One Word for Earth Day: Plastics

Kim Moldofsky is the publisher of The Maker Mom and STEM Kids Chicago.

Fifty years ago, plastics were considered a panacea for manufacturing and shipping problems. Plastics can make durable containers and other lightweight, inexpensive, and easy-to-mass-produce goods. No doubt your classroom and house, your car, and even your refrigerator are made of and filled with plastic products.

In fact, we can posit that plastics were too successful. Plastics are polluting our land and water.

That’s why this year’s Earth Day theme is to end plastic pollution. (See the official Earth Day toolkit here and check out resources from Discovery Education here.)

The Three R's

Earth day is an ideal time to refocus students on the three environmental R’s:

  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

Reused items eventually wind up in the trash or get recycled. Recycling is fairly mainstream in many major metropolitan areas. I’m glad to live in a town that provides curbside recycling options for paper and several grades of plastic. But not every city enjoys such services. This four-minute video provides an informative overview of how recycling helps the planet, in case anyone in your classroom (or town) needs a prompt.

But even recycling can only do so much good. The most crucial R, it seems, is reduce.

Reduce Plastics for Earth Day and Every Day

Our reliance on plastic items that we use just one time and then toss away is a tough habit to break. Who in your classroom can commit to making at least one change in this area?

A good first step is to stop using disposable plastic drinking straws. These frequently lead to litter as people casually drop them. And when they do, many animals, especially marine animals, mistake them for food. The consequences can be drastic and are sometimes fatal. If you need convincing to give up the straw, especially when dining at restaurants near bodies of water, there are plenty of online videos that demonstrate the damage they cause. I’m not highlighting a specific video, because many of them are very upsetting and you need a deep understanding of your audience before selecting one to show a group.

The good news about straws is that most people can do without them. However, some people with disabilities have an actual need for single-use plastic straws.If you really prefer straws, ditch the plastic for one made of paper or bamboo. Even better, impress your friends by toting around a personal glass or metal reusable drinking straw, several of which come with cool little carrying cases.

Back in the day, six-pack can holders consisted of a series of thin, but durable, connected plastic loops that secured the tops of beverage cans. That common design resulted in a lot of trash as well as a lot of damage to land and marine animals. Newer designs are friendlier to wildlife, but still come with a heavy plastic footprint. Now the team at e6pr (as in, edible 6-pack rings), is bringing a completely biodegradable, fully compostable, and edible (to wildlife) six-pack holder to market. Hopefully, we’ll see this in stores soon.

Single-use plastic plates and utensils represent yet another environmental scourge. Swap them out with compostable plates made out of bamboo, sugarcane, and palm leaves. If you don’t compost at home or in your classroom, many large cities now have businesses that will pick up household discards and compost them for you.

Even better, Willy Wonka’s promise that “you can even eat the dishes” will no longer be limited to a fictional chocolate factory. Companies are developing edible spoons and edible packaging.

Along with a pledge to reduce plastic, young scientists can imagine Earth-friendly replacements for them. Or they can develop ideas to clean up the plastic that’s already polluting our world. Remember it only takes a good idea, not a fully formed invention, to enter the competition to become America’s Top Young Scientist!