Wasteless Family #4 Tat

Wasteless Family #4 Tat

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If you spend any time around kids you will be aware that they are incredible crap-magnets. If there is something small, colourful, and the correct size to get wedged in a nostril within a three mile radius then your child will hunt it down, do whatever it takes to acquire it, and treasure it forever – or at least for five minutes until it breaks or gets lost up someone’s nose.

If you’re trying to limit the amount of stuff your family buys, uses, and wastes then a child’s innocent adoration of plastic shite can pose some awkward dilemmas. Every party bag, Christmas cracker, gift shop, craft kit, board game and kid’s magazine is stuffed with plastic and disposable items. And everywhere you go, kind people want to make your child happy by handing them balloons (on plastic sticks), colourful straws, lollies (also on plastic sticks) and a myriad of other treats that are loved and used for just a few moments before being thrown away.

In this final blog I’d like to share how my family is slowly – often painfully – trying to wriggle our way out from under this avalanche of single use stuff. We don’t have any perfect solutions, and we often get things wrong, but by sharing what we’ve found works (and maybe what doesn’t) perhaps it will be useful to anyone else feeling uncomfortable with the heavy environmental impact of many children’s activities.

Doing it for the kids

There’s no easy way around it: if we want to waste less stuff then the only way to achieve this is to use and buy less stuff.

Seems obvious, right? And not so hard for us adults who make our own choices and understand the long-term consequences of our decisions. But for kids? They live in the moment, they have very little control over their own lives, they’re strongly influenced by their peers, and they desire things with an intensity that’s sometimes frightening. A significant part of reducing our family’s waste means denying my children an endless succession of small and seemingly harmless things that make them happy: balloons, ketchup packets, juice boxes, glitter, glow sticks, tiny, crappy toys… and on and on and on.

How can we explain a low-waste lifestyle in a way that small children understand? And are there any ways that we can make it easier for them to accept that our family lives a little differently? Here’s what I reckon:

Be honest. At the supermarket there is a machine full of plastic balls, each containing a small toy. My daughter is fascinated with it and regularly asks for one. When I say no she – quite reasonably – asks ‘why not?’. For a while I fobbed her off with white lies – “uh oh, the machine is broken” or “I don’t have any money with me” – but I became increasingly uncomfortable with my low-grade fibbing so now I tell her the truth. Which brings me to my next point…

Keep it simple. My three year old has no concept of pollution or microplastics but she does like caring for animals so I usually go with something like “You’re right, those toys do look fun – but they don’t last very long. Once we’ve finished playing with them they get thrown away, and the things we throw away can hurt animals. Would you like to choose what we play with when we get home?”

Think out loud. I fall into the trap of forgetting that kids lack any context for most adult decisions so I try to remember to think out loud. For example:

“I must remember to turn off this tap while I’m washing up, I don’t want to waste fresh water that we could use for drinking.”

“I think I’ll choose these bananas because they’re not wrapped in plastic; I don’t want the plastic to end up in the sea where it could make wild animals sick.”

“Let’s take the bike today, it doesn’t make smelly fumes like the car and it will feel good to get our legs moving.”

I will admit, it sounds a bit… goofy. But it really does help them understand why you do what you do. This is also a useful technique for showing that you share their frustrations; “I’d really like to buy myself a new phone. When I see other people’s phones I sometimes wish mine was as new, and shiny, and clever as theirs. I even get a bit cross and jealous that I have an older phone. But when I remember that my phone still works fine, and I think about how making a new phone could harm the beautiful world we live in, I feel much happier about looking after my old phone for as long as possible.”

Let books do some of the heavy lifting. This is an entire blog post in it’s own right but for pre-school kids I can recommend the Wild Tribe Heroes books, The Lorax, The Promise, Bee and Me, The Trouble With Dragons, and Charlie and Lola: Look After Your Planet.

Be positive, enthusiastic, and curious. If we treat sustainable living as a chore and a grind then our kids will too.


Toys and games

Could fewer toys actually benefit children? This study from the journal of Infant Behaviour and Development found that too many toys reduced children’s capacity for creativity and imagination. We try and keep toys to a minimum and I’ve got three rules when it comes to toys:

No new plastic

Choose second-hand wherever possible

If it isn’t used then pass it on

Wooden toys, especially ones marketed as ethical or sustainable, can be phenomenally expensive so buying pre-loved is much more achievable. Games and puzzles made by Orchard Games – which my daughter can’t get enough of – are mostly made of cardboard and show up in charity shops for about £1.50. Plus,  if you get it home and find that you’re missing a critical piece then the company will replace up to three pieces for you each year and all their instructions are online.

While we’ve got some well-loved wooden toys at home my kids’ favourite things to play with are definitely the items that we call ‘treasures’. The treasures fill four large storage boxes under the bed and they’re a mix of items that encourage us (I like to play too) to use our imagination, explore different materials and textures, and combine objects in interesting ways; for example, a large pine cone is sometimes a pet, sometimes a birthday cake, sometimes a snail, and sometimes it’s just a pine cone. Treasures are great because you can repurpose old and unwanted items, raid charity shops, or find beautiful things out in the wild. You can pull out a bunch of themed things to explore specific colours, materials, or activities or you can dip into your collection to find props for storytelling. Here are some of the things we enjoy:

Natural items and materials: wooden bowls, large shells and stones, an old leather purse, pine cones and large seed pods, a wooden comb, a sea sponge and a loofah, a log slice, a carved wooden box.

Textiles: a massive assortment of fabric scraps and ribbons, felt, a crochet scarf, a foil blanket, a silk scarf, scrubbers and sponges, leather scraps.

Packaging items: Tins, plastic bottles and jars, fancy gift boxes or bags, bubble wrap, egg boxes, tubes.

General bits: Measuring spoons, a tea strainer, a kitchen timer, a calculator, biscuit cutters, a giant paintbrush, tongs, jars of lentils and pasta, a back massager, a detangling comb, an old pair of sunglasses.



I love Christmas so much – but I’m one of those aggravating people with horribly specific, borderline obsessive, Christmas opinions, so trying to recreate the magic of my childhood celebrations in a sustainable way gives me a headache. However, when the average UK home generates an extra 30% of landfill waste each Christmas it’s well worth giving a bit of extra thought and time to choosing (and refusing) what we buy. Here’s what works for us:

Wrapping presents in brown paper (decorated with ink stamps, pen, twine or paper flowers if I’m feeling fancy) or reusing wrapping paper. I tie presents with scraps of ribbon or use paper tape. While some wrapping paper can go in the recycling bin (as long as the sellotape is removed) lots of paper is laminated or foiled and can’t be recycled.

Choosing a tree from a local Christmas tree farm (a living tree in a pot is a plan for the future) and sticking to natural, edible, cardboard, or upcycled decorations – the Green Squirrel Upcycled Christmas workshop is a great source of inspiration for zero waste decorations. If you’re picking foliage then just remember to leave plenty for wildlife and be careful with berries in the house with young kids – holly, cotoneaster, and pyracantha all look beautiful but the berries are mildly toxic, while mistletoe berries will make you seriously ill. What a terrible debbie downer I am.  

Burning stuff. If you’ve got a fire then don’t chuck your Christmas tree before stripping off plenty of needles – every year we make a big batch of firelighters from egg boxes, a little wax, and the needles from the Christmas tree; they sparkle and crackle when thrown on the fire! Dried orange peels also look and smell amazing when you chuck them on the fire.

Making a low waste advent calendar. As a kid my mum made me one from big matchboxes but I’m not that crafty so we have a wooden one. The excitement is in the anticipation of a surprise so the contents are never fancy but they seem to be a hit. Here’s a few plastic-free ideas for younger children: fair trade chocolate coins, a paper flower, popping candy, a packet of seeds, a pretty shell, a 20p or 50p coin, cute socks, a woven bracelet, a doodle or joke, paper stickers, a fortune teller, a fossil, a finger puppet or wooden beads.

Homemade crackers from cardboard tubes. The kid’s crackers have a naff hat, a crap joke, foil wrapped chocolate or some fruit leather, and something tiny like paper stickers. Grown up crackers usually contain scratch cards (not recyclable as I have just realised, damn) and a variety of colourful insults.

Parties and celebrations

Balloons and sky lanterns can cause big problems for farm animals and wildlife – sadly even balloons marketed as ‘biodegradable’ will be hanging around as litter for a very long time before they break down. Paper streamers and pom poms, ribbons, paper chains, natural foliage, candles in jars, and fabric bunting all do the trick. If possible, crack out your regular plates for party food, cutlery etc., and rope in some volunteers for the washing up. If you need to use disposables then go for plastic free options and compost them if possible.

Party bags really do my swede in – my daughter comes home with armfuls of plastic trinkets (“look at all this crap!” she crowed happily after the last party she attended). We have an ongoing family debate about the ethics/ rudeness of declining party bags when a guest, it’s super awkward and we haven’t really settled on a solution. As for giving out party bags you could hand out paper favours (like masks or stickers), something edible (like homemade biscuits) or choose a pre-made plastic free party bags. I’m always happy when my kid comes home with a book; a number of companies sell party bag sets that work out around 80p – £1/ book. However,  while googling that I came across a lengthy mumsnet thread decrying people who give out books at parties as ‘smug wankers’ so there’s that to consider too…

How about gifts? No-gift parties are gaining in popularity and acceptance, just make sure to be really clear and specific on your invites so no one feels awkward. When we choose gifts for the kids I’m increasingly trying to give non-toy gifts (to my older kid at least, the baby couldn’t give a crap) such as child-appropriate DIY & kitchen tools, craft materials, and clothes and gear for outdoor adventures.



3,000 tonnes of plastic waste is generated from Easter eggs every year in the UK but plastic free Easter eggs are getting easier and easier to find – here’s a guide to last year’s eggs although hopefully even more will be available in recyclable packaging next year.  To keep packaging to a minimum I’ve bulked out our egg hunt with a set of different sized wooden eggs, stained bright colours, which we can reuse each year. We decorate a branch with coloured wool and beads and hang it with eggs dyed with kitchen scraps such as onion skins, squidgy berries and tumeric. I feel like the rest of my family possibly suffer through the egg dyeing and hanging stuff rather than enjoy it but I control the chocolate consumption rate so they have to humour me.

For some reason Easter seems to be a hotbed of plastic tat, from plastic eggs and fluffy chicks to demands from school and nursery for Easter bonnets. I find that craft supplies are one source of waste that slips under my radar – which reminds me…

Craft materials

Reuse and repurpose wherever possible. Keep a scrap box on the go for collecting all those toilet rolls, yoghurt pots, bits of bubble wrap, fabric scraps and so they can be used for junk modelling or upcycling projects. Rescue buttons, zips, poppers, electrical components, broken jewellery, knackered old books, wallpaper samples, fabric offcuts and discarded paint tins for creative projects. Hoard junk mail and magazines.

Use natural materials and found items. We’ve got a big box with dried leaves, pine cones, conkers, raw fleece, seed pods and loads of other bits we’ve found, they’re all great for craft. It goes without saying that we should be sensitive about how we collect natural materials. Opinions vary on using food in craft but it’s definitely possible to make some stuff using scraps, surplus, and out of date food. Natural dyes, playdough or salt dough from elderly flour, and ‘kitchen glue’ are all pretty fun. Recycle your crayons by turning all those piddly crayon nubs into magical new multi-coloured ones.

Craft materials to avoid include foam sheets and shapes, sellotape, plastic googly eyes and… I’m so sorry… glitter. Go for felt, a roll of eye stickers, paper tape and… well there’s no properly sustainable alternative to glitter that isn’t a bit disappointing. But sand or dried flower petals might be worth a go. I’ve also seen people making glitter from salt or bicarb but I’m afraid I don’t like glitter enough to give those a go.

Send all of those knackered felt tips rolling around under your sofa to the Terracycle recycling programme – find a drop off point near you and take any biros, markers, highlighters, and even pots of tippex along to be recycled.

Check out your local scrap store – here you can find an endless supply of crating materials and resources that would otherwise have been destined for landfill.

I’d love to hear about what works for your family – how do you keep waste to a minimum? And how do you keep your kids from becoming frustrated? You can find Green City on on twitter, facebook, instagram,  please do send your wasteless family tips our way!

If you’ve found our Wasteless Family blogs useful and you are keen to put some of these ideas into practice then sign up to our mailing list and you’ll be the first to know about a brand new Wasteless Family event that we will be running next year!

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