By Daphna Nissenbaum, CEO and co-founder of TIPA
In 2018, when Briton Dee Caffari skippered her Volvo Ocean Race crew through the Atlantic, the team were aghast to see a wheelie bin bobbing in the sea.
For the young crew – barely out of school – of the Turn the Tide on Plastic yacht, the floating bin was a sobering reminder of the urgency of the fight against marine plastic pollution – a battle they took to the high seas with their participation in a gruelling round-the-clock yachting competition.
In the same year on British soils, the then education secretary, Damian Hinds, urged schools in England to use sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic items such as food packaging and cutlery. An important step to take to begin eliminating plastic from the classroom.
But the minister’s move begs the question of what further efforts can be made to incorporate education about the alternatives to traditional plastic into the standard curriculum.
In the UK only 12 per cent of plastics packaging are recycled due to poor collection; lack of infrastructure which can deal with the plastic; and importantly, a lack of education. Since young people are more committed than older people to giving up single-use plastic, further understanding of how to avoid contaminating recycling, how to deploy composting for food waste and compostable materials, and on the alternatives to traditional single-use plastics, is vital.
Consumers face an array of complications since not all single-use plastics can be recycled. Flexible packaging – any package or part of a package whose shape can be readily changed – is soft and flimsy. This makes it tricky to be recycled into anything useful after one use. Cling film, thin film lids and carrier bags, are all examples of flexible packing which are not collected by local councils and end up going to incineration instead.
The remaining 88 per cent is generally dumped, rotting in landfill or the natural environment for an eternity. In some cases, plastic is incinerated. Similar to burning fossil fuels in vehicles, it is another way of burning oil which has proven adverse environmental consequences including releasing tonnes of harmful CO2 into the atmosphere.
Yet there is room for optimism. For a while now behaviourists have been compiling evidence that children can influence sustainability habits in UK homes in ways such as encouraging the use of recycling. Parents have even begun to receive ‘tellings-off’ from their kids for not recycling.
Clearly education is not just for the young. A full shake-up of the current syllabus could be exactly what is needed in the UK.
Education on plastic alternatives is not just an environmental but an economic and employment imperative too. The circular economy is projected to provide 450,000 new jobs in the UK and many of these will be within the packaging industry.
The UK Government has taken a step forward with its plans for food waste recycling schemes – to be rolled out across England by the start of 2025 – but if no one understands the importance of it the success of the scheme is called into question. Money must be allocated to developed resources and materials for schools and the government should look to leverage the expertise of the many environmental NGOs leading the way.
By acting together, educating the next generation could be achieved through workshops, field trips, community engagement and forward thinking.
Much like the young crew of the Turn the Tide of Plastic yacht, today’s schoolchildren do not want to live in a world where the soils are 23 times more polluted with plastic even than the oceans. It is therefore vital that they have the tools and the information to become tomorrow’s composters, recyclers and re-users. And it is they, too, who will research and invent the next generation of materials.
Single-use plastic is yesterday’s technology. Compostable materials are tomorrow’s.