Mother Earth takes on a whole new meaning

Written by mira


As I get ready to welcome our first child this summer, I started to wonder about her carbon footprint. There are plenty of overwhelming statistics out there about how many diapers I’ll be going through (2,800 in the first year!) and how much it will cost to raise this child for the next 18 years ($250,000+), but less apparent is the environmental impact of a newborn.

The widely used statistic is that the average American adult is responsible for about 20 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, mainly from driving, flying, and home energy use. Yet these factors are a bit more complicated to attribute to a baby, who will after all only have an incremental effect on our household’s carbon footprint.

She’ll be lucky if she’s ever allowed to drive on her own, but as a newborn, she will certainly be hitting the carpool lane with mommy. We will be adding some trips to the pediatrician and BabiesRUs, as well as the weight of her and her gear, which will have a slight effect on our fuel efficiency. I can’t imagine this will add up to more than an additional metric ton of CO2 per year. But is she responsible for all the trips that her grandparents and other adoring fans take to our house to visit?

She definitely won’t be getting her own airplane seat in the first year, if we ever manage to get out of the house with her. Sitting on my lap, we can share the carbon footprint of my seat on the plane.

And perhaps I’ve underestimated the impact on our home energy use. I’m sure I will feel the need to pump the heat a little higher at home to make sure she’s comfortable instead of my usual approach of just piling on the sweatshirts and blankets. But apparently a baby can increase home energy consumption by over 60% and water use by 60-100 gallons per day.

The real impact, however, comes in the form of waste — diapers, clothing, toys and gear. This impact is much more difficult to calculate. One little pacifier encompasses the carbon emissions from the extraction of the raw materials to the manufacturing to the shipping. What is that on a per-binkie basis?

So, what will my baby’s carbon footprint be in year 1? I still can’t find a good answer to that question. According to Mother Jones, Zahara Jolie-Pitt will produce 45,000 lbs of CO2 (20.4 metric tons CO2) yearly, compared with 221 lbs if she still lived in Ethiopia. Thankfully, I can guarantee that Little Karp will not be living the Jolie-Pitt lifestyle, so at least she’s got that going for her. The real question is: will sleep deprivation have any impact on my carbon footprint?

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  1. Colin Dullaghan

    As a new dad with a delightful little four-week old in the house, I’ve been thinking about just this issue. I believe the figures about increased water consumption; that’s for sure — not just laundry, but warming up bottles as well. Not to mention the many extra pots of coffee we’re brewing these days.
    I try not to get too anxious over it, though, and stop just short of calculating how much this tiny little being (who nonetheless seems to generate amazing amounts of body heat) will raise room temperatures and increase A/C costs this summer.

  2. Sally Taylor

    It’s not so hard to reduce baby’s carbon output. 1. Use cloth diapers except for travel. 2. Breast feed if at all possible. 3. Get a water/energy saving washer and air dry your clothes & diapers. 4. Forget about “Babies R Us” and go to a recycled childrens shop for toys and clothing. They grow out of them so fast that most items are like brand new! 5. Think about adoption. We are in the process. So many children in need of homes. And we plan to follow all of the above.

  3. Tracy Stephanski

    My four month old went off to ‘school’ today in that exact onesie and I worry as well about the impact of our ever growing population. Like Colin, I’m concerned with water usage – washing out the bottles alone seems to have a huge impact – not to mention bath time, laundry (mine just as much as his – spit up doesn’t leave a fresh odor after it’s dried up…).
    Keep an eye out for good consignment shops and hand me downs – these little munchkins grow so fast is it really worth spending $20 on an outfit they will wear once or twice that has to travel miles to get to the stores? And all the other good stuff that goes along with making, transporting, marketing clothes. The little guys certainly don’t give a hoot about how cute they look – as long as they are comfortable, clean and burped (hum – there is probably some sort of methane gas affecting the environment from burps and other bodily functions…). Anyway – they are worth every metric ton….

  4. Dad of a 5 year old

    We got an oil-filled radiator space heater for our son’s bedroom and set it very low, for on the coldest winter nights. Kids have a way of kicking off all the blankets, but the polarfleece head-to-toe pajamas are a cool invention since we were kids. It’s a good excuse to upgrade insulation and curtains in the kid’s room, if not the whole house!
    Turn down your water heater to 120 F if you haven’t done so already– for safety as well as energy savings. Front-loader washers are definitely going to save you 20 gallons of water (some of it heated) in each load.
    Shop for clothes and shoes at the thrift store (recycling) or hand them down among friends in a network of families. Join a Mom’s Club type of group for support of a low-consuming lifestyle, including a babysitting co-op.
    Stumbling around in the dark at night to assist the kids can be aided by LED night lights and a LED bulb in the hall light fixture. It’s plenty of lumens for that purpose, and very low energy use.
    What I’m bothered by is how much food gets thrown out (or composted) and wasted when kids are eating. Breast-feeding is nature’s most efficient and effective food, for the first couple years. Buy a stainless steel drink bottle instead of a plastic sippy cup.
    Invest in a bike trailer (and kid’s helmet!) and use it for short family trips to the drugstore, etc. We took our son to preschool in the bike trailer, and he loves biking to kindergarten with us now on the back of a trail-a-bike.
    Google “Last Child in the Woods” and “No Child left Inside” and consider ways to keep them connected with the natural world each day.
    Track your energy bills and car miles from the past 2 years, and on into the future– and see how you can positively affect the trends even though your family is increasing in number by +1.

  5. Woody

    This seems the most obvious environmental issue of all–each human individual, particularly in the US, generates such an enormous volume of CO2 over a lifetime. Choosing to have one less child is the single greatest green decision a couple can make. Plus it results in increased financial stability for the family and a greater ability to support TerraPass, Planned Parenthood, EngenderHealth or other organizations which work toward better conditions for humanity and ultimately a sustainable earth. Getting beyond the desire to procreate to the max is not easy, but if we don’t do this, all other efforts will be in serious jeopardy, IMHO.

  6. Guilaume

    I am also a new father of a adorable four week old baby. We have been very conscious of our carbon foot print. We had a baby blessing instead of a baby shower and asked our friends and family to only offer us recycled or sustainable gifts (clothes, gears…). We still had to buy a few things ourselves but we were really excited about the results and about our friends and families reactions. They loved it.
    Also a main issue are the diapers, they are really bad for the environment. I don’t remember exactly how long they take to decompose but it is a high number, also lots of chemical in them.
    We opted for cloth diapers, and they are great, they also decrease diaper rash. You can do it old fashion with pins, or use the brand “G diapers” or thirsties ( which are covers that hold the cloth diaper.
    Thristies are our favorites.
    Congrats on your new baby

  7. Chris

    It so had to be said. It is weird to see a babies r us shopper and disposable diaper user writing this column. Try craigalist, cloth diapers, nursing, home made baby food from local veggies. We have purchased only one “new” thing for our baby (high chair). Everything else was used. We even asked for only used items at our baby shower.

  8. Tom

    I didn’t have any children. It is hard to find women who will agree to not have children or not want any of their own choosing.
    Until people care about calculating lifestyle sustainability per person, they will see a lifestyle erosion for themselves and their children.

  9. Craig

    Following up on Sally Taylor’s comment, my wife and I found that developing a philosophy of modesty and simplification helped a lot. Contrary to the pervasive marketing, disposable diapers are not more convenient than cloth diapers if you do a little planning. We have less diaper rash trouble than with disposables. (Also, we found that our household trash volume doubled when we used disposable diapers for only 1 child.) Through creating a clothes sharing pool with friends, we rotated out our older daughter’s outgrown clothes and got almost all the clothes we need for our younger son.

  10. mel

    We buy eco friendly items that we do buy new, and sell all old toys on craigslist.
    Skip the expensive bumpers & blanket sets.. they outgrow them in a matter of a 5-6 months!!

  11. Melissa

    Our baby is due in a few weeks. To reduce the impact, we’ve been obtaining a lot of our items from our friends.
    One note on diapers – although we will use reusable cloth diapers at home, no daycare near us allows cloth (health code issue). For the period of time the baby is in daycare, we will be using disposables… though we will try to find more eco-friendly.

  12. Sonia

    It seems pretty clear from multiple analyses that cloth are not better than disposable, rather they just use different types of resources. What we need is a new diaper paradigm, such as this diaper service that actually composts diapers: Enjoy the baby!!

  13. Sarah

    With each of our 3 kids we have weighed our decisions carefully. Cloth diapers at home, G diapers everywhere else (love them!), breastfeeding, CSA’s, local bulk grass-fed meat buying and recycling everything possible is a start. As for really calculating- who has time? To make a real difference we work hard to model responsible choices by composting, recycling, rain barrels, car pools, air drying, etc. The pressure to buy and consume has been our greatest struggle but our kids witness that too and are learning by watching our every…single…little…choice. Who said it? Be the change you wish to see.

  14. mel

    I forgot to add that for my daughters first birthday we are asking for battery free and limited plastic toys if people choose to bring a gift. We asked that all presents be wrapped by using recyclable materials. Gift wrap NIXED! 😉
    She has very few plastic toys and we intend to keep it that way

  15. mel

    we do cloth diapers as well and LOVE Them. Not much harder then disposables!

  16. Nancy

    As a mother of 4, we all need to remember we are raising a child and someone who will be an adult one day. It is important to educate them and teach good habits, turning the lights off, brushing without the water running and hundreds of others efficiency habits that will lower their footprint throughout their lives. Also remember that one of these children will be an influential person in the fight against climate change and bring us into the next century. I hope the child that wasn’t born because of efficiency isn’t the leader we needed.

  17. Chad

    Quit worring about your kids impact. Just buy Baby Offsets. They are readily available and really cheap, about $50 per child or so. They can be purchased from any international womens’ rights or family planning organization.
    I am not joking.
    If you donate $500 to Planned Parenthood or similar organization, you will probably help prevent a dozen unwanted pregnacies by women who cannot afford to raise or feed those children. The world wins because net population decreases. The poor country wins, as its local population is not stressed. The poor woman wins, as she can have a suitable number of children. And of course, you win, as you get to have the children you desire. America also wins, as we need to have balanced numbers from one generation to the next. Sounds like a win win win win win to me.

  18. A Barrett

    A flaw in the reasoning; the baby will already be in the red at birth, her carbon footprint begins before she exits the womb. She and mom both share a use-percentage of the huge environmental impacts of the American healthcare system (second only to fast food in terms of waste alone) plus any additional environmental costs due to mom’s elevated needs during pregnancy.

  19. Carolyn

    Just wanted to chime in a bit here. My son is 11 months old and I’ve been practicing Elimination Communication with him since day 4. It’s what most people in other cultures do, without the darn influence of those corporate diaper industries. It’s a method of tuning into your infant’s/toddler’s elimination cues to figure out when they have to pee/poop. I used cloth diapers for back up for the first 4 or 5 months, but now he’s diaper-free 95% of the time and we have a 95% catch rate. It’s amazing to communicate at such an intricate level, to keep baby’s bum clean and rash-free, and to prevent so much waste from going to the landfill/so many diapers from being washed. Check out and get started with your babies :o)

  20. Tony Siantonas

    We’re measuring the carbon imapacts for a whole baby’s lifetime, including the lifecycle impacts of diapers (or “nappies” as us Brits call them).
    Get the answers and see the results here, and please don’t spend $50 on offsetting your baby – work out how to REDUCE your impacts at home – anyone can offset, it takes brains to reduce first:

  21. landsnark

    Coincidentally, I’m just now reading this because it was posted two days after the birth of my baby daughter. We have been very lucky to receive plenty of hand-me-down and loaner clothes, cloth diapers, blankets, baby furniture, etc but we’ve also found it impossible to keep people from sending gifts purchased new, many with personalization. It seems like such a waste–and also we live in a smallish house and really don’t have room for all the things people keep sending us! I’ll be taking quite a large amount of stuff to the consignment shop before long, many items with tags still on. My family have been among the worst offenders, in spite of the fact that they generally view themselves as thrifty and responsible people–lots of new items, for the baby and for me, many coming from China and almost all manufactured in other countries, most of which we do not need or want, but there’s no graceful way out of it. Efforts to deflect gifts by asking people to donate to Planned Parenthood or Heifer International, or begging them simply not to send gifts at all, have been unsuccessful.
    One large and immediate increase in our family’s carbon footprint is that I will now be driving to work this fall (delivering her to daycare and picking her up afterward) rather than using the bus as I have done for three years. The bus schedule and routing are just not compatible with getting her to daycare and myself to work on time.
    Glad to see someone pointing readers to the Diaper-Free Baby website. I’ve intended to use EC since we first started considering having a child, but as yet we have been able to detect no useful pattern to her, ahem, functions. Still, it’s very early! It’s also good that people have pointed out the relatively low impact of breastfeeding. Formula is a terrible waste and very high-impact, from the factory farming of cows and soybeans to the processing and manufacturing, packaging, shipping and distribution of the product, to the energy waste by the consumer in preparing formula for use and cleaning up afterwards. Add in increased health care costs when formula-fed babies get sick more often, and breastfeeding is a bargain all the way around.
    LOL, Tracy–those baby burps are mostly swallowed air and therefore more or less carbon-neutral!