How to raise a baby with a zero carbon footprint

Keya Chatterjee knew tiny babies can have a huge impact on the environment. She wanted her choices as a parent to minimize her baby's carbon footprint, and she compiled her research in a new book called the Zero Footprint Baby.

Author Keya Chatterjee on the greenest ways to feed, diaper and care for your baby

Tiny babies can have a huge impact on the environment — just think of the mountains of dirty diapers they produce.
Keya Chatterjee said almost everything she did to dramatically reduce her family's carbon footprint during her son Siddarth's first year saved money and was easier than conventional alternatives. (Courtesy Keya Chatterjee)

Keya Chatterjee, who works as the senior director for renewable energy and footprint outreach at the World Wildlife Fund, knew that. So when she became pregnant with her first child, she dedicated herself to researching choices that would minimize her baby's carbon footprint — from the location of his birth to choosing between breastfeeding and formula to diapering and child care.

Her goal was to ensure that her family's carbon footprint was no bigger after the baby's birth than before — that, in effect, the baby's carbon footprint was zero.

It occurred to her that other parents might be interested in what she learned, so she compiled it in a new book called The Zero Footprint Baby: How to Save the Planet While Raising a Healthy Baby.

Chatterjee spoke to CBC News from her home in Washington, D.C., about being an environmentally responsible parent.

CBC News: Why was it so important for you to minimize your baby's carbon footprint?

Chatterjee: I've worked on climate change professionally for a long time. Whereas before, I was able to somewhat unemotionally look at [greenhouse gas] projections for mid-century and think, Well, that's something we've got to work on, it became a much more emotional thing for me to have a baby born in 2010 and say, "My god, mid-century is when he's 40."

I kind of feel like as a parent, it's just as much my responsibility as making sure my son doesn't fall into the pool or run into the street.

Could you talk about the low-carbon lifestyle you lived before you had your baby? 

We were maybe living an unusual lifestyle. We didn't have a car, we didn't have a refrigerator, we used very, very little electricity and our solar panels more than covered what we used in our home.

So it was kind of clear to us that we weren't going to be able to live that way with a baby. I was working outside the home. I was going to be pumping milk. I needed a place to keep that milk. I was going to have to get a fridge. And so I knew there were things we were going to have to do that would raise our carbon footprint. And what I wanted to figure out is could we minimize those increases.

What environmental impacts of having a baby were you most concerned about?

I think there's a lot of things I see in my daily life that parents are doing, like moving to the suburbs, where they then are heavily reliant on a car, moving to larger house. There are these societal norms that drive people to make decisions that are really, really not good for their baby's future.

For me, I wanted to look at every little decision, big and small, and figure out what the best option was.

You started thinking about this before your baby was even born. What kinds of lifestyle changes and planning did you do then?

Keya Chatterjee wrote The Zero Footprint Baby to share with other parents what she learned about choices that could minimize her baby's carbon footprint. (Ig Publishing)
We made a lot of changes that would just be automated, so that when we were really tired, we didn't have to think about — things like replacing all our light bulbs with LEDs, making sure our solar panels were in place, we had low-flow valves in the showers and in all the sinks.

A lot of the choices we made around birthing were very important, because a lot of people don't think of the carbon footprint of health care, but it's enormous. We very proactively for that reason went with midwives and went to a birth centre.

When we had a baby shower, we only accepted used items and tried to really get people not to give us so many things, but offer us their time and their services instead.

You talk about being criticized about your parenting choices before and after your baby was born. What kinds of things were other people most critical of?

Oh, everything, you know. When you're pregnant, suddenly everybody feels free to opine upon whatever choice that you've made. One of the catalyzing moments was when I was biking while I was pregnant. And people were screaming at me, "Baby killer!" and really hurtful things. And I just thought to myself, Is it really bad for me to be riding my bike while pregnant? And I asked midwives, I asked doctors and I found zero evidence for this. And I thought, people will say things to me now, and I really need to know my stuff if I'm not going to cave to that.

People told me when son got diaper rash, they said, "Oh, that's because he's in a cloth diaper." At 10 months old [when he wasn't walking], a lot of people would say, "Maybe it's because it's so cold in your house." It's just every little thing: "Maybe he's not gaining enough weight because you're vegetarian."

Now I can kind of say, "That's really great input and thank you for caring so much, but there are reasons we're doing the things we're doing and we feel pretty good it's the right thing for our family and the right thing for the planet."

One thing I liked about your book was that you give concrete examples about times when you or other parents tried to do the greenest thing and it didn't quite work out and you had to try other things. Can you describe an example?

Definitely. A big thing for us — a moment when I just was like, "I really want to do this" — was around elimination communication.

It's basically this idea that rather than use a diaper at all, you take the baby to the potty from birth. Right after my son was born, a few minutes after nursing, I figured out his schedule, that he would generally poop and pee about 15 minutes after nursing. I would just hold a container under him and make a noise that he would recognize as being the pee noise.

So we did that for a year. And then my son, when he turned a year old, got very difficult. He went on a "potty strike." And I was just like, "I cannot clean up another piece of poop from my floor without losing it. We are using cloth diapers."

That's what inspired me to do all this research on how cloth diapers could be better, such as by not using a clothes dryer, making sure we were getting used cloth diapers.

And honestly, diapers are such a tiny, tiny part of your carbon footprint compared to transportation and energy. But it's so important to parents, because it's something you're just doing all day every day.

You also tried disposables and that wasn't always easier.

Not at all. [Laughs] There was poop on my baby's head the first time I used a disposable diaper. I totally thought I was doing something wrong. I was calling friends and asking , "What did I do wrong? There's poop coming out of the back of the diaper when he poops." And they're like, "It happens sometimes. It's called a blowout." And I'm like, "Oh my god, that does not happen in a cloth diaper — or, at least, not our cloth diapers."

You mention in your book a number of cases where sometimes the environmentally friendly way of doing things is easier and better than the less environmentally friendly option.

In our case, certainly, almost everything we did to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint saved money and it was easier. A lot of the things that people tend to think would be really hard, like cloth diapering, are not hard at all.

Based on your experience, what are the easiest lifestyle choices that any new parent can make to minimize their baby's carbon footprint?

By far the biggest actions you can take are involved with your energy and your vehicle. You hear a lot about getting the minivan and if you can do the opposite and get the Prius, that can have a huge impact. If you live in a house with a roof, you can put solar panels on, you never have to think about it again, you don't change the rest of your lifestyle. A lot of this stuff is not that sexy, but those are the big, big ticket items.

In the end, you succeeded in having a zero footprint baby.

We did. [Before having a baby] we had just an embarrassingly high amount of emissions from flying. We found out where a huge amount of emissions were and we stopped those emissions. But on another level, any kind of decision you make has its benefits and its cons. Really, flying with baby is very hard and it's nice not to have had to deal with it so much.

But it didn't come without costs. My grandmother had said to me just before she died, "I'm going to die without seeing your baby." And she's in India. And you know, she was right.

How old is your baby now?

He's about two and a half.

Have you managed to keep this up?

Yeah, we restrict ourselves to one flight a year, we don’t use heat or air conditioning, hardly at all. We’ve kept everything up.

The challenges change with age. When he was a baby, it was really, really easy to get everything used, because things fit for like two weeks and other people with babies are so desperate to get rid of their stuff. As he's getting older, we're finding people are still happy and willing and give us tons of stuff, but it's a lot more worn out because the kids use it longer.

There are definitely new and different challenges and I'm sure they'll get newer and even more different in the coming years.

Chatterjee, shown here with baby Siddarth and her husband Andrew in their backyard, said decisions that reduce your carbon footprint the most involve energy and transportation, such as installing solar panels at home or avoiding air travel. (Keya Chatterjee)