Reducing plastics use helps with learning about the need to live sustainably

Two news stories in recent days — one saying that just 20 firms account for more than half of single-use plastic waste, the other a claim from Greenpeace that about 40% of the UK’s plastic waste exports were sent to Turkey last year and then illegally dumped — are a stark reminder of the global issue of pollution caused by plastic. Scientists have estimated that, unless action is taken, an estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic is destined to end up in the environment (on land and in the ocean) by 2040. The curriculum needs to reflect the gravity of the crisis. Children need to be learning about the urgent environmental problems that confront us now and in the future, about actions that we can all take to help alleviate those problems, and about the need to live sustainably in order to secure the long-term survival of the Earth’s resources on which humankind depends.

The problem with plastic is inherent in its very nature: it is designed to last. Modern plastics have been with us for about 100 years. In 2017 scientists estimated that around 8.3m tonnes of plastic has been produced to date, with some of it taking hundreds of years to biodegrade.

The figures relating to plastics pollution are eye-watering:

  • 79% of plastic waste accumulates in landfills and the natural environment
  • 480bn plastic bottles were sold globally in 2016 — that’s a million bottles per minute
  • a plastic bottle takes 450 years to biodegrade
  • about 10m tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans each year

The Forum for Life-Based Learning advocates an approach to the curriculum aimed at improving children’s motivation to learn by delivering the subject content of the national curriculum through nine life themes that directly address the challenges that they — that all of us — face. Pollution is one such challenge.

A Physical World learning theme would reframe content and skills from science, geography and environmental studies to prioritise learning about the Earth, its resources and sustainable living. In the subject-first approach of the current national curriculum, learning in science and geography is not properly joined up and is largely disconnected from the negative impact humans are having on the planet.

Learning must be embedded in real-world issues, giving children an understanding of the world they will inherit. They need to learn about the human footprint, including the damage to the world’s physical resources caused by human activity. They also need hands-on experience of what living sustainably means in practice.

Learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom, of course. Schools themselves are living, breathing communities. Any school can take systematic, coordinated action to reduce plastics use, modelling good practice and helping children to understand how we can all take easy, practical steps towards living sustainably.

The good news is that it is relatively easy to do; there is plenty of sensible advice and ideas readily available online. Take the article Reducing single-use plastics in your school by Trewin Restorick on the Headteacher Update website, for example. It sets out a variety of changes that schools can make to do their bit — from incentivising pupils to fill up reusable bottles to organising a pupil-led plastics committee, from getting rid of plastic straws to investing in cheap but durable ‘party kits’ for school events.

There are some surprisingly easy and cost-effective steps school leaders can take to dramatically cut down the consumption of single-use plastic in school. In addition to benefitting the environment, these steps can reduce school litter, cut costs and introduce a sense of achievement and efficacy for pupils.

Trewin Restorick, Reducing single-use plastics in your school

We know that children and young people are passionate about the environment and sustainability. Amy and Ella Meek are two young people who set up a movement called Kids Against Plastic, aiming to bring together people determined to break “plastic habits”, take practical action and lobby for change. The girls were inspired by learning about the 17 UN Global Goals (officially known as the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs) agreed by world leaders in 2015. They were particularly drawn, they say, to Goal 14 Life Under Water: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”.

Watch Amy and Ella’s Tedx Talk to learn more about their campaign.

The excellent Kids Against Plastic website mixes educational information and downloadable resources for use in schools with calls to action. Its ‘Get Involved’ message offers lots of opportunities to introduce children to social activism — campaigns such as Pick Up 100,000 and #PACKETin, which aims to persuade companies to make their packaging recyclable or biodegradable. They have also developed an app so that litter-pickers can log their activity, helping them to see the difference their efforts are making. The ‘Plastic Clever Schools’ sign-up campaign offers “all of the resources a school (with pupils leading the way) needs. And they are all freely available to any school wishing to get involved.”

The Kids Against Plastic website features in the Links area of the Forum website. There is a page for each of the nine life-based learning themes, with links (a) to sites with teaching ideas and resources for immediate use in the classroom and in curriculum planning (b) to a range of information-rich websites relevant to life-based learning.

We are always looking to expand the Links area of the website and welcome suggestions for additional links to high-quality websites. You can contact us here.

More About Sustainable Living

Image at the head of this article by Sergei Tokmakov, Esq. from Pixabay.

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