As a former Deputy Head Teacher, I’ve spent many an hour grappling with the challenge of igniting the passion of children who would otherwise switch off and daydream. A large bulk of my 22 years in teaching was spent cajoling children into taking notice of the world around them. I learnt fairly early on in my career that inspiring the next generation is all about creating an interactive experience where theory can be put into practice in the real world. Nothing beats rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty.
As a teacher I was determined to awaken in my pupils at least a cursory awareness of the impact we have on the planet. Years ago I took my class to a playing field to bury some cardboard and a plastic bag. We returned two weeks later, and with great anticipation the children feverishly dug out the burial site. The cardboard showed signs of decomposition, while the plastic remained untainted. My pupils were astonished to learn that the plastic bag would remain on the earth long after both their children and their children’s children were gone.
To my delight the class then bombarded me with questions about what can be done to tackle the tragic scourge of plastic pollution. Their animated response inspired in me a real sense of fear of the legacy we are going to leave for this and the next generation. It prompted me to think more deeply too about the seldom-discussed health effects on children of constant exposure to plastic.
Phthalates, a group of chemicals designed to soften and increase the flexibility of plastic, can be found in food packaging and toys and has been linked to serious health problems in children. In 2013 Columbia University researcher Robin Whyatt concluded in a study that children who were exposed to high concentrations of phthalates in the womb were 70% more likely to develop asthma between the ages of five and 12.
It is thought the main source from which toxins in plastics enter the body is via our diet, and when you consider the journey plastic goes through once it has been discarded, it is no surprise. Most single-use plastics can be recycled once or twice and inevitably end up in a landfill or the oceans. Once there, they break down into micro-plastics, which then make their way into the food chain.
This is cause for concern when you consider children are more vulnerable to toxins because their organs are still developing and their bodies are less able to detoxify. Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical frequently used in plastic food packaging, can leach into our food and mimic or interfere with the action of oestrogen – a hormone that helps us develop when we are young. While safeguards have been put in place to protect infants by stopping the use of BPA in items such as baby bottles, they can still be exposed to it via their mother’s milk.
We can’t go on like this.
Earlier this year, I joined forces with campaign group A Plastic Planet in a bid to call time on the madness of unfettered plastic consumption. A Plastic Planet is working to encourage UK supermarkets to introduce a plastic free aisle. A Plastic Planet’s goal is simple – to turn off the tap of food and drink plastic packaging. It’s clear that if supermarkets give parents the opportunity to do a weekly shop completely free from plastic packaging, then we will begin to forge a brighter future for generations to come.
Our children simply cannot afford for us to fail to act to tackle the curse of plastic pollution. Let’s make sure that we leave a legacy to the unborn that we can be proud of.
Sue Atkins is the author of ‘Parenting Made Easy - How To Raise Happy Children’ & is ITV ‘This Morning’ Parenting Expert. Sue is backing A Plastic Planet’s campaign for a Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets. To find out more visit aplasticplanet.com.