11 June 2019
Last year, I was honoured to be invited to join the Speakers for Schools programme. Founded by journalist Robert Peston, the scheme matches speakers from all areas of life with school students of a variety of ages, to great mutual advantage in terms of understanding each other’s agendas.
In recent months we have seen the emergence of young people as a powerful voice in the climate and environment debate. It was against this background that I was matched with fifteen-year old students at Archbishop Tenison’s School in London, who had been talking about plastic pollution, and were keen to know more. It is always hard to know what to tackle and in how much depth for these sessions, so together with teacher Natasha Fox we had the idea of getting the students to ask the questions in advance.
These were their questions:
- How can we prevent the spread of Marine litter?
- Where does the plastic waste come from?
- Who do you think is more responsible for plastic pollution: individual people or the government?
- How can we find a better use for plastic?
- If I want to live a more environmentally friendly life, what three lifestyle changes would be the most important?
- What can we do to stop global warming or is it too late?
I did my best to answer them and am hoping for feedback from the school as to whether the students felt my thoughts were at all useful. One bit I know went down well was ‘is this recyclable or not? Shout out ‘yes’ or ‘no’! And their surprise at some of the unrecyclable and unlabelled items of packaging amongst the recyclable ones I had in my bins.
What I really enjoyed was the chance to chat after the presentation with a small group of the students and hear their thoughts – the problems as they saw them, the ideas they had come across, and the dilemmas they (and all of us) face every day. For instance, many of them had refillable water bottles, but being style conscious, they were very clear about the designs they did or did not like, along with the ones that just didn’t work very well. The bottles needed to be large enough to get them through a school day, as there wasn’t always time or the facilities to refill them. They concluded that they should design their own. They agreed with the need to abandon plastic straws, but some didn’t like the paper ones on offer. Not all had food waste collection at home, making food recycling impossible. They asked if we should we go back to glass milk bottles, whether solar power is practical in the UK, how we should tackle litter in the Thames, what we should do about countries who break environmental codes, whether to stop investing in oil companies, and whether the Government is really serious about limiting waste?
By the time we had finished chatting I had very much reached the limits of my ‘expertise’ and wanted to know what they thought about the future overall. I was disturbed by the lack of optimism some expressed - my job is to raise awareness of the challenges we face, but not at the cost of a demotivating level of dismay. What I and WRAP most want to foster is the ability to search out solutions and be an active part of that future.
The group clearly had an eye for innovation: they had come across ideas that interested them such as using bacteria to process waste or finding new ways to make energy, and they enjoyed the group discussion. It may be that the dominance of doom and gloom is failing to give us the positive trends, and the pointers for meaningful personal action, that would turn anxiety into agency. And ‘personal’ should not mean ‘solitary’ – it is clear that group discussion and action are much more satisfying routes to change than individuals agonising over complex choices. For young people particularly, the opportunity to design the products and services of the future themselves, and be rewarded for the right choices, is key.
I’d like to thank the Archbishop Tenison’s School teachers and students for hosting me, and for asking such searching questions. I’d like them to believe that each of them can make a difference – especially if they work together. At the end, one student said ‘we just need better politicians!’ To which my response was ‘well - that could be you!’