Dear Umbra,

Regarding your obsession with vinyl, as pertains to summer parenting: Greenpeace’s thorough Vinyl Alternatives list indicates that no good alternatives to vinyl kiddie pools exist. Do you think it is worth it to put a huge effort into manufacturing or finding a vinyl-free backyard wading experience? I can’t stop thinking about this, and think it merits faking a question.

Yours as always,

Dearest Me,

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

What a great question about a very minor issue. I can’t believe no one has written in to ask about kiddie pools. And believe me, I looked through thousands of questions before faking this one.

Wade and see.

Seems to me there are a few issues here regarding kiddie pools: We’ve got water use, potential differences between types of vinyl, and consideration of the manufacture of pool alternatives. As I mentioned, Greenpeace’s excellent vinyl alternatives list says that no alternatives to vinyl kiddie pools exist. It seems the yard sale kiddie pool may be the best option*.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Kiddie pools do, of course, use quite a bit of water, what with the filling and refilling of anywhere from 50 to 300 gallons. For this reason alone, it would be better to use public wading pools or naturally occurring bodies of water if they are available and safe. Seattle’s Parks and Recreation department, in considering the heavy water use involved in public wading pools, calculated that one of its major wading pools held the equivalent water to 50 backyard kiddie pools. Which, when you think of how many children use a wading pool on a hot day, is quite a water savings. If you live in a city with a nearby wading pool, please use that publicly available resource instead of your kiddie pool. It’s the public transit of summer swimming.

If that’s not an option for you, there are two sorts of home kiddie pools generally available. One inflates and another is basically a large, hard plastic dish with fish printed on the bottom. Both are made from PVC. We have several environmental issues with PVC/vinyl. It’s a petroleum product, dioxin is produced during its manufacture, and some ingredients added to vinyl products are potentially damaging to our health, the current main concern being phthalates. These softeners make PVC products flexible and slower to degrade; they have been linked to asthma, liver and kidney damage, and reproductive problems in other mammals. Some PVC items are half phthalate, apparently. Various types of phthalates are now banned in the E.U.

Kiddie pools all share the problems of petroleum use and dioxin production, but do the inflatables and the hard bowl share equal phthalate problems? My guess, based on what I can glean from various reports, is no. Phthalates are softeners, and inflatable kiddie pools are often listed as examples of phthalate-containing products. Hard kiddie pools don’t make the list. So, perhaps the hard pool is a better choice out of two lousy choices. Not that it won’t contain phthalates at all, I can’t say that; but it contains less plastic (as we can see from visual comparison), and likely fewer phthalates. Not to mention that it’s cheaper and less of a hassle.

If we are to buy a pool, then, the preference would first be a used hard pool, then a new hard pool, then a soft pool. I would say no soft pool at all, really. We are trying for No Vinyl, That’s Final, right? Someone out there could make buckets of money designing and selling a non-vinyl pool for the green parent market. How about if it were collapsible, like those dog watering dishes people use for hiking? I ask only to receive a prototype — you can take all the credit.

What other pre-made objects are out there that could be a small, shallow pool for young children? Shallow horse-watering troughs are the only things I can come up with, though I think a walk through an animal supply store might turn up other large, shallow dishes made of rubber or non-vinyl plastics. An old enamel-coated cast iron laundry sink might work — heavy as heck, hard to come by, and quite slippery are the big drawbacks. I welcome other suggestions.

It’s gotta be possible to build a small above-ground pool from simple objects. I think this is probably only a useful idea for those of us who already do some carpentry and have the tools, and perhaps a few of the supplies, at hand. The basic idea is to build a simple box frame out of any sturdy material and then drape a tarp over the frame to hold water. Say you had some 2x4s lying around and screwed them together into a box. No bottom is necessary, but we might need to pad the corners with some old T-shirts for safety. Then the tarp (made of “poly” polyethylene, read the label before buying it) is placed over the box, pushed down to the ground and into the corners, and secured to the box by tucking or clamping. A wire frame might work as well; for that we would just need wire mesh, wire clippers, and spare wire for tying the mesh together in a circle. These ideas are labor intensive and far more expensive than a hard plastic kiddie pool, though they are certainly more durable. Hence my recommendation that only those who are predisposed to home projects and already equipped for them entertain this idea.

Back we come to the hard plastic pool. It can be improved upon if we buy it used. And we can lessen the impact of our kiddie pools by emptying the water into thirsty parts of the lawn or garden which would be watered later in any case. There is always, of course, the choice of no pool at all. If I spend the entire summer puzzling over this issue, soon the issue will be moot and I can move on to winter-based puzzlements.


*[ED. NOTE: Umbra reports that, shortly after writing this column, she encountered a viable alternative to vinyl in a friend’s yard: a kiddie pool made from #2 plastic (HDPE). The pool came from Toys R Us, though it does not seem to be available online. Keep an eye out!]

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.