Subject: Materials / Pollution
Age Group: Young children KS1
Synopsis: First discovered in 1905, plastic is one of our most useful and versatile materials but far too much plastic rubbish ends up in our oceans every year. Plastic pollution threatens food safety, human health, costal tourism and contributes to climate change. This article by Nina Simon from SLS Redbridge explores its history, the uses of plastic and the problems plastic causes today. Finally, it offers pointers about what your class can do together to reduce plastic waste and protect our planet.
Plastic starts off as an engineering marvel. It was Leo Baekeland, a Belgian industrial chemist (1863 – 1944) who made the first completely human-made plastic in 1905 in a lab in New York. Called Bakelite, it is a condensation product of formaldehyde and phenol that is produced at high temperature and pressure and does not soften when heated.
Plastic is ideally suited for a variety of applications, including packaging, construction, clothes, our homes, vehicles and electronics because it is cheap, lightweight, versatile and strong. You can encourage your students to explore all the plastic used in the classroom, their homes and local environment. A fun challenge would be to see who can list the most plastic items in their home.
What’s the issue?
- Nearly every bit of plastic that has ever been made and thrown away still exists somewhere in the world
- Single-use plastics make up 40% of the plastic made every year
- At least 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year
- 1 million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute
- Over 150 plastic bottles litter ever mile of UK beaches
- Plastic has been discovered deep in the Arctic ice and on every beach in the world
- 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and about 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually
- Plastic threatens ocean health, food safety, human health, costal tourism and contributes to climate change
- Marine wildlife such as seabirds, whales, fish and turtles, mistake plastic for their prey
- Once swallowed, plastic fills their stomachs leading to starvation
- 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually
- Plastic has been discovered in tap water, beer and salt
- When marine life ingests plastic debris, it enters the food chain, so when we eat fish, we are also swallowing plastic particles
What can be done?
- Never leave your litter behind, always put it in the bin or take it home with you
- Bring your own reusable water bottle
- Stop using plastic cutlery and plastic straws
- Avoid as much pre-packed food and take-aways as you can
- Replace cling film with foil, which is recyclable
- Use loose leaf tea instead of teabags, because teabags are sealed with plastic
- Give up chewing gum as it is made of plastic
- Recycle as much plastic as possible – look for the triangular mark which identifies which plastic can be recycled
- Do not launch balloons at a party
- Use reusable bags.
- Bring your own reusable bags when buying fruit and vegetables
- Avoid microbeads
Did you know?
- It could take 500 – 1000 years for some plastics to break down
- Even paper cups are usually covered with a thin layer of plastic
- Synthetic clothing such as fleece sweaters releases small plastic fibres into the environment when washed
- 99% of takeaway coffee cups are not recyclable and end up in landfill
To discover more about the huge challenge of cleaning up the planet, our homes and classroom use books such as:
Are Plastics the Problem by Sharon Parsons
Plastic Planet by Georgia Amson-Bradshaw
The Story Behind Plastic by Christin Ditchfield
A Planet Full of Plastic by Neal Layton
Somebody Swallowed Stanley by Sarah Roberts
Let’s Investigate Plastic Pollution by Ruth Owen
Be Plastic Clever by Ella Meek
The Problem with Plastic by Ruth Owen