I recently read an article in the NY Times that mentioned one of the most common causes for environmentalist guilt is using disposable diapers on their children (see here for commentary on the environmental impacts of diapering).

That got me thinking about my own practical inconsistencies as an environmentalist, and as a mother. After all, motherhood is one of those situations when you often end up doing a bunch of stuff you swore you never would (i.e. before you actually had kids!).

In Brazil when someone else comments negatively on another’s child raising practices, someone else will often advise: “Be careful not to pay for your tongue when you have your own kids!”

I realized that being an environmentalist and a mom gives me twice as many chances at not practicing what I preach! So, I have been thinking to myself, what is my greatest “green mommy guilt”?

Even though I do feel a bit uncomfortable about disposables (I use disposables at night and sometimes when I go out alone with our 16-month-old), that is not what I feel worse about when considering my environmentalist and mothering practices jointly. My greatest guilt comes from a four lettered word: T-O-Y-S.

Millions of tons of waste go into landfills and dumps around the world every year, including a huge amount of toys.

There is not a lot of reliable data on the amount of toys discarded annually around the world (see here an interesting map on the distribution of solid waste production globally), but one report estimates between 830,000 and 910,000 tons of electronic toys in the European Union alone are thrown away each year*. In the case of electronic toys, the consequences are even greater. This “e-waste” causes even more serious threats to human health and ecosystems, due the batteries and other parts that contain heavy metals and other toxic substances (see here and here for overall information on toxic substances found in toys and toy jewlery). Plus, there is packaging (see here), carbon emissions, and so much more.

That said, I must confess that the amount of toys our seven-year-old has is MUCH greater than he needs. Although we have managed to avoid electronic toys almost completely (and, consequently, their batteries), I must also confess that a large portion of his toys are made from plastic and/or left a country with uncertain environmental standards and crossed the world – contributing even more to global warming – to reach us here in Brazil.

The environmental impact is not all of it. I think that having too much stuff is not good for anyone. One possible consequence is not valuing what you have. I remember a time, not so long ago, when most of the gifts received by children were concentrated in birthdays and Christmas, and these dates were highly anticipated. Nowadays, with the huge amount of cheap plastic toys easily available in stores, this picture has changed completely.

I am the kind of person that hates to accumulate stuff (I might be a little on the extreme, in fact), and from time to time I do donate some of the excess toys. However, I admit I have had a hard time. The fact is, he does play with most of his toys, and he takes good care of them. He has a great imagination and invents all sorts of purposes and games for them.

Nevertheless, at times I am not pleased with his attitude (as in less than optimal gratitude levels and whining demands for new toys when we go out) and I think there is a lot of room for improvement. Thus, my husband and I recently joined efforts to select and donate a great part of his toy collection. We took advantage of his recent interest in the small Legos (more specifically Star Wars) and, as they are hugely expensive here, he offered to donate half his toys if he could start a collection.

Looking back, I now realize how we actually pushed a lot of toys on our son in his early years, based on our own interests and childhood recollections. His own interest only truly flourished when he was around three. And then, excited about this interest (in this case it started with cars), we promptly showered him with more stuff than we should have, pleased to see his reactions. Those first few years could have taken another path.

Now, with our daughter (and after our Waldorf experience), I realize how much she enjoys playing with things we already have around the house. She is content to play with pots and pans, as well as natural items like stones, shells, or leaves. Our son also enjoys being outdoors, but I think my awareness of it has grown. I’ve come to realize she does not need a ton of educational toys to develop (although I have nothing against most of them). The whole world is her laboratory (see here for info on the advantages of simple toys vs. electronic toys). It’s fascinating to see how much she discovers on her own: the idea of depth by filling and emptying a cup of water; spatial concepts by seeing how many stones fit into a crack in the yard; the sense of movement by how the wind bends a leaf in her hand.

Overall, the toy issue is not easy. Yet, when we make choices for our family in relation to toys, we must not forget (and here I use the wonderful title of an article I read, in Portuguese): the world is not a toy!

Where do you stand in relation to your children’s toys? Do you consider environmental issues when selecting their toys?

This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Eco Ziva of Brazil. 

Photo credit to Cara Faus. This photo has a creative commons attribution license. 

*Estimated data for the 27 countries of the European Union in 2005.

Ecoziva (Brazil)

Eco, from the greek oikos means home; Ziva has many meanings and roots, including Hebrew (brilliance, light), Slovenian (goddess of life) and Sanskrit (blessing). In Brazil, where EcoZiva has lived for most of her life, giving birth is often termed “giving the light”; thus, she thought, a mother is “home to light” during the nine months of pregnancy, and so the penname EcoZiva came to be for World Moms Blog. Born in the USA in a multi-ethnic extended family, EcoZiva is married and the mother of two boys (aged 12 and three) and a five-year-old girl and a three yearboy. She is trained as a biologist and presently an university researcher/professor, but also a volunteer at the local environmental movement.

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