Background to the issue
As a society, we generally buy too much stuff. This is partly because products are so readily available and cheap, which also means that we often take things for granted. We don’t understand the true value of items because they are too accessible, therefore we don’t look after them. Furthermore, when our belongings break, we replace rather than repurpose or repair them, because buying new is more convenient and cheaper. We are also bombarded by advertising which convinces us to consume more and more.
A major player in our access to cheap products is the location of manufacture. Many big organisations are supplied products from developing nations where manufacture is cheap, due to low working and environmental standards. China has been the manufacturing capital of the world for the last 20 years or so. Here manufacture is cheap because raw materials are harvested with little consideration for the environmental impact and labour is incredibly cheap. The US-based NGO, China Labor Watch discovered that toys such as Barbie and Thomas the Tank Engine were produced by workers who were paid as little as 86p an hour.
The electricity required for mass production in these countries has also been developed with little consideration for the environment. Up until this point, China has predominantly relied on coal to provide its energy (coal consumption was 3.97 billion tons in 2015 alone). However, China is beginning to phase in renewable alternatives and has committed to derive 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 in compliance with the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Furthermore, equipment is produced quickly in attempts to increase profits. Unfortunately, for efficiency, manufacturers often sacrifice quality and products are not designed to last, or to be repaired. This leads to many broken items being thrown away and populating landfill sites where the material resources cannot be reused. Some products are even thrown away in perfect condition, because they’re out of fashion or no longer valued. For instance, when questioned by the British Heart Foundation, more than 25% of parents admitted to discarding toys that were in perfect working order.
What can we do?
In a nursery setting, we are not immune to the overconsumption of resources. Much like other aspects of our eco-journey, we need rethink our relationship with our resources and consider the environmental impact of every purchase, rather than purchasing whatever is most convenient.
The gold standard sustainable purchase should have the following qualities:
- It did not require the extraction of new minerals – Either it is made from recycled materials, or it is second hand (the latter is preferable since it doesn’t require any additional emissions to recycle/reform the product).
- It is designed to last as long as possible – This can be recognised by warranty’s/guarantees from the supplier. It also means that single-use products should be avoided.
- It is designed to be repaired if things break – This may be offered by the supplier, or you may be able to identify third party fixing businesses. This is easier to do when the product has replaceable parts such as batteries. A good example is the fairphone which is designed with the ability to replace every part of the device.
- The product has been manufactured locally – This means that less fuel is required for transport.
- If made from wood, paper, or rubber it is FSC certified – Meaning that the materials are produced in alignment with sustainable forest management.
- When used, it doesn’t create other environmental issues – This includes creating unnecessary waste or pollution.
It may not always be possible to tick every box with our purchases, and unfortunately it can be time consuming to do the research. But once the research is complete, it’s done and we can continue to purchase from sustainable suppliers again and again with no added effort, safe in the knowledge that we’re no longer contributing to wasted materials! And by sharing our knowledge with others, we can make it easier for newcomers to reduce their impact.
In addition to purchasing with sustainability in mind, we can reduce our impact in the way that we use our resources. We should be mindful about wasting energy, and therefore appliances (e.g. computers, lights) should be energy efficient and turned off when not in use. In terms of stationary, we should aim to print double-sided and move towards paperless admin. For child play, use recycled or scrap paper, and switch to crayons and pencils rather than pens which create unnecessary plastic pollution.
There are also certain products that we should steer clear of completely. These include glitter, which is essentially microplastic (see ‘Additional information’) which enters landfill or reaches waterways where it may affect wildlife. Balloons are another unnecessary single-use plastic play item. Food messy play should also be phased out in place of other options since it produces food waste and teaches children that food isn’t a valuable resource. You can foster the same sense of sensory curiosity and imagination by introducing a range of textures from natural or recycled materials like pinecones, leaves, sand, shredded waste-paper, pencil shavings and more!
Finally, we need to be mindful about what happens with our products once we’re finished with them. Do they need to be thrown away or can we repurpose them? Could they be valued by someone else if they’re still in good condition? Can they be recycled if there are no other options?
Swap-schemes and charity shops are a great way to make sure your items are used once you’re finished with them! Could you go the extra mile and set up a toy and clothes swap scheme in your nursery for parents to participate in?
Articles and websites to widen your knowledge
The environmental impact of glitter
Most glitter is made from etched aluminium bonded to polyethylene terephthalate (PET), meaning that it is a type of microplastic. Whilst there have currently been no specific environmental impact studies on glitter, it is likely to have the same impacts as other microplastic (including the microbeads which have been banned from cosmetic products in the UK). In 2016, a study found microplastic was present in 1/3 of all fish caught in the English Channel, and therefore any plastic contributing to this is a cause for alarm.
Whilst this is not something we have considerable influence over, ‘consumption-based emissions’ is an important concept to understand regarding our national impact on the planet.
The UK’s carbon emissions have fallen over the last 6 years according to reports, however this only considers the emissions released in the UK (territorial based emissions). This is an under-representation of our actual contribution to global green-house gas emissions, since we are a service-based economy. We import a large amount of products which require energy to produce and release emissions in the country of production. In fact, the UK is one of the largest net importers of CO2 emissions in the UK due to our import of traded goods!
Therefore, to accurately determine our overall contribution to climate change we need to take these into account by reporting our consumption-based emissions.
This is incredibly important, because the pledges we make as a country to reduce our impact (decided at climate change COPs) are determined based on our national emissions (nationally determined contributions). So, if we are underestimating our emissions, we are not held responsible and accountable for them. Instead, the responsibility is put on the manufacturing countries, which are less able to invest in renewable infrastructure as a result of often being developing nations.
Read more here…