The importance of education in plastic consumption

June 15, 2021

I think it might have taken a global pandemic to help society as a whole to understand the importance of teaching and education. Home schooling has brought home to many people the importance of and not just formal education such as Maths, English and Chemistry but also the importance of teaching life skills like resilience and adapting to the world around us. 

It is then, perhaps the ultimate opportunity for us to educate and ensure that looking after our health and environment is a key focus for current and future generations. The health of our environment is vital for the healthy physical and mental wellbeing of our children and society as a whole.  

So where do we start?

Let’s think about our environment. There has been one material that has made waves since David Attenborough’s Blue Planet documentaries brought it to our attention.

That material is plastic, it is destroying our environment and harming animals and humans at a terrifying speed. 

Although a form of plastic was originally invented in 1855 by Alexander Parkes it was only in the 1930’s when it began to be used in industry and become mass produced.*  As the years passed new ways to use plastic became apparent and production increased dramatically. The fact that it only has been mass produced for less than 90 years makes the fact that we find it everywhere, absolutely terrifying. 

We breathe it in, we digest it, it’s in our homes, on our beaches and in our oceans. We watch television programmes and listen to these facts. We think about how terrible it is and then we walk away and open a plastic salad bag, drink from out plastic water bottle, use our plastic shower gel bottles, clean with materials from plastic bottles and wash dishes with plastic sponges. We tend to think that it’s ok because we put the plastic into our recycling bins.

It’s not ok though. 

Recycling is not the answer.  Education is. We need to understand what happens to our rubbish. We need to understand the recycling industry. We need to understand where our rubbish ends up.

Do you know that there are 7 different types of plastic and over 100 different colour options?  This means over 700 different types of plastic to be sorted for recycling. Machines with digital eyes try to sort analyse the types of plastic that is dumped on a conveyor belt at high speed into categories suitable for recycling. This is far from a perfect solution and many plastics are missed, or missorted, which then contaminates large amounts of recyclable plastic. 

People can be employed to sort the plastics too but the intense labour costs are very expensive.  This expense is then offset in the price of the recycled plastic, meaning that It’s often cheaper to buy brand new virgin plastic than to buy pre used and recycled.  Realistically, what business is going to choose a lesser quality more expensive option?

Clever marketing, leads many of us to believe that we are more environmentally conscious than we actually are.  Lots of plastic packaging says recyclable. It is technically recyclable but is it recycled? Unfortunately, with many firms It is solely based on economic viability.  If its cheaper to buy new, then why recycle?

In the end lots of materials that could be recycled aren’t.  Lots of recyclable material that we are happy to use and throw away are not recycled.

Plastic is built for purpose, it needs to be strong and durable and it is. It takes a very long time to decompose. Scientists are still studying how long it actually takes but recent information released from WWF suggests that single use plastic water bottles can take over 450 years and everyday items like coffee pods and toothbrushes can take over 500.  This means that the toothbrush and water bottle that I threw away when I was 10 years old will still be floating around this planet long after I am no longer here. 

Is that the type of legacy that we want to leave behind?

Thankfully the younger generations are becoming more environmentally aware. Environmental studies, recycling and environmental impacts are now taught in school in many lessons from art to geography. It’s a topic that is talked about in classrooms and nowadays more children are becoming environmental champions.

Post WW2, people had grown up with a shortage of everything from food to clothes. They were being environmentally friendly without even realising it. They were accustomed to having very little and living on rations.  Meaning that everything they had was cared for and maintained for as long as possible. Reusing and repurposing was a fundamental part of life.

The generations in between are a much bigger problem. We grew up in a throw it away and buy new society. Most of us don’t reuse, we don’t repair, we don’t repurpose, we just throw away. The vast majority of us never make the link between our behaviours and environmental issues. Do we think of the millions of pieces of plastic in the ocean when we are throwing away single use plastic bottles?

This is where Environmental education is vital for those missed generations. If we know the implications of our actions, then we can make informed choices. 

We need change, we need to think about our environmental impact both at home, and at work. We need to reduce and reuse, and choose alternatives. We need research to provide alternatives. We need to realise the implications of every single choice that we make. Education is fundamental to this change.

Realising the implications of our actions and choices and working together to choose better alternatives is vital. Working together is vital and Education is vital.  

At changing streams, we want change, we fund research and provide education.  We are working together to make these vital changes.

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