“Who invented plastic mum?” my Gen-Z daughter asked me, while walking the brightly coloured aisles of the plastic metropolis that is the large chain supermarket. I had for sometime tried hard not to frequent such a place and shop independent and local but the reality of managing a tight budget meant I sometimes needed to compromise. “I don’t know.” And I genuinely didn’t. Was it one person? The successful result of an experiment to overcome the problem of how to contain three-minute noodles or a fluke, a by-product that someone thought useless and left discarded in the corner of lab until some savvy entrepreneur saw an opportunity.
I redirected my daughter’s attention, wanting to make the visit as swift as possible before she spied a promotional decoy and used her sophisticated emotional blackmail to convince me that buying triple-choc cookies nestled in their plastic tray, with their seductive purple, plastic packaging was another compromise I’d be forced to accept.
Her response was encouraging, “I bet they feel really bad now that it is killing the world!”
With this mindset I was reassured that, whilst it may be too late for me to make a significant difference on the supply chain and retailers’ practice, my daughter and her peers were already armed with an awareness of environmental issues of which I was completely ignorant when I was her age.
This conversation took place almost two years ago now, when she was just 9 and when I was beginning to question the impact my own business was having on the environment. Curious then that it was at about this age I remember a time visiting my grandmother during the summer holidays. She was making wax cloth which she placed on top of her lovingly made, rich Christmas puddings or over the tops of jam jars filled with chutney and preserves, the newly made wax fabric magically held together with no assistance other than the warmth of her soft hands. I loved watching her dipping the cut up bits of old curtain or sheet into the sweet smelling bee’s wax that we had collected earlier that week. Life seemed simple in the 70’s and I don’t recall seeing anything like the amount of plastic we have now, yet everyone survived and her pantry seemed so much more inviting lined with enough home produce to last her into the next year.
I decided to create my own pantry of wonder and delight, to fill it with glass jars, work with my daughter in recreating that same feeling I’d had when I was a child and make a concerted effort to move away from plastic. What was that cloth? Was it even safe? How do you make it? How long did it last? Could it really replace cling wrap and foil?
Many months of research later, experimenting with different ingredients, quantities and trying many different techniques. Sourcing local products, nailing my production, using them every single day and testing different products with my kids I found something that I think my gran would be very proud of.
The workshops began with small groups of like minded adults, sharing my knowledge and having discussions on many other environmental topics. I extended these workshops to a younger and younger audience and was amazed by the discussions that were raised by our young attendees. Many commented that I should come to their school and show their class how to make a lunch wrap.
That’s where it started.
The Society and Environment curriculum guide includes a fantastic framework for teaching environmental sustainability in our schools but it’s a challenge to find practical, proactive and innovative ways that this can be applied. Our children are equipped with an incredibly well informed understanding of the impact we have on our planet but the scale of the problem can often seem overwhelming. Taking practical steps and making the right choices is difficult when you’re young and battling against the psychology of advertising. I wanted to find something that our children could take ownership of, engage with and really feel like they’re making a difference.
The school incursions I run aim to teach the children how they can take steps to reduce the plastic they use every day with their lunches and school snacks . Each child learns of the importance of the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra, creates their own hand crafted sandwich wrap as well as the importance of taking responsibility to look after it. We also look at bees, their crucial role in the environmental chain and the beeswax they create that we make use of. We also talk about other recycling initiatives and what might be available for the schools to adopt; Terracycle bins, Red cycling and the more recent Greenbatch initiative.
It may be a small step but I always find that the kids feel empowered after the workshops and the questions asked at the end show just how engaged and interested they are in the subject; What else can we do to save the planet? How can we stop companies wrap their products with horrible plastics? I love chips for my lunch but don’t like the bag they are in, why can’t they be made with something that won’t kill the fishes?
I read recently that unlike the older Gen Y, Gen Z’s are smarter, safer, more mature and want to change the world and from my experience of running these workshops they’re well on their way to making far better choices than I ever did.
Incidentally, Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented the earliest form of plastic around 1907 in his home lab. He began marketing it as an electrical insulator and named it Bakelite and by the time of his death in 1944 the world production of Bakelite was estimated around 175,000 tons. Considering much of it was constructed using asbestos filler I wonder how much of it now litters our planet?