How green is my baby?

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A photo credit accompanying this story contains corrected material, published Feb. 3, 2008.

I often dip my feet into two opposing worlds: recycling at home, but not always at work; drinking soy milk, but still indulging in ice cream; practicing vegetarianism, but eating junk food.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that I absolutely love my toddler's super-soft organic washcloths. Yet, that's where my green baby products begin and end.

I'm attracted to the idea of environmentally friendly baby products, but I'm a convenience type of mom (takeout with plastic forks, anyone?). So when Home&Garden challenged me to live the green life with baby, it was the perfect way for me to squeeze out those organic washcloths and test the wider eco-friendly waters.

Generally pleased with the disposability of my toddler daughter's diaper waste (knotted like ineffectual sausage in the diaper pail), I reluctantly tried the cloth option. When my husband and I adopted our daughter from China almost a year ago, many friends asked if we were going to use cloth diapers. Of course, most if not all of them used disposable diapers with their little ones. Perhaps it's our vegetarianism or my husband's love of thrift stores that triggered such a question.

I barely have time to do my own laundry, let alone an additional 10 or so cloth diapers that amass each day. I remember my parents telling me how difficult these masses were to manage when my brother, born in 1959, served as his own little production facility. Their story sounded like the pioneer past -- chopping wood with a dull axe, icy winds across the prairie. As a more modern woman, my frantic life screams for the quickness and convenience of disposable diapers. Judging from my friends, I'm not alone.

However, eco-friendly Evanston mom of three Lisa Joy Rosing begs to differ: "Cloth diapering is fun. People don't know it's fun. They're scared." But what about the sharp pins, the precise folding? "They're not our grandmother's cloth diapers," assured Rosing, a cloth-diapering consultant.

While parents working on that pioneer dexterity still can find rectangle cloth pieces and pins, there's now an array of 21st Century cloth diapers to choose from. Here are four options, with explanations from Rosing:

* Pre-fold: "The old-style absorbent cotton rectangle diaper that parents fold and fasten on their baby [and] which needs a cover to be waterproof. Covers can be reused until soiled." Parents can secure the diapers with pins or a Snappi fastener ($2.49 at snappibaby.com).

* Fitted diaper: "Diaper with an absorbent soaker sewn inside that closes with snaps or Velcro, but needs a cover to be waterproof."

* All-in-ones: "Diaper with a waterproof outer, absorbent soaker sewn inside and either snaps or Velcro closure, which, when soiled, is put in the diaper pail for washing."

* Pocket diaper: "A waterproof shell with a pocket to stuff an absorbent insert ... [the diaper] can be used one time before placing in the diaper pail."

Ditching my life of disposable leisure, I opted to test the Fuzzi Bunz brand cloth pocket diapers from Be By Baby, 1654 W. Roscoe St., 773-404-2229, where Rosing teaches a cloth diapering class.

After my then-15-month-old woke from her morning nap, I placed a Fuzzi Bunz diaper on her. It was so simple to snap (in four places) that I almost forgot I was using cloth diapers. An hour or so later, my daughter's stinky diaper confirmed that I was in fact using cloth diapers. I scraped the, um, residue from the diaper and placed it in our Diaper Genie (Rosing recommends putting the excess in the toilet with the help of a Mini-Shower, a hand-held bidet).

I then applied a disposable diaper because we were on our way out, and it just seemed easier. But when we returned, before my daughter's afternoon nap, I again applied the Fuzzi Bunz. I was nervous . . . would it last a two-hour nap? I breathed a sigh of relief when she woke with wet diaper, but dry bed.

My daughter wore the Fuzzi Bunz twice more that day. Overall, I liked them. Will I switch? It would be easier if I were home full-time. Perhaps I'll try using them on the weekends ... maybe.

Toying with green living

Although they don't compete with disposable diapers in terms of landfill space, plastic toys can make any house look like a post-apocalyptic Disney World in a matter of minutes. Instead of these often-frustrating plastic affairs, consider "a durable toy that can be passed down to other kids or grandchildren. [Wooden toys] last a very long time," said Paul McRandle, deputy editor of National Geographic The Green Guide. "When buying wood, you're not contributing to pollution that is [emitted by] PVC plastic toys."

What should parents look for? McRandle said to make sure the toys are made from solid wood, either unfinished, or finished with non-toxic oil coatings made from plant oils such as walnut.

With the Thomas the Tank Engine trains and numerous other recalls in the news, this might be a good time to re-evaluate the substances used in baby's favorite toys. McRandle also noted: "For any wood toys with brightly colored paints, check the label to see if it's lead-free, and if it's not, don't buy it."

As I was buying cloth diapers at Be By Baby, I also picked up a solid-wood based, non-toxic painted rainbow stacker from Melissa & Doug. Our 15-month-old tester loved the colorful round shapes and gravitated toward it several mornings in a row. She mastered taking the rings off, but not quite putting them back on (the suggested age is 18 months old, at which point she had it nailed). In an unscientific study, she did seem to play a bit longer with the wooden stacker than one of her plastic toys.

Only one product note: The bright-colored paint of some of the rings transferred to the others. The yellow ring, in particular, bears the mark of the other colors, giving the entire set a very "played with" look in just a few days. Even so, my daughter enjoys the heft of the wooden rings, and the colors still sing compared to their plastic replicas. It's the difference between listening to a live orchestra's violin, and the child's keyboard version of the same.

Kathy Poehlmann and Courtney Baros, owners of Be By Baby, both asserted that wooden toys are better, not just for the environment, but for baby's development.

"They [wooden toys] tend to be more environmentally friendly because they're a natural material. ... We don't carry toys that light up or make sounds, the child needs to use their imagination more. It lets them be more creative," Poehlmann said.

Baros agreed: "It's opens up that part of the brain. It's not a toy doing something for them. It's them doing something with the toy."

Surprisingly, McRandle actually endorsed one plastic toy: Legos. "Although made of plastic, [Legos do] not use any toxins." The sets, as any kid knows from pressing a Lego spaceman onto the bridge of a Lego pirate ship, remain compatible, so "there's no real need to throw them out; you can give them away." Or, build a Lego landfill that they'll never need to actually inhabit.

Round and round . . .

That's right, recycling isn't just for newspapers and plastic water bottles.

"If you are going to have plastic toys, you can reuse them from other homes; join the local recycle group in your community; look in thrift shops," said Rosing. "You shouldn't look down at it. For gifts, you can even ask people to recycle."

For her son's birthday party, Rosing requested hand-me-downs before guests purchased anything new. She also welcomed handmade gifts, or even just a handmade card.

Moving from handmade to homemade, parents can find various recipes to make their own play dough. As a mom more likely to spend precious recipe time cooking, well, actual food, I opted to test prepared organic modeling dough from Over the Rainbow.

While Hasbro Play-Doh doesn't disclose its ingredients, Over the Rain Dough uses 100 percent plant-based coloring (although the latter half of the "organic and natural flavors" ingredient remains a mystery).

Many of the doughs changed colors from a non-descript hue into the color of their variety as our 5 year-old tester happily squished for the first time. She loved the different smells for each variety (such as Purply Grape and Berry Pink), and seemed taken with the slightly looser consistency of the product compared to regular Play-Doh. The dough ($27.95 for a six-pack at kushtush.com) did leave a thin film on her hand, but she didn't seem to mind.

Being a new mom, my bottled water use increased. Cringe-worthy, I know. Especially with recent controversies about the composition of bottled water (Dasani and Aquafina, for example, come from purified tap water -- not snow-capped mountains), the possible leeching of plastic toxins into beverages, and the environmental impact of producing and disposing of the millions of bottles worldwide. Even Mayor Richard Daley's wised up, successfully proposing the 5-cent tax on water bottles that went into effect Jan. 1. The tax is meant to recoup costs connected with mounds of empties clogging up landfills. Cheap tap water, it turns out, may be the answer -- but how to carry it around?

Enter the Sigg bottle (mysigg.com) at Be By Baby. The Swiss-engineered bottles use an aluminum container, which the company claims results in 0 percent leaching of toxins into your beverage. Co-owner Poehlmann also recommends the colorful array of multisize Sigg bottles over plastic, because you can use them over and over.

"Reducing plastic is just an easy way for one person to make a big difference in the course of one year," Poehlmann added.

After becoming a mother for the second time in six months (adopting a baby in January and giving birth in July), I took on a mission to stop buying plastic water bottles and cut down on plastic use. I used the remaining bottles of water in our house, and switched to a reusable Brita pitcher. I still buy the occasional bottle when on the road, but if someone can sell me a device to always have a filled, chilled Sigg ready to go as I carry out the two children, the stroller, the diaper bag, the change of clothes, the toys, the snacks, etc., I'm game.

Green and clean

Of course, there's the whole of world of baby hygiene products to banish odors, burnish skin to glistening softness, and keep baby clothes ready to get dirty once again. Here's a sampling:

Diaper pail odor: I've tried to air out the nursery naturally by opening a window, yet there's still that used diaper smell floating like an olfactory ghost. I've tried various floral sprays, but I wonder how safe they are for my toddling daughter. Mrs. Meyer's organic freshening spray ($4.99 for an 8-ounce bottle at Olivia's Market, 2014 W. Wabansia Ave., 773-227-4220 and at mrsmeyers.com) promised "the blossoms of wildflowers, butterfly violets and honeysuckle with a teeny bit of apple, lemon & mint." In conjunction with an open window, it delivers long-lasting relief.

Keeping hands clean: Shortly after adopting our daughter, my husband bought a jumbo bottle of hand sanitizer for us to use between quick (read: wet) diaper changes. I'm a soap-and-water mom, but when in a hurry, it helps. I was horrified when another mom explained how dangerous the high alcohol content could be to my daughter if she got her hands and mouth on it. I recently tried Clean Well natural hand sanitizer, which sprays on the hand rather than globbing in the palm like the pump-action varieties. Instead of alcohol, the main ingredient is Ingenium, a non-toxic blend of oils. It's a spray sanitizer with a powerful smell of thyme that leaves no residue or gel-like feeling on hands.

Baby soap: My toddler has eczema, so I use Aveeno Baby Wash and Shampoo to bathe her. For this story, I tried a Chicago-based alternative: Abbey Brown bar soap (at Be By Baby or abbeybrown.com). We've been using it for several months, and thus limiting our plastic use by switching from the plastic Aveeno bottles.

Laundry detergent: While scanning the aisles of Costco, I discovered Ultra Ecos laundry detergent, which contains such ingredients as plant-based surfactants and soy-based fabric softener. It's made by Winnetka-based Earth Friendly Products. The vegan detergent not only cleans my clothes, but smells like a bouquet of magnolias.

As all parents know, there's no shortage of laundry. Piles and piles of laundry. Did I mention the laundry? I'm still using a machine. No washboard down by the river. No babushka keeping the sweat from my brow. There's only so many hours in the day.

Bottom green line

This about sums up my adventure in eco-living with baby. I can change to better products when they save time, make my life easier, or at least don't seem more trouble than they are worth. Even so, I'm now making a conscious effort to live a more environmentally friendly life.

Forget pink or blue, little girls and little boys deserve a green lifestyle.

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Eco-friendly sources to know

Even though I couldn't test out every eco-friendly baby product, there's no shortage of options. Get your green on with these other products for the baby set.

Cribs and mattresses

New parents often fret over the perfect nursery. And it's not just whether to have a teddy bear or Winnie the Pooh theme. More parents are moving toward environmentally friendly nurseries because they're thinking, "I take good care of myself but I'm going to take better care of my baby," said Deree Kobets, owner of Grow, 1943 W. Division St., 773-489-0009.

"Babies spend most of their early years sleeping. The crib and nursery are the first places to start in making their environment healthy and non-toxic," said Kobets.

Grow carries eco-friendly cribs, which are made of solid wood or birch ply or medium-density fiber board.

Grow also sells the non-toxic, organic Naturepedic mattresses; Gdiapers (biodegradable and flushable); Orbit Baby strollers and car seats (parents can disassemble the plastic and metal for recycling); organic blankets, hooded towels, bedding sets, clothing, bath and body; and more.

"I'm doing whatever I can to promote a healthier planet," said Kobets. With eco-conscious parenting, "every little bit you can do helps."

With more stores offering such goods, green parenting is getting even easier. Lil Deb-N-Heir, 540 E. Ogden Ave., Naperville, 630-717-8100, carries organic bed linen and crib mattresses by Natural Mat and Moonlight Slumber; Lazars, 6557 N. Lincoln Ave., Lincolnwood, 847-679-6146, sells organic cotton mattresses, including one from Acorn by Land and Sky; Beautiful Beginnings, 1840 N. Clybourn Ave., 312-944-1212, will soon offer an eco-friendly crib collection by Bonavita and also sells Moon Slumber crib mattresses.

Paints

Don't stop at non-toxic cribs and organic blankets, it's time to think about what you're putting on the walls.

Serena Dugan, co-founder of Serena & Lily (serenaandlily.com), said living the green life with a baby is essential for a good start. "It's the most vulnerable time frame [in a person's life]."

Dugan's company started selling low-VOC, matte-scrubbable color paint in 2007.

"We started selling the paints we had already used in our photo shoots for our first catalog in 2004. With each subsequent photo shoot, we developed custom colors for the rooms shots."

Serena & Lily also sell organic bedding, and they are planning new organic crib collections, slings and gift sets.

While Dugan said she doesn't always hear directly from customers about organic initiatives, there is substantial buzz among retailers. "As we all get educated on what the issues are and [we use] more organic products, more of our [new] products likely will be focused in that direction."

-- Kelly Haramis

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kharamis@tribune.com

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