If you are the parent of young children, time isn't exactly weighing heavily on your hands. In fact, chances are you don't have time to read a long column. I had better get straight to the point. (If you are NOT the parent of small children, stick with me. Practically every 25- to 45-year-old you know probably IS, so it might be helpful for you to think about this stuff, too.)
Babies and children seem to require an inordinate amount of paraphernalia. At least a zillion products promise to make parenthood more convenient, if not actually any easier. Some are worth it, some are not. There is one thing most "convenient" baby products are guaranteed to do. And that is to help you fill your trash can in a hurry.
Without advocating that you wrap your baby's bottom in moss and breast-feed until the kid goes to college, what follows are some suggestions for ways you can raise small children without quadrupling your garbage. Incorporating even one or two of these suggestions into your habits may make a difference in your family's impact on the environment without adding to your workload.
Let's hit the obvious trash filler first -- disposable diapers. A baby uses as many as 10,000 of these during its diaperhood. That's a lot of trips out to the trash. Unless you live in a part of the country that experiences water shortages, consider using cloth diapers, either do-it-yourselfers or from a diaper service. These are less convenient than disposables, but once you get in the habit, you won't mind the difference. You'll like the savings, too: up to $500 per child.
If you are stuck on disposable diapers, don't feel too bad. Recent studies show they may not be the environmental monster they're made out to be, when weighed against the energy and water used by washable diapers.
Those handy little disposable wipes are the next item on the list. They add up, as do the heavy plastic tubs they come in. Until manufacturers come out with refills so you don't have to buy a new tub every time, consider an alternative -- 30 cotton wash cloths. Keep them wet, or wet each as you use it, then toss them in the laundry hamper, which you probably empty into your washing machine 100 times a week anyway. The cloth will get your baby's bottom just as clean and won't leave any alcohol or chemical scent on the skin. If you do buy wipes, reuse the tubs for toys.
Next -- plastic bottle liners. These are great for trips to Calcutta and other places where sterile bottles save lives. At home in Albany or Tucson, they are just more trash. If your baby is not already irrevocably hooked on the nipples that fit those Playtex nursers, consider switching to regular bottles.
Buy powdered formula in large cans, and recycle the empties. In fact, avoid single-serving containers as much as possible. Those little juice boxes, for example, are good ones to avoid. Americans use more than a billion of them a year. They can't be recycled because they're made with mixed materials. Replace them with a little thermos with a twist-out straw or a bicycle bottle. Make apple juice from concentrate at home, and toss a thermos of juice in your toddler's diaper bag when you go out.
Buy plastic sandwich boxes and little tubs with tight lids and you won't need to buy individual servings of yogurt, applesauce and so on. These days, you can skip the Tupperware party and buy generic containers at the store.
Consider buying some of your child's clothes, furniture and toys secondhand. If there isn't a good secondhand store in your area, reconnoiter the yard sales. When you are done with stuff, pass it on. If you don't know anyone who can use it, the Salvation Army and other charities do. They'll make sure toys and clothes go to small fry who need them.
Any non-parents still with us? Think "shower presents." Many of the items mentioned in this column -- diaper service, thermoses, wash cloths -- would make excellent shower presents, especially for second-time parents for whom the appeal of adorable little garments has worn off. Well, worn off somewhat, anyway. And be supportive. Any parent of young children who is willing to trade a little convenience for the sake of the environment deserves a Nobel Prize.
(Questions? Comments? Address them to Susan McGrath, Box 121, 1463 E. Republican, Seattle, Wash. 98112.)