bagbottles_4.jpg
Credit: Nik West

Buried in plastic? A local mother chronicles her quest for alternatives

Every morning when she wakes up, my three-year-old daughter asks for her “milky bottle.” Never mind that she’s three and still drinking out of a bottle. That’s another story. This story is about the bottle itself, and in particular what it’s made of: plastic. Toxic plastic. In my life as a parent, plastic is a material I’ve become acutely and uncomfortably familiar with. It surrounds me; it drowns me; it irks me. And yet, until now, I’ve done very little about it.

You might remember the media hype that began last fall after studies proved certain plastics were leaching toxins into our children’s hands and mouths. Tests were conducted on three major brands of polycarbonate baby bottles sold in Canada and the U.S. The results: all of them leached detectable amounts of Bisphenol A, a synthetic chemical that mimics the hormone estrogen, which can stimulate the growth of cancer cells. According to these studies, exposure to BPA at a young age can cause genetic damage and has been linked to recurrent miscarriage in women. In young children, whose immune and organ systems are developing, the health risks are significantly amplified.

Since those studies came out, more research has been slowly making its way to the public, not just on the leaching effects of plastic baby bottles, but of polycarbonate water bottles and many other types of plastic as well. All this has translated into a growing awareness of the dangers lurking in our reliance on plastic. For me, it has translated into a huge boulder of guilt that sits on my chest every day.

I read the newspaper stories with alarm, and then, I forgot all about them. I continued, for months, to wake up and hand over my daughter’s toxic Playtex baby bottle filled with “milky.” But it wasn’t mindless. Every time I filled up her bottle, I filled myself up with remorse at my lack of action. The voice in my head shouted, “Bad Mommy! Bad Mommy!” And yet I continued to give it to her.

Partly, it was that I couldn’t be bothered to find the time to research where to get a BPA-free baby bottle. Partly, I felt that a little chemical leaching in a world of chemical leaching wasn’t going to have much impact. Now I know I’m wrong.

It’s a confusing and challenging path to environmentally conscious parenthood. As the wave of interest in all things green crescendos,more information about things like plastic toxicity is starting to spread. But right now, most parents trying to improve their habits and model good green behaviour to their children are finding there isn’t much information or direction out there.

“We’re in ignorant bliss over the plastic sippy cups and bottles,” says Gabrielle Kissinger, a Vancouver mother of two boys who works at Forest Ethics and whose husband works at Ecotrust. You couldn’t find a greener family. They don’t have a car. They eat organic; they compost and recycle. And yet she admits the story about the BPA-infected plastic bottles didn’t register with them. “We don’t get too worked up about heating up our plastic bottles in the microwave occasionally,” she says. “It might increase our exposure to one thing, but you’re being exposed to so much over your whole life. There’s not much you can do about it.”
That there’s not much we can do about it is a refrain I hear myself saying far too often. Every day after reading the story about the BPA scare, I vowed to make a trip to Shopper’s Drug Mart to see if they have BPA-free bottles for my daughter and BPA-free sippy cups for my son. Every day, I somehow forgot. This may seem unbelievable; certainly, it will seem to be un­believably neglectful parenting. But like many parents out there, I am routinely swept up in the craziness of life as a working parent. In the daily struggle between convenience and ethics, convenience – getting the kids home from school and dinner on the table – often wins.

But I aspire to be a good green parent. I am a bohemian, after all. I followed the Grateful Dead in high school. I backpacked around the world. When I had children, I wanted to raise them in an environment close to nature with toys made only from wood. Well, the joke’s on me.
[pagebreak]

bagbottles_1.jpg

Today, I live in the city, in a house riddled with plastic: plastic toys, plastic bags and obviously, cheap plastic bottles. There are piles of plastic toys in every room of our house. Broken bits of Lego, plastic dollhouses, chairs and balls dot our interior landscape like a post-apocalyptic planet. The list of plastic toys littering my backyard is even more depressing: a plastic wheelbarrow, a plastic toy lawnmower, a plastic tricycle, a plastic car, a plastic baseball bat, a plastic basketball hoop, a plastic slide, a plastic water table, a plastic golf set, plastic trucks, plastic gardening tools and a thousand plastic balls.

In my kitchen, there is a cupboard that plagues me. It’s a cupboard that never quite closes, stuffed as it is with plastic bags. There is always one remnant bag sticking out, taunting me. Sometimes I horrify myself by throwing away perfectly fine plastic shopping bags in utter despair and frustration. There are just so many spilling out, all over the place, and I will never use them all.

Most days, my plastic guilt is so big, so monumental I’m paralyzed by hopelessness, by the difficulty of tackling such a big problem. Rationally, I know it’s just a matter of taking the first step. Everyone always tells you that, and annoyingly, they’re right. But who’s got the time or energy to research where to buy non-toxic plastic bottles or where to recycle old and broken plastic wheelbarrows or where to buy an alternative to the plastic sandwich bag? Not me.
If it weren’t for the cynical journalist I have become, I would probably never have got the story that led to this experiment in plastic purging. But because of this story, I was catapulted into action.

I began with the plastic baby bottle. Mommy bloggers have been busy writing on this subject and there are extensive reviews of the latest BPA-free bottles and sippy cups online, as well as a plethora of alarming information about our plastic consumption and the impact it has on global warming, wildlife and our own health. Amazed by the number of products out there, I began searching for some of the recommended BPA-free products on ­Amazon.com. But the products I found weren’t being shipped to Canada. After some more Googling, I found a top-of-the-line, $20, toxin-free bottle. After adding $10.95 for shipping though, I decided a $30 bottle was a little much.

After several hours of precious free time spent on further research, I found a number of websites, mostly for Ontario-based companies selling eco-products for kids. But many of them had sold out of the BPA-free bottles. I’d read online about the difficulties some parents were having finding safe bottles and sippy cups locally and online, about how stores were out of stock. Yet somehow, I’d failed to realize it was going to be like sourcing the pink diamond.

Panicking, I finally found a website at www.reusablebags.com that had everything I was looking for – except the baby bottle. (I’m a one-stop kind of shopper.) It had stainless steel sippy cups for $16.95, non-toxic water bottles for $10.95 and best of all, an answer to my quandary with plastic sandwich bags – the Wrap-N-Mat (more on that later).
Within moments, my shopping cart added up to $85. This is why I hate shopping online. I’d spent almost $100 and still didn’t have the one thing that began my search. Still, after my purchases, I felt satisfied, almost smug. I vowed to try to find a bottle for my daughter at a local store and through an online listing of places in Canada to find BPA-free bottles, I made a list of several stores to try: TJ’s, Babies “R” Us (Yes, they do carry them. Who knew?), the très chic, upscale Crocodile Baby on West Fourth Avenue. I tried Crocodile first, but it was out of stock. But just down the street at Hip Baby, I struck gold. The Grow Green BPA-free bottle set me back a mere $13.95. Mission accomplished.
[pagebreak]

Considering all my time and the expense, it’s no wonder so many parents are bewildered by their choices. Marie Booth is a Vancouver mother of four teenagers. She runs The Land of Green Ginger, a small, organic café on Broadway that features biodegradable bagasse takeout containers, fair trade coffee and the best organic muffins. Yet, even she concedes that despite her concern about her kids’ plastic water bottles leaching chemicals, she hasn’t done anything about it.

“I don’t know what’s worse,” she says. “Buying those plastic water bottles that end up in the landfill, or buying the polycarbonate ones.” She says she can’t afford to buy all her kids stainless steel water bottles because they’ll just lose them. “I don’t know what to do about that problem. I don’t know quite what the solution is.”

To her credit, she is offsetting her carbon footprint as a parent in other ways. ­After her kids repeatedly failed to return their plastic sandwich bags to be cleaned and reused, she made a recent decision. She would stop using them entirely in favour of parchment paper. The 100-per-cent unbleached paper, easily found at grocers such as Choices and Capers, is a way better alternative to the plastic sandwich bag.

Ah, the sandwich bag. My nemesis. My six-year-old son takes at least two a day in his lunch box. One for sandwiches. One for cookies or chips. One for cut-up vegetables or fruit. If I give him plastic containers, he loses them. And they’re plastic too.

That doesn’t bother Sarah White too much. The Vancouver mother of two boys, 11 and 15, has been an advocate for the zero-waste lunch kit and has gone to her son’s school to encourage other kids to get involved. She has replaced the plastic sandwich bag with plastic Tupperware in favour of not throwing anything in the lunch bag away. “For us, it’s the best-case scenario,” she says. “I have a whole range of sizes and I make sure they’re recyclable. I wish there was a better solution.”

In my own attempt to get rid of plastic lunch detritus, I tell her, I’ve found a great alternative – the Wrap-N-Mat. This is a new product that is made from cotton that folds around your sandwich or your veggies or your snacks, is easily washable and unfolds into a placemat. For $7 each, they’re affordable and they’re readily available online. Mind you, I’m still waiting for my Wrap-N-Mat delivery two weeks later, and I don’t know how my son will respond to taking his lunch in something none of his friends have ever seen.

White says her son is one of the few kids in his school to have a zero-waste lunch kit. “He’s told me he feels like the only one who rinses out his Tupperware to bring home and recycles things,” she says. “He’s been teased too because we give him juice in a Rubbermaid twist top and the other kids said that was for babies. For kids, it’s more important to be cool than to recycle.”

Maybe. Or maybe the shift in ecological awareness among parents is just slowly taking off. There is one area that is definitely a growing concern among parents: the plague of plastic toys. Few parents of young children today have avoided it. Most complain about it incessantly.

“It weighs on my conscience constantly,” says Kissinger. “Even this past week, we had a big plastic medical kit that broke and I chucked the whole thing in the garbage. Five pounds of plastic. And there was nothing else I could do.”

Like so many parents, Kissinger thought she could manage the flow of plastic toys into her home, but when her son was born, people dropped off presents at the door and she realized she had no control. “We would open our door in the morning and there were plastic bags full of plastic toys,” she says. “It was out of the goodness of people’s hearts. They were sharing stuff they knew a little child would love. But we realized once it’s in the house and our sons see it, it’s hard to get it out.”

As hard as it might be, though, I decided to take a hard-line approach with my kids and their plastic toys. One sunny afternoon, I took them into the backyard and told them to make one pile with all the broken plastic toys and another pile of toys they no longer want. It started out well enough. The piles grew and both my kids were having fun. But within half an hour, they’d started to play and promptly ne­glected their piling duties.

With great shame, I started dumping the piles of broken toys into plastic bags. The toys they no longer wanted I lined up in the alley, hoping someone would claim them, and alleviate some of my guilt. I have to say I was surprised to see them disappear. It didn’t happen all at once. The plastic car went first, then the plastic scooter, then the plastic trucks.

But strangely, the mysterious disappearance of our unwanted plastic toys did nothing to alleviate my guilt. Instead, the question of whether I was unintentionally poisoning someone else’s child by offering up free, but contaminated toys, lingered. Here was a dilemma with no solution: throwing them in the landfill was bad, and letting them go for free to someone else was also bad. Berating myself, I thought of something Gabrielle had said: “We’re making the wisest choices we can and if we were living in a different society, we might have different options. There’s a lot we don’t have the ability to control.”

I’ve started taking control, little by little. What is that prayer they use in AA meetings? “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” If I’m a plastic-aholic, surely those words should apply to me too. For someone as agnostic as me, it can’t hurt to have a little prayer in my life. Perhaps it will even hold the guilt at bay, dissipate the hopelessness we all sometimes feel at the difficulty of making a change – until, of course, I’m persuaded by my kids to buy them the Harry Potter Lego set, or yet another My Little Pony.