For years we have been increasing our plastic consumption and, in turn, the amount that gets disposed of. Sadly incorrectly disposed plastic can now be found throughout much of our natural environment. Even despite increases in awareness and recycling, We are now at the point where trillions of pieces of plastic are in our oceans1. To help prevent more plastic from piling up in nature, we all need to change quite how much of the stuff we consume. And what better place to inspire the next generation than plastic waste-free schools?
There is no denying that the future of our planet rests with the younger generation. Of course, all ages can make a difference now by choosing to buy plastic-free and increasing recycling.
All the same, many of us find changing our habits difficult. And despite growing choices, alternatives to single-use plastic packaging do not always exist.
This is not to say that the older generations cannot make a difference. We can vote for plastic-free with our wallets. We should also actively encourage brands and retailers to make the switch to plastic-free.
And certainly, one significant opportunity we have is to influence the way in which younger people think and behave from a young age to help them help the planet.
Teaching children as early as possible why plastic waste is a problem can provide them with the knowledge and tools to move towards and even begin demanding a future free of plastic. Of course, we can also educate our children on how to correctly dispose of plastic that we have not yet managed to replace with more sustainable alternatives
Setting our children off on a plastic-free path will no doubt help to provide a cleaner planet for future generations. Therefore, we should champion plastic waste-free schools.
Well, why not? Plastic packaging, plastic water bottles, and other forms of plastic are polluting our planet. If we carry on as we are, by 2050, we will have more than 12000 Mt of plastic in landfills or the environment.
This man-made material has thousands of uses, and as such, we often take it for granted. So much so, many of the world's beaches and oceans are now polluted by our discarded plastic waste. Usually as a result of incorrect disposal or lack of recycling. We can all do our bit to prevent the problem from becoming worse - we rapidly need to reduce plastic waste.
For too long, we have been over-producing and over-purchasing plastic goods or those packaged in single-use plastic. Undoubtedly lack of care or consideration for where waste goes and how it is managed has contributed to the plastic mess now found in nature. From placing it in incorrect waste bins to dumping it in the countryside and even dumping it at sea, humans have caused a problem that is on the verge of being irretrievable.
And our consumption matters. 50% of the plastic we produce is used in disposable items4.
In the US only around 9% of plastic is recycled. Meanwhile, due to a lack of infrastructure, the UK only processes a third of its plastic waste, with the rest shipped offshore at further cost to the environment.
With over 20 different types of plastic waste, it can also prove tricky to work out what can and can’t be recycled even when the intent is there5. Often this means that despite plastic being sent off for recycling, much of it actually ends up in landfills.
Plastic waste also impacts global warming, and the two problems are interrelated. Single-use plastic creates a need for more plastic production. This is especially true of plastic food packaging, which is typically new or virgin plastic. Made for the first time, virgin plastic maintains its relative food safety compared to recycled plastic.
New plastic production uses natural resources as well as emits greenhouse gases throughout the lifecycle of plastic. This adds to our global warming problem, which is now very much in the public psyche.
The next problem it creates is a threat to wildlife. It causes problems with both land and ocean life, and in particular, marine life is suffering more than ever from plastic waste2. Around 8 million tonnes of plastic find their way into the ocean each year. Marine animals are consuming plastic, they are getting tangled in it, and they are needlessly dying.
Finally, plastic can also pose a risk to human health. It contains toxins and chemicals that can cause a range of problems, including disrupting the endocrine system. These chemicals can leach from the plastic into the environment. Yet another reason why we need to address plastic overuse and the problems that come with it.
It is time to re-focus and regroup. We understand that climate change can cause a range of issues, such as rising temperatures and sea levels. Less waste makes for a cleaner planet. Clearly, reducing plastic waste is the way forward.
The good news is that things are beginning to happen. While there is a lot of work to do, more and more schools are realizing their role in helping to fight plastic pollution. In fact, it is not just how important they are in encouraging change. Schools also have a key role in preventing the problem.
We’ll see further progress in the coming years as the UK government has challenged schools to be free of single-use plastics by 2022.
Schools, like most places lots of us humans gather, end up with lots of plastic, both getting consumed and also getting discarded. Whether that is everything from plastic pens to the waste created by the items students bring to school. Including items such as plastic yogurt pots and other plastic-wrapped lunch goodies.
Single-use plastic bags are a real problem but so are plastic straws and food packaging3.
To meet the plastic-free school challenge, these are just some of the plastic items that schools will need to prevent.
As these efforts gather momentum, children will not only learn about plastic, but they can also help to make a difference in school and out of school.
Providing school children with the knowledge to understand the plastic waste problem allows them to get behind the actions that will make an impact.
Providing lesson time, projects, and research exercises educating our kids as to the scale and impact of the plastic waste problem all help to grow awareness. In turn, helping them to identify the many contributing factors to plastic waste and empower their actions.
Amazing campaigns, such as Kids Against Plastic, by kids for kids, help children to recognize the significant role that they can play. In turn, giving them the tools they need to help clean up our planet and rid ourselves of this unwanted material. The aim is through increased awareness to encourage each other to go plastic-free.
Informed with facts and knowledge, we can help encourage every child to think twice about their plastic use, particularly single-use plastic.
The next essential plastic waste-free school step looks to understand the problem at hand. Audit and understand where plastic waste is generated throughout the school. You will then have the necessary information to start to address each area in turn.
Start with a list of plastic items in the classroom, canteen, and shared areas. Have a look and list unnecessarily discarded items and what plastic comes from which sources. Simple counts and even a quick score of the size of the problem in each area provide the information necessary to next work out what actions can reduce plastic waste.
Next, plan and act to roll out a series of improvements with the ultimate aim of becoming a plastic waste-free school over a period of time. Set achievable targets starting with quick wins.
For example, small actions such as removing plastic straws from canteens and switching to eco-friendly reusable straws are simple to implement and demonstrate the required change.
There’s plenty more that can be done, encouraging children to say no to plastic bottles and choose reusable water bottles instead. Installing refill stations follows to help reduce plastic bottle use.
Using sustainable alternatives to plastic plates and removing vending machines full of plastic bottles will all start to feel normal and natural with growing student support behind going plastic-free.
Lots of simple changes all add up. For example, most schools will already have recycling bins, simply checking they get used correctly can prevent plastic waste from ending up in landfills.
Longer-term changes can involve finding different suppliers for school supplies, such as printer cartridges or paper products wrapped in plastic.
Wherever possible, collaborate across the student body, also involving parents, teachers, and the community. Encouraging pupils to lead their own programs also empowers them. Further, instilling in them the ability to take control, and it feels as though they can make a change.
Compare progress to your initial audit and celebrate improvements. There’s nothing quite like the sense of satisfaction of having a plan and delivering it. Especially a plan with a role in helping prevent more plastic washing up on our beaches at the same time.
Share as widely as possible the progress and success you’ve made together.
Through collaboration, students, peers, and educators can spread the word in order to help plastic-free initiatives spread well beyond the playground and classroom. Sharing the plastic-free message can and should impact the wider community.
If your school is a plastic-free pioneer in your local area, consider visiting other schools local to you. You can help them with the lessons you’ve learned, encouraging them to follow suit.
Finally, movements for change and improvement can sometimes fall foul of lost momentum when the next thing comes along. We’re excited to see lots more alternatives to plastic entering the market, which will surely help, as will governments rolling out single-use plastic bans, which will require manufacturers to change.
All the same, do ensure the positive improvement that you’ve made sticks. Watch those bins and make sure as the initial glow of progress and success wanes that, plastic waste doesn’t start to creep back in.
So, we now no longer need to be that throw-away society. Now is the time to make better choices. We need to become more considerate of our environment and planet. And educate and inspire our children to help lead the way toward a more sustainable and less polluting future.
As such, plastic waste-free schools are completely achievable. Whereas in itself wholly worthwhile, the ultimate goal should be to set our children on the right path. Enabling them to become leaders when it comes to reducing plastic waste. With the right support, they can show us all that can be done when it comes to changing the fortunes of our planet.
|Eriksen M, Lebreton LCM, Carson HS, Thiel M, Moore CJ, Borerro JC, et al. (2014) Plastic Pollution in the World's Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. PLoS ONE 9(12): e111913. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0111913|
|Using expert elicitation to estimate the impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlife, Chris Wilcox, Nicholas J.Mallos, George H.Leonard, Alba Rodriguez, Britta Denise Hardesty. Marine Policy Volume 65, March 2016, Pages 107-114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2015.10.014|
|Kasidoni, M., Moustakas, K., & Malamis, D. (2015). The existing situation and challenges regarding the use of plastic carrier bags in Europe. Waste Management & Research, 33(5), 419–428. https://doi.org/10.1177/0734242X15577858|
|P. Singh, V.P. Sharma, Integrated Plastic Waste Management: Environmental and Improved Health Approaches, Procedia Environmental Sciences, Volume 35, 2016, Pages 692-700, ISSN 1878-0296, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.proenv.2016.07.068|
|Thompson Richard C., Swan Shanna H., Moore Charles J. and vom Saal Frederick S. Our plastic age. 364Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2009.0054|