How do I go zero waste with kids?

How do I go zero waste with kids? is part 2 of the series on exploring zero waste with other people.
Part 1: How do I go zero waste with a partner that doesn’t care?

“Why are you putting those plastic forks in your bag, Ms. Polly?”

I hadn’t realized one of my little 5-year-old students was watching me (but they always are, aren’t they?). I explained I was taking them home to wash and reuse.

“Do you play with a toy once and throw it away?”

“NO!”

“This is the same thing! Someone made this for us. It still works, right? Then we should keep it and use it.”

The kid nodded, shrugged, and walked off. Who knows if it made an impact? But I continued to divert trash from the landfill when possible, and we often covered topics on being kind to the planet. Small, consistent reminders are the way to create habits, right?

Hi, I’m Polly. I have zero desire to have children, but I’ve taught young learners for 7 years. From English to the children of billionaires in a private Russian school to special education in one of the lowest-income public schools of Indianapolis, I’ve seen it all.

No, I don’t have kids, although I’ve peppered in anecdotes and tips from some amazing zero waste parents as well as my perspectives from an educational standpoint. I hope you’ll find the amalgamation useful!

How do I go zero waste with kids?

Why going zero waste with kids is 100% possible

One parent told me “I struggle so much with all the snacks they want, and they’re all in plastic.” I empathize but it’s also important to understand those children didn’t have the purchasing power to make those decisions. This is not to say exerting total control over your children’s life is acceptable, but that you don’t need to be dictated by their very specific wants if there’s a reasonable alternative.

Basically, try not to let your kids (or parents or coworkers or whoever) force your hand because it’s what everyone else does. Instead, focus on creating the sustainability framework. Once that’s in place, let them make their own choices within it.

Because I don’t think we give children the credit they deserve in terms of understanding important concepts. Sharing and explaining these reasonable alternatives is something most children can grasp. (Sure, there will be pouting. But when isn’t there?)

Cultivating new habits with children is relatively easy, particularly if you make it relevant beyond “because I said so”. From working extensively with young learners, I’ve found most kids are far more flexible than their adult counterparts! Young brains are literally primed to absorb new information and try new things.

Books or TV shows can help put things in perspective, even for young kids. Here are a few books I can recommend for exploring sustainability with kids. I suggest heading to your local library, but I’ve linked to second-hand options on alibris here:

Of course all this changes as kids get older and gain more autonomy… but babies, toddlers, and young children (ie. prime education ages) don’t have the means to purchase plastic toys or snack. The only ones bringing that into the house, setting the expectation of how much stuff they should have, and the mindset we have toward the planet are adults. Setting zero waste expectations as young children will naturally lead to those choices as they get older and exert more autonomy.

Specific tips for going zero waste with kids

If possible, think about things before kids arrive. Certainly not possible for those who already have them, but if you’re interested in zero waste and plan to have kids someday it’s worth doing pre-research so you have some ideas before the busyness of life with an infant. This post from Naturally Modern has some excellent tips on a zero waste pregnancy and beyond. Like anything else, being prepared is helpful.

Get your kids involved in the lifestyle. Forced, top-down decisions are rarely an effective motivator for anyone. Sarah of @popcorn.ceiling.life says: “involve them in the process. Let them scoop at the bulk store. Take them to the farm. Let them choose their lunch snack.” Her post Choose Your Own Adventure also has a ton of wonderful, practical tips for building a low-waste lifestyle with your family.

How do I go zero waste with kids? - Green Indy BlogWork in DIY snack time. Stop buying so many pre-packaged snacks and bring in zero waste alternatives. Turn it into a fun activity by making it yourselves; participation is a great way to get children to buy into any idea! The same goes for any sorts of DIY projects you might want to make at home. Make it a fun learning experience and kids will be all in!

Pick your battles – you can’t win everything. As Tammy of MommaTammy explains, it’s a balancing act. “I try to explain why I’m doing everything. I give them flexibility to make some of their own choices (how to spend their money, choose to eat meat if they want to) and am stricter about other things (bringing their own water bottle… packing their lunch so they aren’t wasting food and disposable plates and utensils from the school cafeteria).”

Get active in the local second-hand/freecycle markets. Kids grow so quickly – physically and mentally – that their stuff has a hard time keeping up. Why keep buying new if you don’t have to? Give away or trade your kid’s old clothing or toys for something they’ll enjoy now. Keep stuff out of the trash and helping your wallet at the same time! On that note…

Make items multi-purpose and long-lasting. Sandra shares: “We raised our bed to use it as a changing station, rather than buying a piece of furniture we don’t need just for that. We got a convertible crib that will turn into a toddler bed. We didn’t buy a bassinet, our baby slept in his crib next to us from day one by removing one panel and moving it next to our bed.”

Treat your kid like a minimalist. Sophi of @yourecofriend says: “people say there’s so much stuff with kids. That doesn’t have to be. That comes from what we think they need. Toys are something people complain about… people can’t wait to get it out of their house, so you can often get stuff for free.” Studies have shown having an overabundance of toys can reduce creativity and focus in children. So rather than quantity, focus on durable eco-friendly options. This can also save you in the long-term if you plan to have multiple kids.


All in all, it’s important to treat going zero waste with kids the same as anything else: carefully and respectfully! Make it fun, give them choices, and let them explore the world with the information you’ve given them.

Other resources: Meredith Tested, The Rogue Ginger, Zero Waste Dork

Polly Barks Green Indy

Welcome to Green Indy! I’m Polly, and I’m here to show you that zero waste can be more accessible than you think. Ready to get started? Head this way.