It's smart to reuse baby items, aside from breast-milk pumps and car seats

(Michael Sloan For The Washington Post)
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By Brian Palmer
Monday, January 17, 2011; 7:18 PM

My spouse and I are expecting a newborn soon, so we spent last weekend braving the aisles of a big-box baby supply store. I couldn't help but feel that buying all this new gear is unnecessary. Can't we just use our friends' and families' old baby stuff?

Congratulations on your little green blessing. The Lantern has hesitated to shine his light on procreation, since having a baby should be a deeply personal decision. But that hasn't prevented others from making family planning an eco-political controversy.

Some number-crunchers, for instance, imply that having a child is tantamount to polar bear genocide because of the carbon emissions raising a child creates. Take, for instance, a widely cited statistical analysis that estimated that increasing your car's efficiency by 10 miles per gallon, driving 75 fewer miles per week, replacing your drafty windows, switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, getting an Energy Star-approved refrigerator and recycling all paper, plastic and metal over the course of your lifetime would represent just 5 percent of the carbon emissions you could save by not having a child. I somehow doubt my beloved parents, Yellow and Blue Lantern, faced this kind of pressure on that blessed evening so many years ago.

But since you've already decided to reproduce, there are other factors to consider.

The Lantern has already declared cloth diapers superior to disposables in environmental, if not practical, terms. If you've already vowed to swaddle your baby in reusables rather than plastic, hunting down pre-owned gear is the logical next step.

If your friends and family are willing to hand down old bassinets, bibs and burp cloths to you, by all means accept. If that doesn't do the trick, go online: Web sites such as Craigslist and Freecycle offer used baby gear for swap or sale. If possible, choose hand-me-downs you can pick up in person, particularly if you can rely on public transportation. If public transit isn't an option, you might just want to have the baby gear shipped to your house, since getting you and your car to the point of sale (and back) often accounts for a large portion of a product's carbon footprint. According to one estimate, shipping two five-pound packages by overnight air uses roughly 40 percent less gasoline than a 20-mile round-trip drive to the mall.

How much energy would you save by obtaining all your baby gear secondhand? It's extremely difficult to say. But for the sake of argument, let's do a back-of-the-envelope calculation for the clothing.

It takes 60,642 kilowatt-hours to produce a ton of cotton clothing, according to one study. An infant onesie weighs in at about two ounces, meaning that each of those little stain-magnets requires about 3.78 kilowatt-hours. If your infant uses 30 of them in her first year of life, they represent as much energy use as would leaving a compact fluorescent light bulb running for a full year. That calculation covers just the onesies and doesn't include all the adorable little booties, "I Love Daddy" T-shirts or, undoubtedly, the $110 Baby Dior cashmere zip-ups.

Virgin cotton has other impacts. It takes about 5,000 gallons of water to make a single cotton T-shirt and a pair of jeans, according to the United Nations. (They didn't run the numbers on onesies, unfortunately.) Traditional cotton production also requires tremendous amounts of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides.

There are a couple of items, however, that you should be wary of using secondhand: breast pumps and car seats.

Breast pumps shouldn't be shared. With most pumps, the milk can flow all over the internal machinery. There's really no way to clean that off, so it's possible that some very unpleasant viruses may hop on the next river of breast milk that flows through the machine and into your baby's mouth. (In contrast, hospital-grade pumps that are available for rent are designed so that milk touches only the removable parts.)

Secondhand car seats are also a little iffy. Just like bike helmets and other crash-protection devices, car seats cannot be reused after an accident. So if you're buying a used model, you should be absolutely certain that it hasn't been involved in a crash.

If you have the opportunity to pick up a hand-me-down from a trusted family member, check the expiration date, if it has one. Ultraviolet light degrades plastic; anyone who owns a plastic flowerpot has seen how weak sun-exposed plastic can become. Although the car seat may have lived a happy, crash-free life, just sitting outside will eventually make the plastic brittle. Spilled milk, juice and other fluids can also weaken the fabric in a seat's restraining straps, as can the cleaning products used to tidy up those spills.

The government rigorously tests car seats, but it doesn't require an expiration date or recommend procedures to test the longevity of the product. Still, most manufacturers put expiration dates of five to nine years on their car seats.

If a seat is recently expired, does that mean you're risking your baby's life? Plastic and fabric break down over time, not overnight, so the car seat doesn't go from safe to unsafe at the stroke of midnight on the expiration date. (A car seat loses about the same amount of strength between the fourth and fifth years as between the fifth and sixth.) Furthermore, some reasons manufacturers give for the expiration date - such as the potential loss of the instruction manual or worn-out writing on the labels - are less than persuasive.

The Lantern knows, however, that car seats can be an emotional issue for parents. You'll have to decide for yourself whether the incremental loss of safety will keep you up at night.

The Green Lantern is a weekly environmental column from the online magazine Slate. Is there an environmental quandary that's been keep you up at night? Send it to

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