Irish schools are going plastic-free - but are parents ready?
New school ban on single-use plastic means parents need to seek alternatives
Bethan O’Riordan with her children Finlay (7) and Ruby (6) in Whitechurch, Co Cork. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision
Ham or cheese? Fruit or vegetables? Sandwich or wrap? It can be tricky deciding what to put in a lunch box.
But many parents will be faced making yet another choice when it comes to preparing school lunches.
Schools have been forced to eliminate plastic as they will be banned from buying or using single-use plastic cups, cutlery or straws under a Government initiative which came into force on Monday.
This also has implications for parents who may wrap their children’s sandwiches in clingflm or pack lunchboxes with plastic straws or single-use plastic bottles.
While it is up to individual school boards of management to extend this ban to pupils’ lunches, many are now moving in their direction. Newpark Comprehensive school in Blackrock is ahead of the curve having already tackled the problem of plastic within the school.
They ran a campaign last year, called Plastic Outta the Park, which aimed to change the culture in the school in relation to single-use plastic.
The school hoped to become the first single-use-plastic-free school in Ireland. “It happened over the course 10 weeks as a result of quite intense lobbying and work from the students”, says Achari.
The school was wary of calling it a “ban” on plastic or making it a rule – instead they chose to hand the campaign over to students themselves. Pupils ended up focusing on interactive activities and peer education.
“The only way we are going to get through this crisis is by taking action and when [the children] get involved they become invested and then they take action.,” says Adams.
“When you give kids a platform they will take it and Plastic Outta the Park is the perfect example of that.”
The transition-year students carried out plastic audits within the school and gave feedback to their fellow students. They even monitored the staff room.
“To be honest, the staff were the worst,” adds Achari.
The school focused on removing single-use water bottles, straws and plastic cutlery from the campus.
“It is the simplest thing to do, plastic is so tangible, it’s so easy to get rid of and because it’s so easy people become empowered really quickly,” says Adams.
The students designed their own water bottle and they are encouraged to purchase this in first year.
While the campaign was a huge success, Achari insists schools will need guidance if they are to successfully implement the new Government-led initiative.
Parents are also trying to make a difference. Bethan O’Riordan, from Whitechurch in Cork, started by making small changes to the school lunches about three years ago for her children Finlay (7), Ruby (6) and Ramsey (4).
“We just started to go steady and slow to see what we could change over time,” says O’Riordan.
Initially they ditched the tinfoil and switched the sandwiches to brown paper bags.
“Now, we have these ‘lunchskins’. You can just put them in the dishwasher or wipe them out – we put all the sandwiches in there.”
They replaced plastic straws with reusable steel ones and bottles with flasks.
“We’ve had the flasks for four years now,” says O’Riordan.
The family try to live a zero-waste lifestyle where possible and O’Riordan says that she finds it easy to adapt the school lunches.
“It’s easier because I never run out of clingfilm or these things,” she says. “Before my zero-waste days I’d almost always have clingfilm or tinfoil in my weekly shop.”
People can be surprised at times when she brings containers to purchase food from butchers or markets.
“Some can look at you like you have two heads. People think ‘zero waste’ is a really ‘out there’ idea, but it’s not, it’s actually just a really conscious decision to make a better future for the children,” she says.
Making a move towards a more environmentally friendly lunch box comes with a financial cost.
“The only thing that is tricky is that it is a bit of an investment,” says O’Riordan. “At the beginning of the school year I will spend maybe €50 and it will last me for more than the entire school year.”
A pack of two reusable lunch bags costs about €10 and a pack of Beeswax reusable wraps costs about €15.
Depending on the number of lunches a parent must prepare, the cost of these items could really stack up.
The cost, however, is front-loaded and the reusable nature of the items means they can save money over time.
O’Riordan believes the onus for making the change lies with parents and the wider community.
“I think this is where society, community and parents need to take responsibility rather than the school,” she says.
Schools, however, report mixed success in convincing parents to move plastic-free.
A primary school in Cork promoted a “no-wrapper Thursday” in the school in a bid to cut waste. The initiative didn’t last, on foot of feedback from parents who reported difficulties implementing it.
Another obstacle are well-meaning initiatives – such as the school meals schemes for disadvantaged pupils and schools – which can produce vast quantities of waste.
At Carlow Educate Together school, about 350 lunches are delivered on a daily basis.
“Each lunch comes in a plastic bag with the kid’s name and details on it, inside that plastic bag there is a sandwich which is also in a plastic bag, there is a piece of cardboard, which keeps the shape of the bag,” says teacher Mark O’Brien.
O’Brien acknowledges that food suppliers are restricted by regulations to prevent contamination, but says it results in an inordinate amount of waste.
The school has raised its concerns with their lunch provider and have managed to make some positive inroads into reducing the lunchtime waste.
“We were going through over 1,500 water bottles a week and they were just being binned. We went to the company and said that this just wasn’t on and they set up the kids with their own water bottles which they could just fill up from the tap,” says O’Brien.
The company now collects the plastic packaging from the sandwiches, so the school no longer has to dispose of it.
“They are also trying to reduce the amount of waste by trialling serving certain foods on reusable platters rather than wrapping everything in plastic,” says O’Brien.
Elaine Garde, a heritage expert, visits primary schools as part of the Heritage in Schools scheme, identifies the packaging delivered to schools as part of the Food Dudes programme – a healthy-eating programme – as an area that needs to be addressed.
More than 450,000 portions of fruit and vegetables were delivered to schools in 2018 via the programme and many of those portions came wrapped in plastic.
Bord Bia, which oversees the implementation of Food Dudes, says its “ultimate aim is to reduce and where possible remove the use of plastic from the programme completely”.
With schoolchildren marching for climate change it is clear they, the children, have an appetite for environmental issues. Parents and teachers can help feed that appetite.
Just like charity, climate change too can start at home or at school –with the lunch box.
How to get your school plastic-free
Since March 31st, schools (and public bodies) have been banned from buying or using single-use plastics such as cups, cutlery and straws for use within their premises.
Plastic Free 4 Schools is a campaign to help schools go plastic-free through the social innovation platform Change X. They have outlined five steps to get started.
1: Assemble a team – this could be the “green school” team.
2: Visit classrooms and get the whole school involved. Let everyone know what you are planning and seek suggestions from students.
3: Communicate with the wider school community.
4: Organise a workshop.
5: Become plastic-free ambassadors within the community.