Lucy Mottram is Waste Education Officer for Devon County Council.  She is a trained teacher with experience working in farming, ecology and sustainability in the UK, Greece and Italy.  She writes here about her plastic pirates project.

“So you’re a rubbish teacher!” said the young son of a dear friend when I described what I did.  And, yes, he is right; I am a rubbish teacher, as are my three colleagues working in schools across Devon, delivering high quality waste education to students aged from 3 to 18 years old.

Devon County Council’s Waste Education Programme has been running for over 12 years, providing a wide range of curriculum linked workshops and assemblies, reaching hundreds of schools and thousands of pupils across Devon. Every year new links are made with teachers and schools, often inspiring schools to look at their own waste generation and recycling practices, and reduce the amount of waste going into their black bin bags.  Resource Futures are our partner contractor for our Waste Education Programme with three Waste Educators delivering workshops and assemblies every week on subjects like food waste, electrical waste and ocean plastics.  The workshops use interactive and engaging teaching methods. In a Plastic Pirate workshop to reception children the educator dresses up and plays a pirate captain taking the children on a tour of the school grounds rescuing sea animals trapped in plastic rubbish. They learn about the plastic pollution problem whilst engaging in a tale of plastic pirates on the high seas.

Devon County Council supports environmental education.  In educating the public to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle we can teach them about resource management sustainability, and we can work together to help us all to reduce our waste.  Children are often reliant on their parents and teachers telling them about the issues that face our world today – but what children learn in class varies enormously from school to school.  It is important for their futures as citizens of the world that they are prepared to deal with whatever is thrown at them in the future. This could include catastrophic weather events due to climate change, environmental degradation that drastically alters the world around them and unforeseen issues resulting from microplastics in the environment.  This generation, when they are adults, will be the ones who need to invent solutions for these “wicked” problems, as they have been referred to (Dillon, 2016).  We are obligated as environmental educators to inform children of the issues, but also to make sure that they realise that the decisions they make in their own lives, about what they eat, what they buy, and how they travel, all impact on the environment, and can make a difference to planetary health.

This year our education team has seen a rise in interest in our workshops about litter and plastics in the environment, probably due to the ‘Blue Planet Effect’, as the extent of the plastic pollution problem becomes clearer.  The emotive pictures seem to have engaged the public in unprecedented ways.  Many schools in Devon are becoming ‘plastic free’ or ‘plastic clever’ or are studying the effect of ocean plastics on the environment.  Much of this interest is coming from students, while the coverage in the press and across social media brings the issue to the forefront of teachers’ minds when thinking of topics and projects for students.  It may mean that further environmental issues are easier to introduce as people tend to be more aware of the bigger picture.  Our Waste Education Programme has been able to respond fast to this increase in awareness, and we have been able to introduce new workshops quickly.  Many of these issues, such as plastic recycling and litter in the oceans were already part of our education campaigns.  We also keep our website updated with new resources for teachers to download for free (zone.recycledevon.org).  Last year we created resources for Devon teachers to be able to teach about plastic litter which included a set of five lessons, ranging from art to geography and science, available for free online as a Litter Pack (zone.recycledevon.org/litterpack). The pack also contains specific advice about how to carry out a litter pick or beach clean, with advice about insurance and which local authority or landowner to ask for permission and who should remove waste once collected and bagged.

What is the impact?
Last academic year we talked to 9102 children and 605 adults through our in-school workshops, audits and assemblies, while 798 children and 107 adults visited our waste management facilities. This means, last year alone, over 10% of all schoolchildren in Devon (estimated to be 95,000) had some form of interaction with our Waste Education Programme. This is in spite of recent service reductions caused by financial restrictions.  Each year we work intensively with several schools across Devon, helping them to reduce their waste and set up good recycling systems.  Last academic year our Waste Educators worked with St John’s Primary School in Totnes and Uffculme Academy (a Multi Academy Trust of the Primary and Secondary in Uffculme, Mid Devon).  The resulting figures were astonishing. St John’s recycling figures went from 37% to 81% and they were able to reduce their waste by 66%.  Uffculme Primary School now recycles 84% of their waste and made financial savings of over £600 for the academy too.

Evidence through data from WRAP (Waste Resource Action Programme) collected in 2015 by Resource Futures, also shows measurable differences between the amount of waste generated per pupil in schools across the country as a whole (45kg per pupil for primary schools) and the figure per pupil in Devon schools (31kg per pupil).  The conversations children have at home following their education at school may also have impacts on the recycling and rubbish produced by households, but this is more difficult to measure.  In surveys from 2015, 82% of respondents said that their children had discussed waste workshops at home and 59% said that their behaviour at home had changed as a result of those conversations.  We are looking to develop our ability to assess how effective our work is at changing behaviour.  We would be happy to work with anyone who could provide some free research on how to improve the measurement of the impact of our Devon County Council Waste Education Programme.

What is the future?
We are always looking at new ways to link with other organisations, in mutually beneficial ways. Currently we are working with libraries and book festivals across Devon to produce a poetry competition, using children’s creativity to inspire them to write about waste and the 3Rs. We are working closely with the Environment Agency plastics team, Eco-Schools and the Energy Company, EDF Pod, promoting each other’s teaching resources.  Waste education in Devon is a strong tool in our County Council behaviour change work helping Devon residents (both children and adults) recycle and reuse more and throw away less, which has the dual impact of making better use of precious resources as well as allowing council funding to be spent on supporting other services.

So, in answer to my friend’s son I am a rubbish teacher and proud to be part of the team that is helping Devon Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
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References
Dillon, J. (2016). Towards a blended pedagogy: Learning inside and outside the classroom. In M. Sands, & J. Lane (Eds.), Science of Learning: Proceedings of the 12th International Conference, May 25 and 27, 2016, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey.
Internal reports: Waste Education in Devon Schools – Summary of Evidence, Devon County Council.
Devon Waste Education – Impact Report, June 2015, prepared by Resource Futures for Devon County Council.

Contact: lucy.mottram@devon.gov.uk
More information: zone.recycledevon.org

This article was first published in 2019 in Vol 121 of the NAEE journal which is available free to members.