If you ask British schoolchildren whether their school is environmentally friendly, cares about recycling and encourages them to live a sustainable lifestyle, they will surely answer with a resounding “Yes!”.
They will no doubt tell you they have two bins in their classrooms, one for general waste and one for recycling paper and card. They will say that the paper they’re given to draw on has last week’s English plans on the back, and that "eco-warriors" come around to check that Miss Wasteful has turned the whiteboard off.
Yet even the most environmentally friendly school may not have considered the huge impact of lunchtimes on its environmental footprint. All those young people bringing in yoghurts, fruit smoothies, mini cheeses, fruit sticks and crisps make for a lot of waste. According to the charity WRAP, which works with communities to improve resource efficiency, food waste accounts for half of all waste created by primary schools by weight, and one-third created by secondary schools.
This may feel like a mountain to climb. So how can we help to make school lunchtimes more efficient and have an impact where it matters most?
Inform – teach children about food packaging waste
Why not start by explaining how we’ve got to this point? Use a timeline to track the history of food packaging from the Romans – whose pastry shell was a baking, storage and serving implement all rolled into one – through to Napoleon’s sealed cans preserving food for his army, to the pre-packaged sandwiches of today.
Explore how food packaging has changed to reflect our needs, how today’s packaging informs customers about the contents of what they are buying, and the impact of landfill on our fragile ecosystem. You could share some facts and figures by watching this short video about landfill and waste, and teach younger children about why recycling is so important by singing songs such as Busta and Pong’s recycling song, and then discussing the issues it raises.
Link these general lessons with the children’s own actions by challenging them to measure their own waste. The Lunchtime Crunchtime lesson plans, for example, help children to discover how much waste their school produces, and why this is a problem. The lessons include visuals such as a pie chart to demonstrate the types of waste produced in schools, worksheets, assembly ideas and video links.
Alternatively, follow Loughborough High School’s example and give students a visible reminder of how much is wasted. The school’s eco-committee decided to measure a week’s food waste and then filled the equivalent number of black bags with paper and card. When the students saw how much was wasted – about 20 bags full – they were shocked. They were then challenged to come up with their own ideas for reducing waste.
Inspire – children will respond if we engage them
Once pupils have learned about the problems of waste, there are all kinds of schemes that can encourage them to help solve those problems. Why not create a team to help staff to sort recycling at lunchtimes? Or encourage them to work towards an Eco-Schools Award? This is a global programme, currently operating in 67 countries, which empowers pupils to drive environmental change in their own schools through a seven-step framework, culminating in a Green Flag award.
Alternatively, start a school gardening club. These clubs can work wonders for disengaged pupils, who often come alive when planting seeds and nurturing young plants. As a bonus, the food grown by the club members can eventually be harvested and used in the preparation of food for school lunches, thereby eliminating packaging as well as food miles.
Another inspirational activity might be to adopt a hard-to-recycle material and make it your school initiative to do so. For example, my school’s eco-committee has recently started recycling crisp packets and other less commonly recycled materials, which are put in a separate bin and sent to a specialist company, such as TerraCycle. You can even earn reward points to help make money for charity.
Recycling can be done within school walls, too. Ask staff to give you or your eco-committee a list of materials needed for their design and technology, art or science lessons for the next year – boxes, kitchen roll tubes, metal cans and so on – and arrange for any relevant resources to be picked up from the school kitchen, for example, and stored on site for these lessons.
You can also spark imaginations by sharing what the best eco-schools are doing already. Daunstey’s School in Wiltshire, for example, installed a large tank called a bio-mass digester, which transforms all food waste into powerful biofuel, creating energy from living matter.
Empower – children will lead if we let them
If your school doesn’t already have an eco-club or eco-committee, this is a great place to start. Encourage children to join and allow them as much freedom as possible to suggest ideas. A former colleague, who now works in New York, told me that a powerful campaign at her new school has resulted in kitchen staff reinstalling an industrial dishwasher and getting rid of all plastic and paper cups, plates and cutlery. Another ex-colleague said a boy at her school was concerned at the effect of single-use plastics on landfill, littering and marine life. He was given permission to present an idea in assembly about what the school could do to help, with one result that the chef got rid of all the plastic spoons and replaced them with metal ones.
We all know the effects of "child power", so extend your school’s environmental action into the community by asking children to help make their parents aware of how to pack an environmentally friendly lunch, such as by using reusable sandwich bags, refillable water bottles and skipping individually wrapped foods. Sustainable lunchboxes are another easy-to-implement change: introduce parents to the idea in your school newsletter, perhaps with photos and suggestions of where to buy them.
You can also empower students to get involved in writing a whole-school waste policy outlining your commitment to reducing waste in key areas, such as the use of food and packaging materials, energy and garden/outdoor areas.
If every child in every school was informed, inspired and enabled to make changes such as these, think how they might shrink the size of the environmental footprint for the next generation.
Deborah Jenkins is a supply teacher in Sussex