We need to reduce plastic in our schools. Here’s why. And how.

We all know we need to reduce the plastic we use (single use plastics in particular).

In our daily lives we can do this through the brands and packaging we choose to buy. Shops are doing this through charging for plastic and switching to paper. Product manufacturers are starting to reduce plastic in packaging and making strides in innovating plastic alternatives.

Of course, there’s still a long way to go.

We can all take steps, as individual consumers and businesses, to help the fight against plastic.

But what about schools, where nationally, collectively, high volumes of plastics are often found?

Some people might have the perception that reducing plastic waste in schools is too difficult.

That it’s too time-consuming for busy teachers.

That it’s too impractical for little children.

That it’s too expensive for tight budgets.

That reducing plastic may mean limiting choice.

Before we go onto the how and address these possible questions, here’s some reasons why this is so important.

The bigger picture

Globally, 380 million tons of plastic is produced every year. (Source: Plastic Oceans).

91% of this plastic is not recycled. (Source: National Geographic).

90 percent of toys are in some way made of plastic (Source: greenjournal.co.uk)

Globally, plastic, especially single use plastic, is a massive problem. While great things are happening, it’s clear why we need to go further, deeper and faster with our efforts. Plastic is still filling up landfill, damaging our environment, threatening our seas and marine wildlife.

A simple case of volume

There are around 32,000 schools in the UK. That’s 32,000 organisations of varying size, getting through plastic toys, plastic bottles, food packaging and more.

When you look at the scale, you may think, how on earth do we tackle such a huge sector?

But on the other hand, just imagine the collective effect of each of these schools making a few simple switches and a small amount of additional effort. The combined impact on reducing harm and protecting our environment would be, as the kids would say, ‘epic’.

Schools can and should be leaders, setting a good example

You don’t need to look much further than Greta Thunberg to know that the younger generation deeply cares about the environment. Plastic-free campaigns are being kickstarted by youngsters and promoted by kid’s councils in schools all over the country.

To the next generation, single use plastic is becoming unsociable and undesirable. They understand and seem to accept the future of the planet as lying in their hands.

So schools need to support, engage and lead by example, introducing measures and encouraging the positive behaviours of the young people in their care.

Let’s get practical. Let’s get plastic-free.

There’s lots of ways in which schools can reduce single use plastic, and play their part in protecting the earth, without negative impacts on day-to-day school life.

Here’s our top ten ideas for reducing plastic waste in your school.

1. Listen to the children and encourage them to get involved.

As we all know about children, they are full of great ideas! Task the school kid’s council with a challenge or create an inter-class competition and no doubt plastic-reducing ideas and excitement will come flowing.

You could create a specialist eco-committee, prestigious eco-champion roles, or introduce special prizes for individual or team commitment to reducing plastic.

2. Sign up to plastic free campaign organisations like https://plasticfreeschools.org.uk/ and https://www.eco-schools.org.uk/

Signing up to organisations like these will signal your commitment but also be a source of practical inspiration, ideas, resources, and tools for making your school environment more environmentally-friendly.

Not only do they help you, but they campaign nationally, so your support will add to their voice and impact.

3. Move away from plastic bottled water and plastic cups to refillable bottles.

Join the many schools who no longer offer plastic water bottles or other plastic packaged drinks by encouraging refillable water bottles instead. By installing plenty of water refill stations around the school, pupils will stay well-hydrated while protecting the environment.

A further opportunity could be to produce funky school branded water bottles and either offer them as welcome gifts, prizes, or sell them with proceeds going to the PTA.

4. Eliminate straws from drinks, plastic pots from desserts, and seek out non-plastic packaged snack alternatives.

Of course, the kitchen is the place where much of the single use plastic is likely to see its way into the waste and therefore the place needing the most concerted effort. There are eco-friendly alternatives to straws, but if they don’t work in the budget, just do away with straws altogether.

If you are choosing products to stock in a school canteen, look for alternatives to cartons with straws, plastic pot desserts or plastic wrapped goods. The children won’t miss the old when they are faced with the new – especially if the reasons are communicated.

5. Recycle old plastic toys to charity shops and reduce them from Fairs.

Naturally nursery or early years toys will have a shelf life. But rather than throwing away into landfill perhaps local charity shops would benefit from receiving toys.

School Fairs can also be a minefield of plastic items, used widely for prizes. Move towards food treats, stickers or pencils, something more likely to be kept rather than discarded within days.

6. Educate children and turn them into champions of the environment.

Introduce education about the impact of the use of plastic into school assemblies, enrichment sessions, and project work. This may include visits from experts, watching documentaries, quizzes, and discussions.

When children understand this, they tend to become passionate campaigners, and they’ll want to communicate this with their families and make eco-friendly choices and decisions in their own lives.

7. Reduce or eliminate plastic cutlery from parties, picnics, and school events.

Single use plastic cutlery is a bad culprit for the environment. A simple swap to finger food only wherever possible will remove the need in some cases, but in others a reusable picnic/party kit for hire is a perfect solution.

Some enterprising PTAs have invested in kits, offering them for hire to parents for a contribution. A win win – raising money and reducing the use of plastic.

8. Introduce environmental criteria into tenders and supplier selection decisions.

Schools put out tenders and select suppliers in a wide range of areas from building projects, to catering, to cleaning companies.

Adding or strengthening your criteria around environmental practices will give you peace of mind you are making a commitment, not just yourselves but through your partners and suppliers.

It’s also worth reviewing contracts and communicating your commitment to reducing plastic, inviting existing suppliers to do the same.

9. Ensure a whole-school approach to this commitment, including the Governing Body, School Leadership, PTA, and parent community.

With any change, engaging all stakeholders is crucial to make that change welcomed, rather than imposed, and sustainable. And a commitment to reducing plastic waste is no different.

Allocating a Governor to environmental matters, talking about it in newsletters and parent communications, engaging the PTA in ideas and initiatives, will all raise the profile of becoming more eco-friendly and keep it high on the agenda.

10. Measure and celebrate.

Don’t just do it, celebrate it! Of course, you may not be able to measure success in exact terms. But if twenty families avoided single use cutlery through hiring the PTA party kit, mention it in the school newletter! If a class come up with an innovative way to reduce plastic, announce it in assembly and reward that class in some way. If you sign up to a pledge to reduce plastic, communicate it on the school website.

Reducing plastic is everyone’s responsibility, and everyone should share and celebrate in achieving it. However small the steps, schools can make a big difference.