3 steps to engaging kids with the problem of plastic pollution

Raising kids who willingly help tidy up seems to be a goal that every parent strives for. Whether it’s at day care, after a play date with friends or at home at the end of the day, you’re sure to hear at some point “it’s time for everybody to help pack away!”.

But what about when you’re out and about? Sadly, everywhere we go now we can see the problem of litter and packaging waste in our parks, rivers, streams and beaches. So how can we safely begin to teach and show our little ones that keeping the outdoors clean matters as much, if not more than, the indoors?

While you may not feel comfortable teaching your two-year-old to pick up other people’s litter just yet (we already spend most of the day trying to *stop* them from picking up random items from the street and shoving them in our pockets amirite?), there are still things you can do at this early age to plant the idea that keeping our earth and ocean free of litter is a job for us all.

Here’s 3 steps to raising waste-warriors in training:

1. Engage with the plastic pollution problem yourself

Firstly, we need to get a feel for just how much plastic waste and litter is ending up in our waterways and oceans. Unless we feel a sense of urgency ourselves to address this problem, we’ll find it difficult to consistently model to our kids that they can be involved in the solution too.

It’s obviously pretty difficult to know the exact amount out there, given the size of the earth and its oceans! But recent research has estimated that at least 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans each year. That’s like emptying a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute!

It’s hard to believe these kinds of numbers when we look at the clear, blue ocean on a beautiful summers day. But many of these pieces of plastic are tiny micro-plastics that have broken down from larger pieces and have travelled to almost every part of the ocean tested.

Studies in 2015 discovered there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste in the ocean. Of that, 269,000 tonnes float on the surface, while around 4 billion plastic microfibers per square kilometre litter the deep sea. Yikes.

The impact of all these trillions of pieces of plastic is still being understood. What scientists do know is that they stick around for a really long time (even when they break down, micro-plastics accumulate and release chemicals) and they are doing some nasty things to the health of our sea critters, birds, and even humans. Plus, it looks gross.

So, what can we do about it? And how can we help our little waste-warriors in training to tackle this issue?

2. Help your kids understand the plastic pollution problem

It’s important to help kids understand the ‘why’ of looking after our planet, not just the ‘how’. This allows them to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, empathy and to understand cause and effect. Remember to present information in a positive and accessible way so that they learn over time what the problem is, but also feel excited and empowered to find solutions (see step 3!).

Try using some of the following phrases and questions when you see litter or waste when you’re out and about. You can use modified versions of these with young babies and toddlers as these early statements are helpful to alert them to their environment and the questions can be rhetorical.

“Oh no! Someone left their rubbish behind. Where should this rubbish have been put? What do you think it would be like here if everyone left their rubbish behind?”

“It looks like someone has dropped their drink bottle. When it rains, where do you think this bottle might get washed away to? What could they have used instead so they didn’t make any rubbish?”

“Can you see that plastic bag? What might a fish or bird think it is? How would they feel if they ate it?”

If it is safe to do so, collect the rubbish you see as long as you explain that it’s a job for mums, dads and bigger kids.

3. Help your kids take age-appropriate action

Whether you’re right by the beach, or hundreds of kilometres from the coast, there are great, age-appropriate, actions your little waste-warrior in training can take to reduce the amount of waste in our environment.

Here are some ideas but, as always, the ideas they’re most excited about are going to come from them – so ask them what they think too!

BRAINSTORM WAYS TO REDUCE SINGLE-USE PLASTIC. Think about what you throw away in a day and brainstorm with your kids how you could avoid or reduce that waste. Reducing our dependence on plastic is critical to solving these big problems! This might mean bringing your own coffee and babycino cups, refusing plastic straws or keeping a washable one for them in your bag, using reusable containers and washable snack bags or trying to reduce the amount of packaging you get by buying in bulk. High-five each time you make a change to reduce plastic waste.

LET THEM PUT THEIR OWN RUBBISH IN THE BIN. If you do have rubbish when out and about, let your children put their own rubbish in the bin. High five each time to celebrate that they’ve made a difference by keeping litter off the ground.

HELP THEM RAISE AWARENESS OF THE WASTE PROBLEM. Some kids may want to share their waste-warrior passion with others. You could start a waste-free lunch day at your day care or preschool, let them draw pictures or make posters to give tips to family or friends, or fundraise for charities who help a marine species they really care about.

TAKE PART IN LITTER COLLECTION PROGRAMS WHEN THEY’RE READY. There is a growing movement in the community to tackle the problem of litter and marine waste by taking part in local cleanups. This could just involve your family taking 3 pieces of someone else’s rubbish with you when you’re out and about, or taking part in a larger community clean up like Clean Up Australia Day. For little kids, remember to stress the importance of safety – only collect with a grown up’s supervision, wear gloves (or kitchen tongs are great for small hands!), and put all the rubbish in a bin at the end.

No matter where we live, and no matter how old we are, everyone can help keep our environment, and our oceans, clean. The more we invest in raising kids who see this as a problem that they can have an active role in solving, the cleaner and greener the future looks for us, the earth and them!

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Melissa Sellen

Mel holds a Master of Environmental Education and has worked as an educator for Planet Ark and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, as well as State and Local Government. She has sat on the Executive of the Australian Association for Environmental Education (AAEE) NSW Chapter for the past 7 years and helped write the latest NSW Framework for Environmental Education. Mel is a mum to two lovely world-changers under 5 who help her put all her ideas into practice!

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