Fighting Plastic Pollution: children are demanding a sustainable world, fit for their future

In December 2018, the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, encouraged all schools to eliminate their use of single-use plastics by 2022. He was inspired to act, he said, when “On my first school visit as education secretary almost a year ago, the very first question I was asked by a pupil was what we can do to limit the damage of plastic on the environment.”

The effect plastic is having on our oceans, its wildlife and the food chain is a concern being forcefully raised today by very young people right across the country. Pupils from Portreath Primary School wrote to their MP, George Eustice, about the impact plastic was having on their Cornish environment and didn’t shy from an invitation to address a parliamentary committee about the steps they had taken to eliminate plastic from their school. Now, in 2019, as thousands of schoolchildren from all over the UK walk out of classes to voice their frustration at the older generation’s inaction towards environmental decline, Britain’s youth are insisting adults react to the chilling words written on their strike placards: “Why bother learning facts, when parents won’t listen to them? “Don’t go breaking my earth!”

So, are we listening?

The UK produces a whopping 5.2 million tonnes of plastic each year, not all of it recyclable, and the sorry reality is that plastic waste has been a huge problem within the nursery sector. Action has been taken to address this: nurseries are reducing or eliminating the use of plastic gloves, aprons and disposable nappies, are switching to plastic-free biodegradable wipes whenever possible and place emphasis instead on hand-washing and washable fabrics; a policy of sourcing meat and veg locally wherever possible has greatly reduced the purchase of plastic-wrapped food in schools and nurseries; and plastic toys are being phased out, wooden toys and natural products have moved in.

Yes, but there’s much more adults can do

Conscious purchasing and forward planning can support the movement away from plastic that our children are calling for. Here are a few adjustments parents can make at home:

  • allow children to play with real objects, so called heuristic play, a term coined in the 1980s by child psychologist Elinor Goldschmeid, who said, “The more toys do, the less a child does.” So never underestimate the value of bowls, funnels, tubes, sand, mud, sticks, wood, shells, boxes. At Ilminster Avenue Nursery School in Bristol recently, staff packed away all traditional toys and for a month replaced them with cardboard boxes, lollipop sticks, egg cartons and all manner of items that might otherwise have headed for the recycling bin, and reported children were engaged and play was more imaginative. Studies in Germany have shown that children who have toy-free time display increased communication skills, creativity and social interaction. If they want to play in a “car”, let them make one!

  • replace at least some products in the bathroom and kitchen with plastic-free alternatives: for example, go back to using bar soap and ditch plastic-bottled hand wash, use only wooden chopping boards, paper straws, reusable cups, refillable metal water bottles, swap beeswax food wrap for cling film and choose unwrapped fruit and vegetables.

  • think about ordering biodegradable products as well as eco cleaning fluids in refillable bottles from companies such as Splosh and OceanSaver. When your bottles run out, you can order concentrate refills that arrive in the post. Splosh maintain this process generates up to 97.5% less plastic waste.

  • sell toothpaste and mouthwash suitable for toddlers and young children in glass jars, as well as kids-size bamboo toothbrushes.

  • organise a regular doorstep milk delivery in reusable glass bottles from a local dairy.

  • make eco-friendly “glitter” with a hole punch and coloured paper or autumn leaves, and avoid shiny paper or foil, wrapping birthday presents in brown paper decorated by children instead.

Above all, please discourage your child from bringing plastic to the nursery – toys, bottles, play jewellery, food containers etc. It’s not what they are going to want in their future!

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