Plastic not so fantastic

This article was originally appeared in the February issue of Under 5 magazine. Find out how you can subscribe to get a copy of Under 5 here.

Nobody can fail to have noticed the damage that waste, and plastic waste in particular, is doing to the environment. Plastic debris finds its way into the oceans of the world, it harms sea life and has created vast islands of floating waste, miles wide and far too big to remove. It is a problem that we must face up to now before it is too late.

There has already been some action taken to mitigate this problem in recent years. Micro-beads, which are used in many cosmetic products, are now banned after growing evidence that they were finding their way into the food chain. A 5p levy on plastic carrier bags in shops and supermarkets has seen a marked reduction in their use. The government has also pledged to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2024, where it is “technologically, environmentally and economically practical to do so”.


A long way to go

Even so, this is just the tip of the iceberg. For decades, plastic in its various forms has been seen as a relatively cheap and convenient way to package and display food products and other goods. It helps to keep food fresh, hygienic and displayed in such a way that it entices the consumer.
Plastic bags have become a marketing staple, ensuring that big brands have their logos and contact details displayed in every home and on every high street, reinforcing their message at every opportunity and hardwiring young brains to be customers for life.
Wasteful packaging on toys and other goods is equally culpable. Many toys and games that have little actual play and learning value are packaged in such a way that they sell a promise that even a young child’s vivid imagination cannot possibly recreate. No wonder then that so many parents say that their child had more fun playing with the box that a toy came in!
As early years practitioners, we have an important role to play in fighting back against unnecessary plastics. Leading by example, we can help children to make better choices that they will use throughout their lives.
The influence we have on the environment now will have a significant and lasting impact. In December 2018, education secretary Damian Hinds told schools that they should eliminate use of all single use plastics by 2022, highlighting the work of some schools who are already meeting this target. He said: “It’s not always easy, but we all have a role to play in driving out avoidable plastic waste.”

Small steps to reducing plastic in your setting

So what can early years settings do? A good place to start is with an audit of your current use of plastic.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many single use items do we use?
  • Do we really need all of these?
  • What can we re-use or recycle?
  • How much plastic do we throw away each week? Ask children and their families to set themselves a challenge to reduce waste.
  • Can we replace plastic bags with fabric ones, for example when children bring in their wellies for outdoor play?
  • How is our weekly food shop delivered? Can we bulk buy rather than having lots of smaller packets/cartons?
  • Do we use any disposable cutlery, plates or cups?
  • Do we really need all this glitter?
Above all, the important thing is to do something – even just making one change. Every small change you make now and every attitude towards waste that you can influence will go some way towards making a difference. It isn’t too late yet, but it soon will be.
Single use gloves for nappy changing
The average setting gets through approximately 12-15,000 single-use gloves each year. This is a huge amount of waste that could easily be reduced.
It is a myth that wearing gloves for nappy changing is an Ofsted requirement – it isn’t.
At a conference in Birmingham last year, a regional director stated that Ofsted “doesn’t care” whether or not practitioners use gloves and many settings have stopped using them as a consequence.
However, it is a requirement of the EYFS that “providers take all necessary steps to prevent the spread of infection” and Ofsted would expect to see that this is happening. Clinical guidance clearly states that single-use gloves must be worn when dealing with bodily fluids that may pose a risk of cross-infection. This includes faeces and diarrhoea, however a wet nappy does not usually pose a risk as urine is actually sterile.
Therefore, single-use gloves are not necessary when dealing with a wet nappy under normal circumstances but should remain available to all staff for dealng with other bodily fluids or when there is an outbreak of an infection.

How plastic waste in a nursery adds up

The small amount of plastic waste created every day can soon add up. Here is what an average 52-place early years setting would create each year, if open for 50 weeks:

Plastic item per year Opportunities to reduce or replace
Nappies 12,500 This is generally down to each parent's choice, but nappies do still generate a huge amount of waste each year. There are more eco-friendly options available that can be suggested to parents – including biodegradable or resuable nappies.
Nappy sacks 5,000 Is it really necessary to put every nappy inside a nappy sack? A tightly-wrapped wet nappy is usually sufficiently watertight. Of course, a soiled nappy may require a nappy sack to minimise odour or prevent the spread of diease.
Wipes (nappy changes) 37,500 Biodegradable wipes are available, although they tend to cost more. Consider how many you use for each nappy change, while still ensuring that children are thoroughly cleaned.
Wipes (hands/faces)  7,800 Soap and water, or tissue, can often be used instead.
Plastic aprons 5,000 Single-use aprons are necessary when there is a risk of cross-contamination, such as during an illness outbreak. But not always required for every nappy change. Consider a resuable alternative or biodegradable alternative.
Milk bottles 2,000 Some settings have negotiated with their supplier to get re-usable milk bottles. Ask yours or consider switching supplier if possible.
Plastic wallets 650 Often thrown out instead of being reused, consider how you use these in your filing systems.
Hand sanitisers 150 Many staff opt to carry one of these with them at work. Suggest they switch to soap/water where possible.
Glitter 6kg This micro-plastic can enter the food chain and there are now some plastic-free alternatives available.
Laminating 200 Paper is recyclable – plastic pouches are not. Consider removing laminating from your displays.

Get in touch

We'd love to hear how your setting has been reducing its use of single-use plastics. Please get in touch at and share your stories and pictures.

This article originally appeared in the Alliance's Under 5 membership magazine. Find out more about the magazine, request your free taster copy, or sign up to the newsletter mailing list here

Alliance members can also read the latest issue of Under 5 online by logging in to their members' area.