Guest blog by Kathryn Nelson, Plastic-Free Mermaid
Who is Plastic-Free Mermaid?
I haven’t used single-use plastics in over a decade (13 years and 4 months to be exact!) and I’ve phased out most other plastics from my life in that time as well. I make most of my own products, track down natural materials to replace common plastic items, and when I can’t find a substitute, I settle for repurposed or second-hand plastics. It is such a rewarding lifestyle.
I feel fortunate to have learned about plastic in college, and that my career took me into conservation work. Today, I continue to lobby for change and communicate about how toxic plastic is to our environment and our bodies.
During my research on plastic’s impacts on the human body, I learned that little developing humans are the most susceptible to the toxic effects of plastic—meaning pregnant people and their fetuses, babies, and children.
With so many polluting elements linked to plastic’s long, disastrous life span, plastic pollution can feel overwhelming at times. For support over the years, I have attended many of the plastic science and activism events hosted by Plastic Pollution Coalition and other organizations, joining a diverse group of people collaborating to create a safer world. I always dreamed of raising an ultra crunchy, garden dirt-covered, vegetable-eating, naked, nature baby, but I wasn’t there yet, let alone able to support other parents and their children. When Plastic Pollution Coalition published its Healthy Pregnancy Guide in collaboration with Made Safe, I was relieved to read and share a fabulous resource for learning both risks and solutions.
Mermaid to Mama
My pregnancy began in October 2021, when I was living in Byron Bay, Australia, a gorgeous little surf town. The quaint town had a flourishing local food system, hills filled with organic farms that grew fruit, nuts, veggies, and had regenerative agriculture projects. It’s where I learned that raising animals could actually be carbon positive if done with well-planned regenerative design. At local markets, clever makers of wooden spoons and homemade soaps and natural beauty products all gathered to share their plastic-free gifts and their goods. I also had a little garden where I grew my own food, and worked with nearby farms to order paper bags of oats, flour, rice, lentils, and other grains and legumes. My community was nature-oriented, and living in alignment with the Earth off the grid was our shared dream.
It was manageable for me to live a plastic-free, zero-waste, low impact lifestyle. Over the seven years making Byron my home, I had found my rhythm, knew my sustainable allies, and had established systems for maintaining a balance of growing, making, and supporting community members.
With me being freshly pregnant, my partner Dylan and I decided to leave this nature-lovers paradise. COVID had just struck the town, and lockdowns were very intense in Australia. We were worried it would be hard to leave, access medical care if needed, and impossible to see friends and family outside of our state. We packed up and moved to Oahu, Hawaii, halfway between mainland U.S. and Australia—so our friends and family could still visit us. Plus Dylan’s parents live on Oahu, so it made sense to be close to our baby’s grandparents.
Oahu is, of course, also a nature-lovers paradise! I arrived in my first trimester with immense brain fog, low energy, and zero knowledge of the island’s food systems or ecological state. I quickly realized I had to let go of my expectations for an immediate perfect sustainable lifestyle on my new island home.
It took me a few months, but slowly I was able to identify my plastic-free allies around the island. I visited a few farmer’s markets and got to know what grew locally and which farmers would sell me their organic produce without plastic. Eventually, I visited all the grocery stores in my area and learned what I can get plastic-free and organic at each. I can get flour, rice, and lentils in paper sacks and organic heirloom tomatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, apples, and kale from one big chain grocery store. I can get fresh baked sourdough, organic bananas, juice, peanut butter, and a few other plastic-free items from another major retailer. I get fresh eggs from a friends’ farm. I get cheese from the local dairy and they let me bring my own container. Fresh sourdough pasta is sold in small batches at our local pizza shop. I get fresh macadamia nuts in my own jar from a farm by Dylan’s canoe club. Everything else I order from the island’s farm co-op that delivers in a cardboard box.
When I am near any one of these places, I stop by and stock up. I don’t always have fresh pasta or organic fruit in the fridge. Sometimes I have to plan meals around what I was able to collect and buy, instead of what I am craving. I am happy with this system; it serves me. And when I want a treat, we bring our reusable forks to the food trucks that serve food on compostable paper plates. Or we go to a diner to lather some fluffy pancakes in syrup and pray they don’t serve butter in single-serve, single-use packets.
On occasion, a cafe would not want to serve us with our own cups or bowls, so I would politely leave and bring my business elsewhere. I used to argue (with a polite tone and cheeky smile) for the planet in such situations, explaining how I am supporting our shared resources of water, air, and earth by abstaining from convenient plastics and would appreciate some cooperation for my efforts. After the past few years, I feel more compassion for the stress people are under and that people have their own health concerns that might compel them to use plastic—though I want them to know there are alternatives out there.
Early in my pregnancy, I couldn’t keep down vitamins and couldn’t bear the idea of eating sugar-packed prenatal vitamins, so my midwife made me a special iron tonic (yellow dock root, nettle leaf, red raspberry leaf, dandelion leaf, dandelion root, molasses, water) and a bitter green tea with much of these same herbs. I found a glass jar of calcium and magnesium derived from marine plants. I was drinking tons of water and even inherited a gigantic stash of coconuts from our neighbors, so my body was teeming with natural electrolytes.
I had my nourishment covered. I felt good.
We are already exposed to a plethora of environmental pollutants on a daily basis that we would never consent to being exposed to, yet we are never asked and are rarely informed by polluters. Our soil and plants are sprayed with toxins to kill weeds and bugs, toxins seep into our groundwater that are irretrievable, and then more chemicals are added to our drinking water. Not to mention the plastic microfibers that make their way into our water systems from each household and business washing synthetic clothes and linens. Our air is filled with harsh, unknown fumes from industrial activities. We breathe in plastic particles from tires at stop signs. We breathe in toxic chemicals when we smell someone’s shampoo or perfume or washing detergent that contains the nasty ingredient “fragrance.”
We are bombarded by toxins. Instead of falling into a pit of despair, I do my best to minimize exposure. I take what I can control and I do my best to keep things simple and natural. We don’t need fancy products for every task or room of the house. Simple ingredients that we can pronounce and recognize keep our bodies safe.
As I prepare for a precious little being to join us, I wanted to ensure our family’s home was as safe as possible from toxins and any chemical threats. I cannot rip up the existing carpet, which looks synthetic, so we laid some rugs made from natural fibers atop it. We removed the synthetic curtains and replaced them with wooden blinds. We invested in linen sheets and organic cotton mattress covers. Our wooden furniture is sustainably grown and organically treated. We bought mostly second-hand furniture and appliances, opting for the safest materials—like metal, wood, ceramics, or glass—over plastics whenever possible.
We filled our home with plants and keep our windows and doors open to help filter the air and prevent any plastic dust from hovering. I sweep regularly to get in the habit of having clean floors where our baby will soon be crawling around and exploring his brand new world. I use diluted vinegar with a few drops or tea tree or eucalyptus oil to mop my floors, clean my counters, toilet, shower, and windows. I cut old towels from the thrift store into squares for my washing and wiping. I bake sodium bicarbonate into washing powder for my dishes and laundry. More of my plastic-free, toxin-free cleaning hacks can be found here.
Nothing could have prepared me for the extreme amount of STUFF—lots of it brand new and made from plastic—that people buy for their babies. So much of this feels unnecessary and another toxic trait of our consumer culture.
If we were still in Australia, I know that I would have received many second-hand clothes and other items for my baby, complete with instructions from my helpful friends. Here in the U.S., I’m a bit more on my own and in the dark. Building my registry was a research project I didn’t budget time for! Slowly I came up with a list of things we could use with links to secondhand items from online thrift sites. Some items I recommend are here if you are curious.
I navigated intense marketing and fear-mongering warning me what would happen to my baby if I didn’t make the purchase. My best friend in Australia keeps it super real with motherhood; she said all I really need is a carseat, and maybe a baby carrier—that’s it. Strap baby to you, and carry on with life, she explained. I do plan to exclusively breastfeed for as long as possible to invest in my son’s immunity, our bond through skin to skin contact, and as a birth control method. We are studying elimination communication, so we can learn our baby’s rhythm and cues for when and how he needs to relieve himself. We will use cloth diapers in these early days as we all get to know each other; however, it seems many cloth diaper brands have switched to using cheaper plastic! That was disappointing, although I did manage to find some wool diaper covers to fit over the old school 100% cotton cloth prefolds.
Doing vs Being
I slept a lot in my first trimester. By the time I rounded the corner into my second trimester, I was so ready to be exploring and enjoying the island. I wanted to stay active to keep up my energy levels, strength, and fitness. I was going on walks, surfing, big swims (keeping my freediving quite shallow), practicing vinyasa yoga, lifting weights at the gym, and going for a weekly run.
I do believe that when we invest in our health and fitness, we are drawn to healthier foods. But I certainly had days and even weeks where I had no energy to cook or prepare any of my favorites. We ate out to avoid messing up the kitchen and just kept it easy. Nachos, green curry, veggie burgers, pad thai, sourdough pizza. I had to work through some guilt around eating so much food that I didn’t know much about—was it local? Organic? Plastic-packaged? Cooked in seed oils?
My midwife reminded me that this is all a part of the process of letting go. Surrendering. Trusting the process. Receiving. Not focusing on what I think I should have, but what I need in the moment. Presence. This is all the wisdom I will need when our baby decides it is his time to arrive and my home birth adventure begins.
Now, at nine months pregnant, with 20 days until our due date (right, I thought I would birth at nine months too! This extra month business is wild!), I take it day by day, hour by hour. I get in the ocean at least once a day for a little swim to experience the weightlessness and move my body. I still get to my yoga practice a couple times a week. If a friend calls from Australia, I take a walk and can still manage a decent distance. Mostly, I am resting, reading my books on Hypnobirthing and Elimination Communication (Diaper Free Baby), or watching a show.
I have made a surprising comeback to the kitchen, where I’ve been whipping up fresh scones, cookies, and cakes from scratch. And the nesting phase has struck, where I am sweeping, dusting, and mopping regularly!
And I have been allowing myself rest. Allowing myself to surrender to this initiation into motherhood. Releasing my ego’s attachment and identification with all of the activities and things I do, and instead, just being. Being present with how I feel. What my needs are moment to moment. Talking and singing to baby. Meditating. Resting. Less doing. More being.
He will join us soon. So I am enjoying these last weeks, days, moments with a big belly, knowing he is growing inside of me and I am nourishing him with every breath and bite and blissful emotion.
It’s a gorgeous unraveling of self to make space for the new identity. The girl I was must die for the woman to birth her child. I honor this incredible rewilding. I honor this beautiful primal experience where I feel my ancestors and the women before me like I never have before. I honor this divine opportunity to trust my body to do what it is designed to do. I honor this rite of passage into this next season of my womanhood.
Join my community where I teach natural living and will soon share my experiences in mothering.