The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

May 20, 2009

My Kids — The Joy and the Plastic: A Guest Post from Amber Strocel

The following is a guest post by blogger Amber Strocel who contends with child-related plastic. She’s found quite a few plastic-free alternatives and would like to hear your suggestions for ways to further reduce.

I’m Amber, and I’m a married mom living in Metro Vancouver, Canada. I am a big fan of Fake Plastic Fish, so I am very excited to write a guest post! You can normally find me on my own blog at where I write a lot about my life in the suburbs with my two beautiful children. My daughter Hannah is four years old, and baby Jacob is 9 months. They are the light of my life, the source of great joy, the apple of my eye. All that good stuff. They also use a lot of plastic. Potty chairs, car seats, baby bathtubs, dishes, toys, the list is more than a little overwhelming.

I’ve always been environmentally conscious, or at least moderately so. I didn’t have many concerns with plastic in particular, though, until April of 2008. At that time Health Canada, a very main-stream government agency that advises Canadians on health issues, announced that it would be banning the use of bisphenol A from baby bottles and formula cans. Bisphenol A is a chemical found in certain types of plastic. I was pregnant at the time, and I had a 3-year-old. I certainly didn’t want to expose my baby or my preschooler to a potentially harmful substance. I also wondered what other chemicals might be found in the plastic items we used every day. The items my children love to play with and suck on.

Hannah sucking on a Happy Meal toy

My daughter Hannah puts a plastic toy in her mouth

When the announcement came about bisphenol A I had already been taking steps to reduce my plastic consumption, along with my consumption in general. I was using cloth shopping bags, for example, and cutting back on packaged and processed foods. I also breastfeed, which eliminates formula cans, baby bottles, and associated plastic. To further reduce our plastic use I decided to get rid of our bottled water delivery and drink tap water, and I bought stainless steel water bottles and sippy cups. I started buying milk in glass bottles. When the kid’s plastic cutlery wore out I didn’t replace them, and instead bought some small stainless steel spoons to use with the baby.

The potty

The potty – an example of the plastic baby gear that fills my home

The most significant reduction I made in disposable plastic happened when I decided to use cloth diapers and wipes on my son. The disposable diapers and wipes I used with my daughter generated a lot of garbage. We used a diaper disposal system that twisted dirty diapers into long diaper sausages wrapped in scented plastic film. The ‘refill packs’ of plastic film were large, made of plastic, and non-recyclable. And of course there was the packaging and all that jazz that came with the diapers and supplies.

Jacob and his diaper pail

Baby Jacob and the pail to hold his cloth diapers

Even as I was working to reduce plastic, though, my preschooler was acquiring more. At 4 my daughter is very familiar with popular children’s characters, and loves them deeply. She also loves plastic toys that make noise and light up. These toys are very appealing and I would have loved them as a 4-year-old, too. Hannah is not shy about telling everyone she wants a singing doll or a trip to a fast food restaurant with its accompanying free toy. And her adoring relatives just want to make her happy.

A pile of cheap plastic toys

A pile of cheap plastic toys

My daughter’s love of plastic leaves me feeling conflicted. How can I strike a reasonable balance? I fear that if I take the hard line it will just mean years of therapy later. Laying the weight of the world’s problems at the feet of a 4-year-old doesn’t exactly seem fair. On the other hand, when I look at the packaging that comes with a single plastic doll, which is quickly broken and ends up in the garbage, I feel a little ill. This is not an ethic I want to support. In fact, producing mounds of cheap plastic using dubious manufacturing standards is exactly what got us into our present environmental mess.

Baby gate

We also have plastic baby gates

I think a lot of parents struggle with the question of how to impart their values to their children in a balanced and reasonable way. Especially when the children are too young to really understand the bigger picture. For now I have decided that I will do my best to be a good example. I will work to reduce the plastic we consume, as well as the plastic we give to others. I will choose sustainably and ethically manufactured toys, made from natural materials. I will explain my choices to my children in age-appropriate ways. And I will understand if my children’s grandparents really want to gift them with a special toy. In the long run, I hope that my example is what they will remember, long after the cheap plastic toys have died.

But if anyone has a better suggestion for getting rid of the cheap plastic stuff that litters our house, I am all ears.

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14 years ago

I love this article

14 years ago

I have 3 kids and am surrounded by plastic. Despite almost never buying toys. To the comment about metal shovels & buckets for the beach — my grandmother used to have a couple of buckets and shovels in the garage and we would use them whenever we visited her. They lasted at LEAST 20 years… and it's a fond memory. I haven't seen any metal buckets at the store though. Maybe an indie toy store?

About the lunchboxes — after one year in which backpacks were destroyed before the year was over, I resolved only to buy backpacks at LLBean. I used my LLBean backpack throughout school and it never got a hole in it. This year, we have one Bean lunchbag and 2 from Target. Gah! Guess which ones are splitting apart and which one has no wear at all? True, the stuff from LLBean costs a little more, but they guarantee it for life.

heather t
14 years ago

Parenting without plastic is a huge challenge! I think the key is to not give up and keep looking for areas to reduce plastic use.

Fast food toys: One of my friends used to offer her kids 25 cents if they would skip the “meal” and let her just buy the food. This is a great option. Personally, I just tell my kids no most of the time, lol.

Packed lunches: this is tough! Every school year I focus on eliminating one category of plastic from the kids’ lunches. Two years ago it was juice boxes -we used plastic squeeze bottles last year but switched to stainless thermoses this year. This year it was sandwich bags – I use cloth napkins to wrap sandwiches or send leftovers in reused plastic containers.

I also pay my kids $5 each if they keep their lunchboxes in good enough shape to reuse the next year. Their lunchboxes are two years old will probably last through at least a third year. I pay $10 for backpacks too, but they don’t last as long.

Some plastic is unavoidable with kids, but make Freecycle and garage sales your new best friends and you’ll at least give some plastic a second life.

Cheap Like Me
14 years ago

Great comments and insights. One suggestion I have is to at least buy as much *quality* plastic as you can … something that can be handed down through many kids. We bought a secondhand plastic slide (weren’t on an anti-plastic kick then), but I bet it is at least 15 years old and still sturdy. Our little neighbor has it now.

And take heart that your message will get through to your kids. My daughter basically gave up Barbies solely because they are plastic and come wrapped in so much plastic packaging that she started to get mad about it. (She’s 8 now.)

Jen G.
14 years ago

I definitely agree w/ getting the kids on board and explaining WHY its important. Kids are great little environmentalists once the issues have been explained to them! You could explain there is a lot of plastic that isn’t appropriately taken care of (the gyre situation, marine life dying due to entanglement or ingestion). Then you have an excellent ally in your quest.

It tough with loving relatives who only want to make their grandchild, nephew etc etc happy on his/her birthday or special times. We have made it really clear that we do NOT like plasticy toys and also have asked for a communal gift (i.e. a wooden road set from plan toys). This is not foolproof but has prevented a lot of crap from coming through the door. And yes, I have been branded the kooky parent in our greater family but I also have the highest awareness and therefore I think the highest duty around this.

Finally, we get reused goods as much as possible. Thank goodness for Craigslist and local secondhand shops. It feels easier in a lot of ways, taking a lot of the consumer stuff out of our lives. Our child doesn’t particularly love TV and so isn’t too vulnerable to product tie-ins when we go out. The marketing of goods (plastic and low quality) to children is the subject of a whole other post. There are, however, times when my husband and I have to say NO and spend a few moments being unpopular.

We are not perfect but strive everyday toward a lower impact lifestyle.

14 years ago

I just want to say thanks again to Beth for having me. You rock! :)

I’m reading all the suggestions so far and loving them. Some of you have some really creative solutions, and you’re all making excellent points. I’m really glad I’m not the only mom who struggles with the kid-related plastic. I really hope that as more of us become aware of the issues the non-plastic options open to us will improve.

I’ll be checking back in for more of your suggestions. I hope they keep coming!

14 years ago

It is definitely a challenge to be a plastic-free parent of small children. My 3 year old and 11 month old have a good number of plastic toys. Sigh. We don’t buy any new plastic, I stick to wooden toys or activities (like gymnastics classes as a birthday present), but then sometimes people given them stuff. Like the time my brother gave them a huge ‘little people’ set, and he was so proud of it. Sure, they play with it, but they play with anything, ribbons, scarfs, labels, so I don’t think that means much. I have been slowly purchasing, partly second hand, metal and glass containers for food, though I find the glass at least are much heavier, so still mix and matching. I stick to second plastic items when these are really needed (or we pick them up from the curb, I love the curb! regifting).
I’ve also taught my oldest to say “I like this” when we go to a store and she finds something she likes, rather than “I want this”. It’s a wonderful change, and so much more satisfying for her and less annoying for me.
We don’t eat fast food. We pack our own foldable plate (orikaso brand) and cutlery in a toothbrush holder in the diaper bag, for unplanned snacking.
But every day, I still think that child-related plastic is taking over my life. Just today I rotated toys and wondered how we ended up with all this stuff. It multiplies when you’re not looking!

knutty knitter
14 years ago

We did the train set thing too. Works really well. I say no to as much plastic as possible and dispose of it too if possible. I just wish we could dispense with all unnecessary plastic but that just isn’t going to happen at present. (I don’t own a cow or a soy bean field).

viv in nz

14 years ago

I have a 2 year old and I am also trying to reduce plastic use at our house. I recently came up with a plastic solution to a plastic problem! I really like those water and sand tables, but they represent a whole lot of plastic. I would like to build a sand box for little miss, but I don’t have time and we are moving soon anyway. I found that she loves to play with water and sand so I give her some with a bunch of misc plastic to play with from the kitchen (measuring cups, spoons, yogurt containers). It keeps her occupied for a long time and I don’t have to buy any new plastic!

14 years ago

Hi Amber,
As it’s beach time I have seen stainless steel toy watering cans, buckets and little shovels. That can replace the plastic ones. Did you already mention stainless steel sippy cups and water bottles? I love those as not only are they better they don’t make the water taste like nasty plastic! And storing food in glass containers (big jars are great!) or even making use out of plastic containres you canreuse instead of baggies and saran wrap.
That’s my two cents!
Great post!

Anarres Natural Health
14 years ago


Thanks for your post!

I have a 14 year old and a 3 year old in downtown Toronto.

As an eco freak, I breastfed, made my own diapers from flannel, and acquired second hand plastics where alternatives didn't exist. A stainless steel potty would probably cost a few hundred dollars anyhow! We bike everywhere, and to my children's consternation, I bake bread from scratch and make my own soy and rice milks.

Cheap plastic toys find their way into our home in spite of our stated "nothing new, nothing plastic" policy. Frankly, I give gifts away before they get to the kids. We got a set of stinky plastic blocks for Christmas this year. I posted it on Craig's List for sale "best offer" and got $10 for it the same day. She was going to buy the set at Toys R Us that day.

For my youngest's birthday, we asked for contributions to her wooden train set. All other gifts got sold off the same way, and we bought more wooden tracks etc. "Out of sight, out of mind" is a great ally in the fight against plastic flotsam and jetsom.

As I got through my kitchen garbage right now, I see plastic envelope windows, parts of a broken hairbrush and plastic tape and waxed candy wrappers. Virtually ALL our garbage is plastic and sweepings from our floors. My growing edge is avoiding ALL foods wrapped in plastic.

For birthday parties, we make and give soap in vegetable cellulose bags, and we ask for only handmade or second hand gifts for birthdays.

YES, my eldest hates me at times, but then she broke up with her first boyfriend because he insisted on buying a pair of Nike sneakers and she concluded that he was shallow.

Keep up the fight in suburban Vancouver!

Love & RRRevolution, Tracey

14 years ago

Hi Amber! I totally understand not wanting to feel like you’re depriving your children. However, there are a lot of things parents have to deprive their children of, which I’m sure you do already to some extent, for financial reasons, health reasons, and just plain not wanting to spoil them reasons. So avoiding plastic–or anything not already used–fits right into that, so I wouldn’t feel like you’re being needlessly cruel: setting limits is part of what good parents have to do anyway.

I think explaining your reasons to them is a great idea, though: then at least that gives them some understanding and a feeling of control, as opposed to something horrendous just being done to them arbitrarily, but also because you’re explaining something to them in a rational way, which is always good.

Why not even include them in your challenge of avoiding plastic? Kids love things like that (in general). Learning new rules about something is fun. For instance, you could say that if they can find a toy not made or wrapped in plastic, they can have it. (Of course, I can also see that backfiring horribly, but I’d give it a shot.)

(Disclaimer: I’m not a parent, but I babysat for YEARS and used to tutor kids of all ages.)

As for getting rid of all the plastic stuff, why not donate it to goodwill or something?

14 years ago

hmm… something went wrong with my last comment. The last sentence should have said…

I take the wins I can get given the fact that my spouse does not believe in supporting environmental issues.

14 years ago

I am 1 parent of 3 to my stepchildren so seriously outnumbered and not in step with their beliefs.

I do my best to do things like purchase things from the thrift store. I gave my stepdaughter a plastic baby carriage that I purchased at the thrift store. For Christmas, she got a plastic bathing/bed station for her dolls. Yes, they are plastic but not new plastic. Of course… she also got gifts from us that were 100% new plastic like her play kitchen. I have even purchased clothes from the thrift store for get them given the fact that my spouse does not believe in supporting environmental issues.

What else can you do?

14 years ago

Hi! I’ve been hoping to hear from another conflicted parent. My kids are ages 8 and 7, and it really is hard to avoid plastic. As they grow, they don’t use as many of the cheap plastic toys, but they certainly get goody bags from parties and school with “throw-away toys.” I’ve found that avoiding Oriental Trading and various dollar stores are a big help. When I give goody bags and multiple teacher gifts (like batches of cookies) I always try to use paper and make the gifts worthwhile–like something that can be consumed or used for a long time. I try to take steps every day, but I’m not sure I’ll ever have Beth Terry’s success.

14 years ago

Hello, I was cracking up at all of the plastic pictures. Our house and our backyard is filled with giant plastic baby objects as well.

We too switched to cloth diapers we also take measures to conserve water in our home too overall which balances out the water impact.

My older daughter and I like to go to garage sales together. She gets excited because it means she uses her allowance to buy lots of toys. I feel good because we are recycling instead of creating a demand for new plastic.

Take Care,

14 years ago

We started buying used dvd’s and video games and trading the old ones in. We also limit the fast food meals to once a month to cut down on the cheap plastic toys. This year for his birthday my son is going to 2 day camps instead of presents from me. I’m always looking for ways to cut back on plastic.