My second child (daughter, Rose, 11 years old) is coming to the end of her time in Junior school. Once the ‘dreaded’ SATS are out of the way, the children will be free to concentrate on the more important events in Year 6, like the much anticipated Leavers’ Disco.
Having stepped up to help organise the same event when my son was in year 6, I thought I ought to do the same for my daughter (yep, always motivated by guilt :-)). The nice thing about having some clout in organising an event, is that I can influence the ‘eco-friendliness’ of the proceedings, and do my best to limit the tatt and the throwaway!
Thus, in this (generous-ish) spirit, I thought it might be interesting to look at how school events can be made more eco-friendly. We all know that schools are strapped for cash, so these events are often important money raisers. The challenge is in finding ways to run the events without producing mountains of waste.
It’s time to burst your balloon once and for all... Balloons are one of those lose-lose plastic items that can’t be recycled and never biodegrade, ending up instead in landfill, on beaches or in the stomachs of unwitting birds and mammals. They gradually break down into small pieces of plastic ‘microplastics’ which end up being ingested by animals throughout the food chain (ourselves included). They are so synonymous with celebration in the West, that it probably seems like a big leap to think of not using them (although let's get real, we really don’t need them to have a good time at a party!).
"WE HAD A TURTLE COME IN RECENTLY THAT HAD FOUR DIFFERENT COLOURS OF BALLOONS IN ITS STOMACH. IT HAD A WHOLE PARTY GOING ON IN THERE."
- LIBBY HALL, MANAGER OF TARONGA ZOO'S WILDLIFE HOSPITAL
Unfortunately, and I confess to having been caught out by this one, balloons claiming to be biodegradable are nearly as bad, as they take many, many years to degrade. I have some on my compost heap and they haven’t budged in years. What about foil balloons I hear you cry? No, not biodegradable either I’m afraid and they contain metal, which makes matters worse.
So kiss goodbye to balloons, and look on the bright side. You won’t have to panic when they burst as you try to rescue the small chokable pieces from the hands of small children and the mouths of animals. Oh and lots of people REALLY don’t like the sound of a balloon bursting so you’ll be saving their frazzled nerves.
Balloon Alternatives There are a wonderful array of tissue paper alternatives on the market, including paper pom poms, fans, honeycomb balls, hanging lanterns, paper garlands. You can choose from different sizes and they are really impactful when used to decorate a room. For a previous Hollywood themed disco I bought some large paper pom poms in white, silver and black, which we strung from the ceiling to great effect. There are plenty of options online; try Party Delights who have a comprehensive selection. Hobby Craft sell plain brown bunting which you can decorate yourself.
Remember to check what was used for previous events. It seems silly to buy more and more decorations every time, only for it all to be tucked away, thrown away and generally forgotten about. Apparently a group of parents made some wonderful decorations for last years disco. I shall be happily commandeering them for this year’s event! Which leads me to my next point…
Make your own. Draw on your pool of keen parent volunteers to see who has the wherewithal to make some decorations. Even better, suggest that the pupils get involved (post SATS). When I think of all of the amazing creations on display during Arts’ week, I know that the children and parents can come up with something super duper.
Use, and re-use, fabric bunting. We did this to great effect at the summer fair, and there is no reason we can’t use the same bunting for other events; whether disco, fair or tea party. Buy once and it can become a school heirloom, or borrow from parents who have some pretty bunting at home. An eclectic mix will give your event a vintage look!
Anything ‘glow’ must go! It's safe to say most parents dread the glow stand at school events. Children are drawn to glow stuff like moths to a flame, and parents are faced with taking a stand and being ‘mean’ (I quote my daughter) as their friends bop on by with a necklace, sword and bracelet.
Following fireworks night last year (when did fireworks become NOT ENOUGH?) I helped pick up the litter the next day. We found hundreds of tiny plastic tabs from the glow sticks that had been sold (the bit you pull out to get it working). The flipping things are almost impossible to pick up, and meant I had to get down and dirty on my knees and use my hands, instead of being able to saunter around brandishing my smart litter picker. Bad for the environment and your back!
These aren’t tiny little glowsticks I’m talking about, but great big plastic things filled with liquid, and loads of them were already in the bin. No part of a glow item can be recycled, because of the chemicals that are inside. Every year, more than 100 million liquid sticks end up in landfill, where they take eons to decompose. The liquid inside gradually leaches out into the earth - you see, they really are an all-round charmer.
It is time to say goodbye to glow items that we absolutely don’t need in our lives or at our parties. Invest in a good torch instead. There are some snazzy head torches and LED lights on the market out there.
Glow Alternatives There aren’t any, as nothing can replicate the chemical reaction inside. Enjoy the food, drink, music and company and try to forget that these things ever existed. You won’t find them on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
All that glitters ain’t gold (or biodegradable) You’ve probably noticed that glitter itself is made up of tiny bits of plastic, so it falls into the microplastics category straight away. It doesn’t biodegrade, and floats around in our ecosystem for hundreds of years. I think the name ‘G-litter’ is a reference to the fact that at the point of use it almost immediately becomes litter. I’ve made the mistake of allowing it at one of Rose’s birthday parties before; this was over five years ago and there are still small glitter bits ingrained in our table top.
Oh and don’t ever buy glitter glue. Literally one of the worst inventions ever..
Glitter alternatives There is good news on the glitter front, as there are a number of companies now making biodegradable glitter. Eco Glitter Fun was one of the first that I came across. ‘Bioglitter® replaces the core polyester film used in traditional glitter with a unique and special form of cellulose from hardwoods, primarily eucalyptus sourced from responsibly managed and certified plantations operating to PEFC™ ‘.
Glitter, even the biodegradable stuff, is still a messy substance that will ultimately end up anywhere but in the bin. There are also natural face paints on the market, like this one from Conscious Craft, which may be a better bet for discos and the like.
Food & Drink ware - plastic isn’t fantastic Feeding and watering large groups of children and adults is always a challenge, and it seems so much more convenient to use disposable cups, plates, cutlery etc so that it can all be dealt with quickly at the end. However, even if this lot finds its way into recycling (and in my experience, this is rare) much of it ends up in landfill or in an incinerator. We can’t use convenience as an excuse any more, as that is what got us into this mess in the first place.
We’ve also got to set a good example to the children, who are being taught about plastic pollution at school. When they see the changes, they can understand their part in making choices that will avoid plastic waste.
Eco friendly alternatives The most truly eco alternative is to use china plates, glasses and metal cutlery. My daughter’s school recently held an adult’s quiz night, and we ate our food off china plates from the kitchen. It was a pivotal moment in the school’s history! Compostable bamboo cups and cutlery were provided too. Always check with your school kitchen/ canteen as to which items they will allow you to use - usually a promise to leave everything exactly as you found it is enough!
For afternoon tea events, consider asking people to bring in their own mugs, or ask for mug donations so that a batch can be held in school for these kind of events. You could even task someone with buying some from a local charity shop. Remember to encourage parents and children to bring reusable water bottles, and make sure they have access to a tap for refills.
If the event is liable to result in breakages, then there are plenty of alternatives on the market, like this bamboo range from Little Cherry. I bought plates and bowls for my daughter’s disco, and they are so hardy that I have stored them away for future events. The whole range is compostable - consider chopping up and placing on your school compost heap!
All events require a great deal of planning and thought - with a bit of creativity it is possible to run an event with far less plastic and throwaway waste. As well as doing your bit for the environment, you are setting a great example to the children and who knows, in the long run it might just make life easier!
Please do comment below with any tips you have for organising an eco-friendly school event. All names will be entered into a prize draw to win a mini care package from The Wise House; containing a Coconut Soap Mat, Natural Soap and Chocolate Face Mask (everything you need to relax after helping out at school :-)).
My friend Suze is waging a one-woman crusade at her university campus; she is encouraging her colleagues to use use the 'real' plates and cutlery provided by their on-site canteen, rather than the disposable alternatives that are also available (for takeaway back to their desk). This may sound like an easy ask (and Suze is a very persuasive person) but she has been met with reluctance because people would have to...wait for it...walk their dirty crockery back to the canteen for the kitchen staff to place in the dishwasher! Imagine!
I remember from my office days just how quickly dirty cups and bowls would accumulate in the sink (beneath the ‘please rinse your cups and place in the dishwasher' sign). Nowhere is convenience more welcome that at work, where the notion of everything being ‘time critical’ can be used as an excuse for using disposable stuff and general laziness (like not walking your dirty plates back or washing them up!).
Companies and eco-crusaders like Suze are now starting to look at how eco friendly their place of work and study is, at a time when plastic pollution and other environmental issues are being brought to the fore. In this fourth in our eco living series, we look at what we can do; as commuters, staff members, students, to making our work life a shade greener.
1. Use a reusable coffee cup for takeaway coffee So here’s the rub. Disposable coffee cups are one of the very worst offenders when it comes to waste, as they are not recyclable and take hundreds of years to biodegrade in landfill. Reusable coffee cups are now widely available to buy, including from most of the coffee houses, so make this a must-do swap! If you don’t have your own cup, skip the coffee.
2. Bring in a packed lunch Takeaway food and drink leaves a huge disposable footprint. The best way to avoid this is to bring in your own packed lunch in a reusable lunch box, just like you did in your school days. To earn extra brownie points, wrap snacks and sandwiches in beeswax wrap or cotton sandwich wraps and snack bags, to avoid using clingfilm or foil.
3. Use a container for your takeaway lunch Let's face it, making a packed lunch every day isn’t always practical or desirable! You may well be lucky enough to have a great canteen or fantastic cafe nearby, or you might have been hunting around for school book bags and PE kits in the morning and run out of time to make lunch.
The waste-free answer to this is to a/ bring in your own plate and cutlery and keep it at work to use in your canteen and/or b/ bring in a reusable food container and cutlery. Cafes are getting far more used to this practice and most won’t mind filling up your container for you (as long as you don’t take a ridiculously huge container and expect them to fill it to the top!).
Yes, you will have to wash it up afterwards. It will take you about two minutes (use the time to brainstorm the next big idea to wow your boss, or run over that presentation you're giving).
4. Think of extras like straws and cutlery Remember that anything disposable, even paper, uses energy in its manufacture, so the greenest thing you can do is to bring your own and reuse, rather than using new and throwing away;
Take a few cotton napkins to work that you can bring home to wash intermittently (and they can double up as a hanky when needed).
It’s summertime and you’ll be drinking outdoors? Going to a concert or festival? Take a stainless steel tumbler so that you don't have to use the plastic cups provided. Your cup can be used for hot and cold drinks in the daytime too, as it is vacuum insulated (with space for your stainless steel straw).
You cycle into work (massive green points for this :-))? Take your own natural soap with you - you can pop into a biodegradable soap holder like this one and avoid plastic bottles, as well as synthetic chemicals and palm oil.
5. Give your Secret Santa a green theme this year. Opt for things like stainless steel straws, natural soap and reusable coffee cups. Or gifts could be homemade - who doesn't love a batch of chocolate brownies? Ban the throwaway tat...
6. Make a New Years Resolution to reduce your plastic (and other) waste Carry out an audit looking on all of the areas in which you regularly end up with single-use waste. Think about the commute, lunch-time, meetings, trips to the coffee shop and prepare yourself with a kit to cover all eventualities. If you like to do things in a structured manner, you can use an audit sheet like this one or just do it all in your head!
Go one step further and share it with your colleagues so that you...
7. Become the office (chic) eco geek You’re already setting an example with your reusable kit - your colleague is eyeing up your rather stylish Ecoffee cup and you have been looking a little bit smug in meetings when sipping cold water from your stainless steel tumbler. Take it one step further (no, I’m not going to say start tutting whenever you see a plastic cup) and instigate some office wide initiatives;
A crockery amnesty - ask everyone to bring in spare cutlery, mugs and crockery from home to kit out your kitchen. Visitors to the office can have their tea in a real mug, and water (tap please) in a real glass. Maybe your boss would consider installing water refill points for visitors.
Speak to your canteen and/or local coffee house and ask if they will do a discount on BYO cups for you and your colleagues (hopefully they are already doing this for customers).
Make sure your recycling facilities are up to scratch - talk to your manager/ office manager about installing more recycling bins.
Talk to your boss/manager about signing up to a scheme with Do Nation. Do Nation help organisations, like business and universities, to run campaigns that encourage staff to make pledges for change across a number of areas (that you can specify) like Fantastic Unplastic or Tin Tin (recycling). It costs as little as £1 per employee, and gives measurable results. Here is Pukka Herbs employee pledge challenge.
These types of initiatives could help you to achieve significant business goals, like acheiving B-Corporation certification - ‘B Corp Certification is the only certification that measures a company’s entire social and environmental performance. The B Impact Assessment evaluates how your company’s operations and business model impact your workers, community, environment, and customers.'
To summarise There is little doubt that you will have had more than one conversation with your colleagues about environmental issues currently in the press, like - ‘Did you watch the Liz Bonin documentary ‘Drowning in Plastic’?’ ‘Have you seen the orangutan ad on Facebook, about the destruction of their habitat for palm oil?’.
Doing something about these issues, whether just doing your bit or encouraging your colleagues to do the same, will help to build a sense of camaraderie and community within the office. Ultimately, a less wasteful and more active office is a happier place.
‘To do good, you actually have to do something.’ - Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and author of ‘Let Them Go Surfing: The Education Of A Reluctant Businessman
I would love to hear your comments, tips and stories on initiatives that you are running at your workplace or college/university. Please leave a comment below, or on Facebook, and your name will be entered into a prize draw to win one of our Packed Lunch & Commute Kits, up to the value of £35 (you can tailor it to your needs).
You can shop the full range of packed lunch and commute products available to buy at The Wise House here.