Cutting out single-use plastics in your school

Written by: Trewin Restorick | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We throw away more than 34kg of plastic packaging per person every year. Schools must do more to reduce the use of single-use plastics. Trewin Restorick offers some simple ideas

School communities increasingly expect and appreciate leaders who take an active role in the reduction of single-use plastic in the school environment.

YouGov research in April last year found that 46 per cent of us feel guilty about the amount of plastic we use, while more than eight in 10 are actively trying to reduce the amount we throw away. And with good reason. Much of it cannot be recycled and ends up in landfill, floating around in our rivers and oceans for decades or more.

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 benefiting the environment, these steps can reduce school litter, cut costs and introduce a sense of achievement and efficacy for pupils.

Reusable bottles and water refilling

According to the Environmental Audit Select Committee (2017), every year the UK buys 7.7 billion water bottles and 3.3 billion of them are not recycled, instead they are littered, incinerated or left in landfill. So encourage pupils and staff to switch from buying bottled water to using reusable water bottles – parents save money and the school saves on waste removal costs.

Encourage and incentivise pupils to fill up their reusable bottles and put them in their school bag as part of their morning routine. This will create good habits to last a lifetime that universities and employers will value. In some schools, like Westhoughton High School in Bolton, pupils now not only use reusable bottles, but have completely stopped their canteen from selling bottled water (Chaudhari, 2019).

Consider installing water bottle refill points in prominent areas in the school to promote refill habits and keep young minds hydrated and better able to concentrate. You can also find water refill points in your local community via the City to Sea free refill app.

In the canteen

Ban plastic straws and disposable plastic dessert pots. Straws are not needed if pupils have their own reusable bottles. If necessary, paper, metal and silicone alternatives are easily available. Disposable plastic dessert pots are easily replaced with reusable versions that in the long term save plastic, waste and money.

Also, switch to metal cutlery and wrap sandwiches in tin foil. Talk to your school’s canteen manager about switching from disposable cutlery to metal cutlery. It will save money and stop the need for easily breakable plastic knives and forks that are chucked away after just one meal.

Given clingfilm and plastic wrappers cannot currently be widely recycled in the UK, encourage families who provide lunchboxes to switch away from plastic wrapped staples: wrap sandwiches in foil not cling film, switch crisp packets to an alternative (such as home-microwaved popcorn) and switch yoghurt pots to fruit in a reusable plastic storage container.

Schools like Bo’ness Academy in Scotland are already ahead of the curve. Pupils are currently auditing their school’s consumption of single-use plastic and plan to ban yoghurt pots as well as rethink how they wrap their lunchtime sandwiches (Quinn, 2019).

Ditch plastic cups for mugs

Reintroduce mugs to the staffroom and ask the canteen to run them through the dishwasher at the end of the day. Everyone prefers a hot drink served in a mug rather than a disposable cup that is bad for the environment, too small and can be too hot to handle. If you have not got mugs, buy them in a second-hand shop or get some made with the school logo on them.

Books

Reward book care rather than wrapping books in plastic. There is no need for pupils to wrap all their notebooks and textbooks in plastic. Encourage them to look after their books by offering reward points for good book care. If notebooks and textbooks start to look tired, try reusable plastic covers or brown paper. Some pupils might like to create their own personalised covers using biodegradable materials.

School events

Create a reusable “party kit” for school events and parties. Rather than spending money on disposable cups and plates, which normally have a plastic coating, invest in a cheap, but durable set of plates, cups and tablecloths for school events and parties.

Many parents may already have a reusable party kit from birthday parties or picnics which they could share. The PTA could even rent out the reusable party kit to others as Croxley Danes School in Watford has done.

Plastic reduction experts in school

There are many speakers who can inspire pupils – and staff – about how they have reduced their consumption of plastic. Dan Webb, who has launched a nationwide campaign – Everyday Plastic – to help us all discover more about our plastic footprint, is one, while TEDx teen speaker, Amy Meek, from Kids Against Plastic, is another.

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II shows the global damage caused by our consumption of single-use plastic. What about holding an awareness day and showing extracts from Blue Planet II or screening the Straw no more TED talk by student Molly Steer (2017). Or why not find someone in the local community who is passionate about the issue and ask them to lead a discussion at your school. Reducing plastic is much more interesting when you realise how many others also care about the issue.

A Plastic Pioneer Committee

More than 7,000 pupils across 12 schools have signed up to the Plastic Pioneers campaign run by charity Hubbub. The schools benefit from being part of a community across the UK and can share ideas on how to reduce their consumption of single-use plastic. As part of the campaign, pupils form a Plastic Pioneers committee and audit their school’s consumption of single-use plastic. They then advise on – and experiment with – ways to reduce single-use plastic. Members wear Plastic Pioneers badges to encourage their classmates to think carefully about their consumption of single-use plastic. Later this year, all 12 schools involved in the campaign will report back on which initiatives made the biggest difference to cutting the consumption of single-use plastic in their school.

Conclusion

Single-use plastic is everywhere and our schools are no exception. It is having an extremely damaging impact on our wildlife and environment. As school leaders, we have the opportunity to help empower young people to challenge whether single-use plastic really needs to be used and to come up with alternatives for a more sustainable future.

  • Trewin Restorick is CEO and founder of Hubbub. He is a frequent commentator on environmental issues and has been trained by Al Gore as one of his climate change ambassadors.

Further information & resources


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