Advocacy, Kids

Zero Waste Birth

I love giving birth! We have three children and each of their births were absolutely beautiful and precious. Next to my wedding day, the births of my children are the best days of my life. But you don’t follow this blog for gushing posts about the beauty of birth, but for insight on zero waste living :). This post is for those of you curious about the ways we reduced waste during the recent birth of our son. The average hospital stay creates 29 pounds of trash per patient per day! While there were many things that were beyond our control, I can safely say much less was created by our hospital stay.

Disclaimers: The birth of a child is a momentous event, and it is totally ok to not think about the waste created during it. This post is in no way trying to tell other parents how they should approach their own birth plans. However, after considering our waste and how to reduce it for so many years, it seemed fitting that our son would enter the world without some of the typical waste-producing systems. Also, if you ever need a medication or medical procedure, please don’t ever let the thought of trash bother you. Your health always comes first!

We had a hospital birth with the assistance of a midwife. The birth was completely uncomplicated with no need for NICU. We were only in the hospital for 24 hours. A different setting or circumstances would certainly impact the amount of trash created, but here is our story.

Here are some of the things we did to reduce waste during and after our son’s birth:

Expressing our wishes.

This is the most important aspect of reducing waste in any setting, and is probably the most difficult. As with many things related to birth, you have to stand up and express what you want and be your own advocate. We let the nurses know at the beginning that we live a zero waste lifestyle and would rather not have any items brought into the room that weren’t absolutely needed. For example, by default the hospital brings you a plastic water jug, washing basin, diapers, etc. when you get to your room, but we let them know that we did not need these. The nurses were absolutely wonderful about respecting our desires, and always asked before bringing an optional plastic item into the room. Even during shift change later in the day, I overheard our nurse telling the next nurse how we were using cloth diapers and trying to reduce trash wherever possible.

Cloth diapers

One of a modern baby’s first experiences in life is to have their bum wrapped up in plastic! We went with cloth diapers right from the start. It seems crazy to me that during that first “golden hour” of bonding after birth, the baby has 1/3 of their body wrapped up in plastic in the form of a diaper! Not only is that uncomfortable for the baby, plastic diapers are full of plastic additives that I do not feel comfortable having stuck to my baby’s skin 24/7. We brought cloth diapers in our hospital bag and my mom set one out before baby was born for use after birth. Ironically, I forgot to bring reusable wipes! So instead we used the hospital’s washcloths for wipes, which they launder and reuse. I brought a wet bag to the hospital to keep the dirty diapers in. I had washable postpartum pads as well, but I did use one 6-pack of disposable postpartum pads provided by the hospital. This was because the nurses needed to weigh them to watch for excessive bleeding, plus it would have taken a significant number of reusable pads for those first 24 hours. After that, it isn’t more than a regular period and reusables are quite manageable.

Newborn hat and cloth diaper ready for action!

Composting

Yes, we brought a bag for keeping compost to the hospital with us :). You know I can’t stand to see banana peels sent to a landfill! Our son would be in his 20’s before the banana peel-trash created at his birth would start to decompose. And even then their decomposition in a landfill would emit greenhouse gasses that significantly pollute the world. Not a great welcome for a new baby! We reused a plastic bag that we ended up with during the pandemic and simply added compost to it as we went. My husband dumped it into our compost pile when we got home.

Speaking of composting, we also brought home the placenta in a tupperware container. My body worked hard to make an entire new organ, and leaving it at the hospital to be incinerated seemed like the ultimate waste! Instead, we buried it in the ground near an apple tree we planted this spring. Our son’s middle name is after a tree, so this seemed appropriate. Most hospital rooms have a small in-room refrigerator where we kept it in a tupperware until we were discharged home. No one in the hospital batted an eye about this either. Apparently people taking home their placentas is becoming more and more common. Side note: if you do have a cesarean section, you can donate your placenta to help burn victims!

Food and drink

This is one area where I am going to stray into giving advice to other future parents: If you are planning a hospital birth (or any hospital stay), you are really going to want a water bottle. Hospitals in the United States serve water to patients in these universally terrible plastic jugs with a large bendy plastic straw. You can taste the plastic flavor it gives to the water inside! I am 100% sure that whatever plastic is used to make those bottles leaches into the water. You won’t want to be drinking plastic-water during or after giving birth, trust me!

Other things we brought were:

  • A coffee thermos, which nurses happily filled for us from a coffee pot
  • Fork and spoon for my husband to use when for eating meals
  • Snacks: I pre-packed some trail mix and oatmeal in our hospital bag, and my husband threw in a few pieces of fruit while I was in labor at home.

Taking action on system changes.

There is only so much an individual has control over during a birth or hospital stay — changes need to happen at a system level. For example, most IV tubing is made of PVC, by far the most toxic plastic, and contains DEPH, which is an additive that is an endocrine disruptor. There are alternative safer plastic IV tubing choices, but the hospital would have to order them. So I received the toxics-containing IV tubing. It wasn’t great, but I wanted to have an IV in place just in case it was needed for an emergency. There are improvements that need to be made on a systemic level in medical care to make its procedures less wasteful and toxic. To this end, I wrote a letter to the hospital asking it to read through some of the materials by Healthcare Without Harm, an organization that helps hospitals increase their sustainability, and consider joining their network of hospitals. I know this is unlikely to happen in the near future, but it will never happen if customers never ask for it.

Conclusion

Finally, to say it was a zero waste birth would be a bit misleading. Keeping people safe with personal protection such as gloves and gowns, as well as much of the necessary equipment like IV tubing, blood pressure cuffs, etc. created significant amounts of trash. These are places where plastic often makes sense, and using plastic actually prevents more trash. For example, think of all the infections that would be passed around without gloves and bottles of hand sanitizer! Staying healthy and safe is always always more important than reducing waste (and, ironically, often leads to less waste in the long-run)! But reducing waste where we could brought us joy as we welcomed our son into the world.

Raising our kids to be conscientious and kind is one of the motivations behind our zero waste habits.

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