can work really well for a family. Once you start, you might be ready for bigger steps.

4. Choose Cleaning Solutions Carefully
When buying solutions as home cleaners or body cleaners, look at ingredients. Without realizing it, we use a lot of chemicals that have health impacts on us personally and on the wider environment. To start, you have great resources available. In addition to the Skin Deep database for cosmetics that we mention often, EWG (Environmental Working Group) has a database of home cleaning products. Check those you buy regularly. If you don’t like their score, choose another.

5. Save Paper
We don’t always notice our paper use. Tissues, toilet paper, paper towels, stacks of printed paper. So, notice! Replace paper towels with reusable towels. Few people are willing to talk about it, but it’s not so difficult to replace toilet paper with washable family wipes. Use paper wisely in your home office as well. Print only what you need to keep, use both sides of the paper, and recycle when you are done.

6. Eat Real Food
Make your meals from real, whole ingredients rather than from processed food-like substances. Obviously, this is a good choice for your health, but it is also a better choice for the environment.

7. Organic Can Matter
Disappointed as I am with organic mega systems being co-opted by corporations and the real impact of organic being gutted in favor of lesser standards, I still worry more at the non-organic options for some foods and fibers. I worry about what is happening in the fields when more chemicals by weight are poured into cotton production than cotton comes out. I worry that pesticides outlawed decades ago still show up in our foods now. Keeping fields clean matters. Know the Dirty Dozen, and always buy those organic.

8. Choose Clean Water
For environmental impact, don’t buy bottled water, but for health impact, don’t drink unfiltered water unless you know exactly what is in your local water. When you do use water, use it wisely. Start by not wasting water—turning off the tap when you brush your teeth, for example—then move on to looking at ways to save more water through water-wise plumbing.

9. Plant for Your Climate
Plant what grows well in your area. That means no lawn in the desert and no tropical fruits in Ontario. By matching your yard and garden to your climate, you ensure that you need less water and fewer chemical inputs to keep your surroundings flourishing.

10. Low-impact House
If you haven’t bought or built a house yet, you have an opportunity to make choices that will have a big impact on your impact. Don’t buy more space than you need. Don’t buy a house covered in vinyl siding. Look for a house that is specifically designed to be low impact through placement of windows, use of materials, and use of lighting and appliances. If you already live in the house you want to stay in, you can make changes gradually, like adding more insulation to save energy on home heating and cooling.

In all areas of your family’s environmental impact, start where you are. Baby steps make small differences, but they also prepare you for bigger steps. When you see how easy it is to make changes, maybe you’ll be ready for the leaps that make a big difference.

Read on:

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10 Easy Ways to Lower Your Environmental Impact When Having a Baby

Parents with baby shoes

Having children creates environmental impact. Even as environmentalists and eco-families, many of us have children anyway. If you are concerned about that, consider these 10 easy ways to lower your impact when you have a baby.

1. Stuff
Become STUFF AWARE. Especially if you haven’t had a baby or been around a friend or family member having a baby before, you won’t know how much of what you are told you need is really needed. The answer: not much. You don’t need all of that stuff on the baby lists. We’ve written about cutting down on baby bstuff to save money, but you also save on environmental impact when you acquire less. Only buy what you need, and even then look for the lower impact stuff.

2. Breastfeed
When you breastfeed, you shorten the chain. You eat food, you make milk, and your baby drinks the milk. No manufacturing, packaging, shipping, selling, or trash to throw away. Breastfeeding is not just good for you and your baby; breastfeeding is good for society.

3. Reusable Diapers
Rather than putting 3,000-4,000 disposable diapers of any material in landfill, wash and reuse a few dozen diapers of any material. You use water, detergent, and energy to wash and dry, but you don’t cause the repetition of extraction-manufacture-shipping thousands of times. To lower impact even further, choose materials carefully, wash warm rather than hot, choose low-impact detergents, and air dry.

4. No (or Few) Diapers
By using the method of infant pottying (elimination communication or diaper-free babies), you use even fewer diapers. You might use more water and cloths for clean up, because accidents will happen, but water is a renewable resource—unlike oil and gas that go into the plastics used to make disposable diapers. Even this choice doesn’t need to be all or nothing. When you follow your baby’s cues, you will probably find yourself doing this naturally.

5. Used Clothing
Buy clothing at a thrift store or consignment store. Babies and children grow so fast. It can be expensive to buy new clothes, but that expense is only one issue. Those clothes that are worn for only a few months have impact where the materials are grown or extracted, where they are manufactured and shipped, and where they are sold. Share great clothes with other parents by passing them around, or buy used.

6. Natural Body Care
One thing you probably will need is a gentle soap for baby baths and perhaps cream or lotion for skin care. Cosmetics often hide nasty chemical ingredients, but you have a lot of choices for baby cream, lotion, soap, and shampoo with all-natural ingredients.

7. Library
If you are like me, you read a lot to learn about new adventures, like having a baby. I had books on pregnancy, on baby care, on parenting, and on and on. Rather than buying every book new and leaving it on the shelf after reading, use your local library. If you don’t see all of the books you are looking for, talk to the librarian about getting them. The process will probably take a while, but you are starting a positive ripple in your community of having these books available for others.

8. Low Tech
Gadgets are certainly available. I see crazy new baby gadgets every year at baby trade shows. You don’t need a plug-in wipes warmer, a baby monitor, a sock that continually takes your baby’s vital signs, or a mechanical arm that feeds your baby a bottle. All of those gadgets are used for a short time then they become waste. They use materials and energy that wasn’t really necessary. Maybe you need a gadget here or there, but you don’t need them all.

9. Good Wood
If you choose to buy baby furniture, like a cradle or a changing table, look for FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification, which tells you that the wood comes from a forest that was managed according to best practices environmentally and socially.

10. Plant a Tree
It isn’t just that a tree can absorb more than a ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. Your child will really connect with a tree that was planted at their birth. This tree could become the place where you sit together to talk about their impact on the world. A tree has physical and psychological impact.

Keep in mind, too, that having a child in North America does not have the same impact as in other areas of the world. We use more resources, so having a baby here means a bigger environmental impact. A study out of Oregon State University in 2009 on family planning and environmental impact made the rounds of environmental news that year. The statistical study looked at the impact of having children as compared to efforts to reduce impact through small steps that many of us take. When you look at the numbers, it is clear that having a baby in a high-impact country makes a big difference.

By being conscious of the choices you make and the impacts both now and over time, you can make choices that will significantly lower the impact your baby has on the environment.

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Back-to-school Eco Baby Steps

Mother and daughter walking to school

For those of us who are trying to lower our overall social and environmental impact, every new situation is an opportunity to find new ways to improve.

Greening back-to-school time is not just about replacing high-impact products with other products. Sure, we can help you with school supplies if you need tree-free pencils or if you want a backpack that is ethically made.

To truly lower your impact, though, you need to think differently. You might want to ask whether you even need that stuff at all. Don’t just accept the models you are given and consume just as much stuff bought from a different shelf in the store. Do you need that stuff?

Where can you go deeper to rethink back to school?

Where You Might Take Baby Steps

Lunch. Waste-free lunch is a good example of greening a situation that can generate a lot of garbage: wasted bags, plastic utensils, plastic cups, sandwich wraps, and even wasted food when we send lunches that our children don’t like. It can take some training to help both you and your child embrace new habits, but lunch doesn’t have to generate waste. It helps if the whole school supports waste-free lunch, but you can make the choice as a family.

Clothes. School clothes don’t have to be a huge expense if you don’t mind used clothes. You can buy used at a consignment or thrift store, but you could also just pass clothes around. I was at a friend’s house last month. As I looked at her son, I suddenly said, “Hey, those pants look familiar! I think those used to belong to my son.” My son hadn’t worn the pants for 10 years, but here they were still circulating around town among my friends. Clothes sharing and buying used clothing isn’t just about saving money. It helps your family avoid the waste of new clothes worn for only a few months before your child grows out of them.

Transportation. We usually think of the stuff of school because that is the focus in the relentless advertising we see this time of year, but consider the other new situations you face with school. You need to get your child to and from the school building. If you live close to the school, how about walking. If you aren’t close enough to walk, are you close enough to ride a bike? Walking or riding a bike will give you exercise as well as sharpening your child’s focus at school. Getting to and from school could be a time when you and your child chat about the day without too many other distractions. Even riding the bus takes much less energy than driving your own car.

As you go through these first few weeks of the new school year, help yourself become aware of the choices you are making. Take steps to lower your environmental impact as you go. Greening your choices isn’t about being perfect. It’s about taking steps as you become aware of them.

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Hemp vs Bamboo Rayon for Cloth Diapers

bamboo plants

We get a lot of questions from customers in the bynature.ca store asking why they would want to choose bamboo vs. hemp for cloth diapers. Short answer: choose hemp for environment or absorbency, and choose bamboo rayon for softness.

Overall, we prefer hemp. In our completely unscientific survey of Facebook followers,
parents choose hemp 8 to 3. But, parents who love bamboo rayon diapers really love them. That’s fine, of course! Use what you love.

What’s the difference between bamboo and hemp?

Bamboo and hemp are both woody plants that grow easily without the kind of chemical inputs (pesticides, fungicides) and the heavy watering needed by cotton. On a microscope level, each little hemp fiber even looks a bit like a bamboo stalk with smooth areas between knobby spots. So far so good.

For parents who have used both fibers in diapers, you will notice the difference in feel (bamboo is very soft while hemp is more stiff) and function (bamboo is absorbent but not nearly as absorbent as super soaker hemp).

For parents looking to lower their environmental impact, the biggest differences between bamboo and hemp are in the processing of fibers used in cloth diapers. Bamboo is broken down into pulp, chemically processed and aged, then extruded as a rayon fiber. This is a long (often years long) process that involves a lot of chemicals. Bamboo rayon is a synthetic fiber from natural inputs. Hemp is mechanically processed, aided by natural enzymes and chemicals. The hemp fibers spun into yarn are the natural fibers from the plant. Most of the story of impact is in the process, and there are certainly manufacturers working to lower the impact of processing for both fibers. What you have available to you right now is a high-impact rayon that is currently very popular and marketed as eco-friendly and a lower-impact hemp that is perhaps not as popular as it has been in the past decade and not marketed as heavily.

How rayon fibers are made from bamboo

Rayon made from bamboo. To make the bamboo rayon fibers used in diapers, the soft parts of the bamboo plant are crushed into pulp. Wood pulp and pulp made from other cellulose fibers can also be used to create rayon (or viscose, as regular rayon is called). The pulp is then dissolved, dried, sent through several phases of aging and ripening, cooking and burning before being extruded into long fibers. Think of extrusion as forcing pasta dough through a spaghetti press. Chemicals are used in many of these steps to create a material that can be extruded and hold together as a fiber. A lot of the negative publicity about bamboo focuses on these chemical processes. After extrusion, the fibers are bathed in sulfuric acid, stretched, and washed. Then, you have rayon filaments that can be knit or woven into a fabric.

Bamboo can be processed in a closed loop, so the solvents are captured rather than waste. Because of the popularity of fabrics made from bamboo, there are a lot of companies working to develop more eco-friendly processes. There are also efforts to add nano-particles of charcoal to make the fiber antibacterial.

For now, any fiber made from bamboo cellulose but be labelled “rayon” or “rayon made from bamboo” in order to comply with U.S. Federal Trade Commission guidelines. (“Have You Been Bamboozled?” FTC, January 4, 2013.)

Linen made from bamboo. There is also a form of bamboo processing that is closer to that of hemp. The woody part of the plant is crushed, and an enzyme is used in the retting process, breaking down the rough outer layers to get to the softer inner layers. Those softer, inner fibers can then be spun into yarn. Unless your diapers are labelled “linen made from bamboo,” they are made from “rayon made from bamboo” (and we don’t know of any cloth diapers made from bamboo linen).

Source of bamboo. It’s great that bamboo can grow easily in some places where other plants can’t. The environmental and social problems happen when the demand for bamboo rayon is so high that forests are cut down to plant bamboo, people are pushed off their land for bamboo, or bamboo is grown in monoculture. What CAN be done in bamboo cultivation isn’t necessarily what IS done, so we need to look at the provenance of our fibers. Most bamboo is used in fabric production is grown by one massive company in China, which grows the fibers to Oeko-Tex 100 standards, but many manufacturers of textiles made with bamboo rayon claim to process their own fibers outside of that system. It matters where and how bamboo is processed, so ask your cloth diaper manufacturer. If they don’t know about the process used, they should be able to follow the chain to their suppliers and find out.

Antibacterial? The U.S. FTC says bamboo rayon fabric does not have antibacterial qualities as often marketed, while many manufacturers continue to claim antibacterial properties and testing that proves it. The legal battles are still underway, so it’s fair to be skeptical of both claims for now.

How hemp fibers are made

The process of making usable yarn from hemp is similar to that of making linen from bamboo. The stem of the hemp plant is wound with heavy fibers. An enzyme is used in retting, and the softer (though not necessarily soft) fibers are spun into yarn. The softness of hemp depends on the point in the season or growing process when the hemp is harvested. Those who work with hemp often can tell the difference between the softer, early season hemp and the stiffer, late season hemp.

Hemp is generally mixed with other fibers. The hemp most often used for cloth diapers is 45% hemp / 55% cotton, taking on the absorbency of hemp and the softness of cotton. To use 100% hemp in a diaper would give a stiffer feel like linen, though it is possible to made a very soft hemp linen by using only the finest fibers.

Quick Comparison of Bamboo and Hemp for Cloth Diapers

Bamboo
PRO

  • soft to the touch in the product,
  • renewable fiber,
  • lower impact than petroleum-based fibers,
  • easy to grow in the field,
  • can be made in a closed system to reduce environmental impact

CON

  • often greenwashed in deceptive or uninformed marketing,
  • chemically processed to create rayon,
  • environmental injustices in meeting the recent demand,
  • more sensitive fiber than cotton or hemp to detergent chemicals and drying heat of cloth diaper laundry,
  • many manufacturers recommend line drying to avoid dryer heat,
  • can be damaged by some basic laundry detergent ingredients (like baking soda)

Hemp
PRO

  • very absorbent in the product,
  • renewable fiber,
  • lower impact than petroleum-based fibers and other plant-based fibers (cotton and bamboo),
  • easy to grow in the field

CON

  • stiffer to the touch than bamboo rayon or cotton,
  • so absorbent that it can retain stink in diapers if not rinsed properly,
  • needs more water in laundry process,
  • can be difficult to maintain in HE (high efficiency) washer

Why Choose Bamboo vs. Hemp?

In the end, whether you choose bamboo rayon or hemp for cloth diapers depends on your priorities.

  • If you are looking for a soft diaper, choose bamboo rayon. It is super soft and silky to the touch.
  • If you are looking for lower environmental impact, choose hemp. It is easy to grow in the field. Although there is usually a chemical process to soften the fibers for spinning (though hemp can be mechanically processed), this is a much less problematic process than that of breaking down bamboo.
  • If your laundry detergent includes baking soda, choose hemp (or change detergents). Baking soda will damage bamboo diapers, beginning the process of breaking down the cellulose.
  • If you are looking for an absorbent diaper, choose hemp. Hemp is a super absorbent fiber.
  • If you are trying to give your baby a stay-dry feeling without petroleum products, choose hemp. Because of its absorbency, the surface feels more dry than other fibers holding the same amount of liquid.
  • If you have an HE washing machine, choose bamboo rayon—or cotton. Hemp is so absorbent that it requires more water in washing and rinsing to keep it soft and clean. But, be careful with bamboo rayon in an HE washing machine, because it is important that it be rinsed well.
  • If your water is very hard, skip both hemp (because it can retain mineral build up) and bamboo rayon (because it is sensitive to the chemicals you need to use to wash in very hard water and can break down in the heat of the dryer if those chemicals aren’t rinsed well), and choose cotton.

We LOVE hemp in the bynature.ca store for many reasons, but we are always answering questions for customers about bamboo rayon—and why we don’t stock more of it. From an environmental standpoint, hemp has bamboo beat. In diapers, when it comes to absorbency and the natural stay-dry feeling, hemp also excels. The soft and silky feeling of bamboo is hard to resist though!

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Imports at What Cost? Environment

What is the cost of imports to the environment

Products made in Canada or the U.S. are produced in compliance with strict regulations. When you buy imports, you have few assurances that making the products did not cause local harm through air or water pollution. Damage to environment and to health through the environment are part of the real cost of imports. We pay now, or we pay later, but we will pay.

Give It to Me Quick

When we buy products made somewhere without tight environmental regulations, the price we pay doesn’t cover the costs of environmental damage. Those costs are paid by the state of origin, the local community, and the workers.


Issues

Having a child means environmental impact. There is no way around that fact. It’s just math. Every human being has an environmental impact, some have more impact than others, and the collective impact of all of us together is not sustainable.

Part of our personal impact includes the real environmental costs of the seemingly benign products we let into our lives. Making stuff has an impact, and sometimes that impact is far greater than it needs to be.

Implementation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1994 meant a de-industrialization of Canada and the U.S. while factories and jobs moved to Mexico. Despite a Commission for Environmental Cooperation between the North American countries, pollution in Mexico was immediate and overwhelming near maquiladoras—factories in Mexico near the U.S. border producing goods for export.

Mexico, though, was an issue of the 1990s; in the past decade, industry and concern has shifted to China. Environmental impacts of moving industry to Mexico pale in comparison with impacts of massive growth in China.

Pollution in China is epic. Severe pollution not only creates an economic burden for the Chinese people, it threatens political stability.

“Pollution has made cancer China’s leading cause of death, the Ministry of Health says. Ambient air pollution alone is blamed for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water.” ~ “As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes,” Choking on Growth, part 1, New York Times, August 26, 2007.

Pollution is only part of the problem. Biodiversity loss, deforestation, and desertification over 30% of China’s land signal long-term problems. It isn’t just that growth is unsustainable; Chinese growth is sending them careening toward collapse. Chinese citizens certainly aren’t unaware of the impacts of these factories, and some protest. Especially since the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government has turned to environmental regulations and adjusted growth philosophies to lessen the impact of massive growth on their people.

It costs to make extraction and production processes cleaner. When those of us who live in places with tight environmental regulations take production to a place that doesn’t impose those regulatory costs, that means the price of the final product won’t have to cover the cost of environmental damage.

That doesn’t mean there is no cost to that environmental damage. Costs are simply externalized. Externality is a common concept in economics whereby the producer does not directly incur the inevitable cost. A business maximizes profits by forcing the problem onto someone else. In the case of pollution, the state might pay for clean up or for other consequences, the local community might pay through lower quality of life, and the workers might pay with their health.

Look at the tags on your baby’s clothing and the boxes for toys and car seats. Where are your baby’s products made? High environmental costs in exchange for low product costs will happen everywhere you don’t find tight regulation. And, sometimes, even where there is tight regulation, you end up with the high cost of environmental accidents.


Diaper Plant Explosion

When a Japanese chemical factory exploded in September, it became global news because of the chemical they make and how much they make of it. Nippon Shokubai Co makes 20% of the super-absorbent polymers used in disposable diapers globally. The focus of news stories was an anticipation of disposable diaper shortages around the world, but the rest of the story was the local environmental impact of an explosion and fire so big that local people thought it was another earthquake.

In addition to the everyday environmental impact of throwing 16 billion plastic diapers into landfill in the U.S. alone, accidents and the environmental impact of extraction and production have to be calculated into overall impact of diapers or of any product.


Clean Diapers

Some choices leave a child’s environmental impact higher than others. Using cloth diapers means avoiding the 8,000 disposable diapers you would have used and the waste they generate both as 3% of all municipal solid waste in the landfill [Lehrburger] and in production overseas where lax or non-existent environmental regulation allows companies to shave their costs through pollution.

Use any reusable diaper, even a cloth diaper made from oil or gas (polyester, PUL, microfiber, and so on), and you will lower your baby’s environmental impact. Make smart laundry choices, and you will lower the impact more. If you buy organic cotton prefold diapers with diaper covers made here in Canada by Bummis, you lower your impact even more. You don’t avoid all environmental impact of a child by choosing cloth diapers, but you lower that impact significantly.


The Institute for Sustainable Communities

For 20 years the Institute for Sustainable Communities has been helping communities around the world address environmental, economic, and social challenges to make their own community more sustainable. They train and inspire local people to improve quality of life.

Through the Environmental Health and Safety Academies in the provinces of Guangdong and Jiangsu where most Chinese manufacturing takes place, they are training thousands of factory managers every year in best practices to lower environmental impacts and boost efficiency through safety.

They want donations. The work they do isn’t simple. “We are not interested in quick fixes. When you give to ISC, you invest in lasting solutions to the climate change crisis.”


What You Can Do

Only buy imports if you know something about their manufacture. Favor products and brands that aren’t externalizing environmental costs by outsourcing to countries with loose environmental regulation.

Lower your overall impact with a focus on the three areas that account for 70-80% of the global total of environmental impact: transportation, food, and home energy.


Resources

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