The concern about the amount of plastic we get through in our daily lives is growing; barely a day goes by without a news story on the environmental damage we’re doing with it.
But let’s not forget that plastic is a fantastic, innovative material, and one that changed the world. It’s inexpensive, lightweight, tough and durable; its uses are never-ending and, as a result, it is all around us. It keeps our food and drink fresher for longer; medical products are kept sterile and often made out of plastic; cars are being made lighter and the plastic parts save fuel and carbon emissions, and, because it’s so durable, plastic can be made into products and shapes that might be impossible for other materials.
However, only around 20 per cent of plastic is currently recycled worldwide. Most plastic isn’t compostable, therefore it will not rot. Instead, it degrades into smaller pieces called microplastics, which are extremely damaging, especially to our oceans.
We urgently need to cut down on plastic use wherever possible, but it seems, unfortunately, that this issue isn’t going away any time soon. I have been running several school projects on recycling and reusing plastic, to help students understand the severity of the issues. Here are some of my favourite ideas:
Most families throw away about 40kg of plastic per year. An excellent ongoing project is to get pupils and their families to keep the plastic they use in one week, one month or even longer. This offers visible evidence of the problem, which will make the point more powerfully than simple statistics. Artist Daniel Webb did just this, keeping hold of all the plastic he used over a year. It came to 4,490 pieces in total, which he turned into an exhibition called Everyday Plastic.
When students understand the energy used in the production of plastic bottles, they are more likely to think twice about how many they buy. Get them to research the life cycle of a plastic bottle so they can really understand the issues. The Pacific Institute estimates that the energy used in the production of plastic bottles is equivalent to filling the bottles one-quarter full with oil and, as we know, oil affects global warming by producing high quantities of greenhouse gases when burned. Demonstrate this with pupils and have them create posters, infographics and artwork to secure their understanding of exactly what is involved in plastic production. You can also challenge your students to come up with innovative ways to individually make a difference to plastic consumption levels, and create displays to share their ideas.
Helping the homeless
At my school, we teach SAS (skills, action, and service) for two hours each week and I use this time to help my pupils become more aware of the issues that surround us. Earlier this year, we discussed homelessness and the problems faced by people sleeping on the streets, so I decided that we should make waterproof mats for them to sit and lie on. Knowing that they would be making a real difference to people’s lives led to such enthusiasm for the project.
We began by collecting thousands of plastic carrier bags. Then we cut them into strips, plaited them and coiled them into a circle. Next we melted the back of each, which made the plastic stick together (each mat was made from about 90 carrier bags). We then gave them to the homeless men and women on the streets of Leicester.
I also devised a project to repurpose hundreds of plastic bottles into flowers for part of a beautiful Remembrance display. I collected hundreds of bottles from around the school and set about repurposing them with my art students. We cut the bottom off each bottle, sliced downwards to separate the plastic into five or six sections, and then flattened and curved the end of each piece to look like petals. We painted and spray-painted them red, adding a black dot to each. It was great for the students, staff and their families to see a tangible, beautiful end-product from their donated bottles.
I have so many more exciting ideas that I would like to develop with my SAS group. As Christmas approaches, we are going to explore more plastic projects, such as turning bottles in decorations; creating a contemporary tree from recycled plastic spoons; and using plastic straws to make beads, which can be turned into jewellery, or even threaded on to a structure to make another modern Christmas tree. Certain plastic can be used as shrink wrap (especially the plastic containers that contain baked goods) and these can be drawn on with Sharpies, cut into shapes and heated to reduce in size, making great badges, or key rings. We have a Christmas market at school where my pupils will be able to sell their creations to raise money for charity.
To inspire my students to think seriously about their impact on the environment and their future, I try to develop creative and exciting ways to build their understanding. As teachers, we are equipping them with life skills that they can use to make informed decisions at home, such as avoiding single-use plastic wherever possible. We can make a huge difference by educating the next generation about these issues, giving them the tools to make the right choices for the planet.
Heidi Robinson is curriculum lead for art and DT at Tudor Grange Samworth Academy in Leicester