Balancing Kids and Carbon: how to live more sustainably as a parent

I live in Charlton Kings and I am a mum to 3 teenage girls. I am also a professor in energy, engineering and climate change. So we should be a really environmentally friendly household, right? Wrong! Everyone who has kids knows that they change your lifestyle and habits in so many ways and as they get older it can feel like you increasingly lose control of things. So here are some things I have learnt that I think can make a difference.

1. Get kids into the habit of walking whatever the weather

I grew up in a household without a car and we walked or got the bus everywhere because we had to. I didn't feel constrained by that because I thought it was normal. The same with your kids: I think it is key to get them into the walking mode before they get old enough to question it and make their own decisions. Make it their default, their normal and a car journey something that has to be justified. You can have much more interaction and quality time talking to kids and pointing things out while on the bus than you can when they are strapped in a car seat.

2. Think carefully before buying an SUV.

Yes, when you travel with a baby you need to bring more stuff than adults would: often a pushchair plus extra bag and even travel cot may need to fit in the boot. But getting a car with a bigger boot doesn't have to mean getting a heavier car with a bigger engine and it is not true that bigger cars automatically confer greater protection for children. My 2019 Renault Clio scores higher for child occupant safety than the Land Rover Evoque: explore at https://www.euroncap.com/en. Once you have 3 children, cars do become more challenging as you probably want a model that allows 3 car seats to fit side by side in the back, so do remember to check that before you buy.

3. Don't succumb to a tumble drier

I am proud to say I have never owned a tumble drier and I think that is key: once you have one you get pulled into a lifestyle that "needs" it. So, my washing machine is on 3 or maybe 4 times each week, but I only every put a full load on, I hang it up immediately in a warm-space and most things (particularly my daughters' casual clothing) are dry within 24-36 hours. In summer larger things go on the rotary airer outside (actually a really good opportunity to let toddlers play supervised on the grass while you hang-up or bring-in their clothes).

4. Try reusable nappies

The environmental impact of disposable nappies is horrific: the plastic remains undegraded in landfill sites for decades. The initial cost of investing in reusable nappies seems high, especially when there are so many other more pressing things to buy, but it is cheaper in the long term. Maybe suggest it to family and friends as one of the "new baby gifts" you would like and remember you don't have to use them all the time. If you cant keep up with the washing one week it is OK to use disposables some of the time. There is a lot of advice around so talk to other parents and look online e.g. https://www.thenappylady.co.uk/ to work out what is best for you.

5. Buy less plastic and ban party bags

As kids get older and you start to hand on or dispose of all those no longer used toys it makes you very aware of the sheer volume of plastic: all made from oil, emitting carbon dioxide to atmosphere and creating other forms of pollution and waste. There are some times when I think plastic is justified like preserving food, but how did I ever get sucked into buying so many bits of plastic toy junk, no doubt much of it made in less than perfect factories with less than exemplary working conditions in places like India and China. You could try a toy swap with other families, frequent charity shops or pick up pre-loved toys on Freecycle.

6. Share more key purchases and buy second hand

Once I got onto my second and then third child I became less focused on buying everything new. You realize after a few years that it really doesn't matter whether it starts new or nearly new. Lots of the things you buy actually only last a really short time and so beg, steal or borrow them wherever you can e.g. carry cots and moses baskets (you might want to use your own mattress, but the few months a baby will ever spend in these make them such incredibly inefficient purchases). So I would never use a second hand car seat, but I'd be very happy to have second hand high chairs, ride-ons, travel cots etc. Same goes for clothes.

7. Get the whole family used to low carbon diets

My kids think meat is normal/essential and barbecues are the highlight of their year. I am not quite sure how that happened: once upon a time it was all pureed vegetables and bread sticks, but as they got older it was trying to find things that all 3 liked to eat and were quick and easy to cook; not having enough time to try new recipes as a working mum; not having personal confidence with vegan options. Once they are self-servicing teenagers it is hard to reset their eating habits so it is definitely something I would focus on at a much younger age if I had the chance again.

8. Buy an energy-efficient washing machine and oven

I never knew it was possible to run a washing machine so many times a week until I had children. If you have an old one that needs replacing think about buying bigger so that you run it less often and pay careful attention to the efficiency rating. These have actually just changed in 2021: the highest is now A and the lowest G . Remember investing in the A rated one will save energy and electricity costs in the long term (more at energylabel.org.uk).

As children get older I am constantly keeping things hot in the oven until one or other gets home from whatever activity it is tonight. So an efficient oven helps too.

9. Think carefully about combi-boilers

Managing without a tumble drier requires having somewhere warm to dry your clothes. Combi-boilers are convenient because they come on when you need hot water: : really useful for young professionals who don't know what time they will finish at the office and might get up at different times each day. But the reality of life with kids is you know that you will get up in time to take them to school and want warm water for a shower then. You know that bathtime is 7pm because bedtime is 8pm. So many elements of your energy consumption actually become much more predictable. That reduces the benefit of a combi-boiler. So If you are replacing your boiler think about whether the combi option is still best for you. You do need space for a tank if you go for a system boiler, but you can put wooden shelves alongside to dry your clothing superfast.

10. Monitor your energy consumption
Keeping rooms at the right temperature for new babies and dealing with all that laundry almost inevitably increases your gas and electricity consumption. Smart meters can help you track what you are using and prompt you to think about whether you need to adjust your heating times or switch off redundant equipment e.g. that second freezer in the garage.

11. Zone your heating

Everyone is used to the huge benefits of central heating; you wake up and everywhere is already warm. That is great, but the downside is that you are heating rooms you are not actually occupying for a lot of the time. So, if you get the chance to install a new heating system ask the plumbers to put in some extra valves that allowed us to separately put on the heating in the rooms we lived in and those we slept in. That allowed you to e.g. heat upstairs and downstairs separately so that you can ensure baby's room is warm without unnecessarily heating the downstairs too..

So those are the things that I wish I had done differently. Some I can still try to change, but so much of family life is about what you get used to and if you don't stop and think about the carbon consequences of all those little things it is very easy to just fall into practices and habits that become part of your daily life. So do stop and think … and remember the Native American saying

"We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."