Reducing plastic in nursery settings — stories of success


To mark the end of Plastic Free July, we're sharing some amazing stories of nurseries who have radically reduced or cut out their use of single-use plastics.

Concerns about the damage caused by plastic pollution have been increasing. Every year, more than one million tonnes of plastic waste are sent to landfill in the UK, with most families throwing away an average of 40kg of plastic that could be recycled.

Earlier this year we  shared some simple ideas for how early years settings could start to reduce the amount that they contribute to plastic waste.

And since then some nurseries have been making huge changes with some inspiring results.

Working with parents to reduce waste

Jelly Beans, a Montessori nursery based in Essex, has been changing the way it uses disposable plastic products.

Jelly Beans offers care between 8am and 6pm across two rooms and an outdoor classroom. The setting currently cares for a total of 90 children over each week. For them, the idea of cutting down on the level of waste produced at the setting was always on their radar.

Sarah Drummond, head and founder at the setting, explains: “This was always in the back of my mind we already recycle a lot in the setting, but I had been thinking about what other things we could do for a while.

"Then I saw the article on reducing plastics in Under 5 and saw there was evidence to back up what we wanted to do.”

The setting was also struck by how some of the disposable items they were using added up over the course of a year – for example, an average setting open for 50 weeks a year might use up to 5,000 plastic nappy sacks and 5,000 single-use plastic aprons.

Sarah started by speaking with families through the setting’s parents forum about the changes they wanted to make. “When we shared the statistics about how many nappies and wipes we were using, parents realised how important this was.” She explains. “I think a lot of parents only think about their own individual child and don’t see how all of this waste adds up.”

The response from families was overwhelmingly positive. “Out of a 180 families, only one had concerns about the plans – and they are still behind the idea overall, they just wanted to provide their own wipes as their child has eczema.”

Three parents have also been hugely supportive of the new plans, helping the setting implement some of the changes.

One parent has also been looking into setting up a litter-picking group for the local area to help clear up some of the outdoor spaces.

Washable wipes and resuable nappies

Jelly Beans has swapped from plastic toothbrushes to a bamboo alternative and has started using reusable wipes. “We were going to buy a set of these online, but one of the children’s grandparents made us a set using some muslin cloth,” Sarah says. The cloths can be cleaned in the washing machine, ready to be re-used.

The setting purchased some wet bags online, which cost around £1 for a set, which they now use instead of disposable nappy sacks to wrap up wet clothing to be sent home. These sacks are also more convenient for many parents. Sarah explains: “The whole thing can be put in the washing machine with the clothes and they are totally reusable.”

Two parents have also been sharing their experience of using reusable nappies with the parents forum. Sarah says that as well as helping to reduce plastic waste, reusable nappies may also help with toilet training for young children. “Modern nappies work almost too efficiently, so that children do not realise that they are wet,” she explains. In a year the average early years setting can use up to 12,500 nappies, so this can have a huge impact on waste.

Eco-swaps prove cost effective

Many settings may also be concerned about the cost of some of these swaps, as eco-friendly alternatives are often seen as being more expensive.

“Actually, we’ve found that everything has actually saved us money and we are no longer spending money on disposable aprons and gloves,” Sarah explains. The reusable alternatives the setting is now using will work out cheaper in the long term.

Sarah thinks this is an important issue for settings to address with children. “We all play our part in taking care of the environment and children are the future of this – we need to educate them now.” She says that making changes now can help set habits. “If we can teach them to take care of their environment, they will carry that with them throughout their lives.”

Plastic Free Schools logo

Devon nursery is officially plastic free

Oak Tree Nursery in Devon has achieved Plastic Free Nursery status through the environment charity Surfers Against Sewage, after reducing the amount of single-use plastic they use.

Francy Broxholme, deputy manager at the setting, explains: “We’ve been really productive and are now throwing away only a third of what we used to.”

Children at the setting were the driving force behind the campaign, after reading the book Five Little Men in A Flaying Saucer, which sees aliens visit a polluted and littered planet Earth.

“It sparked a wider conversation about the environment around our nursery and the children were upset by all the litter they say,” Francy explains.

The setting found out about the Plastic Free Nurseries scheme after a nearby school signed up to a similar schools initiative.

Glitter bottleGoodbye glitter

As part of the scheme, the setting was tasked with eliminating three sources of single-use plastic. They removed straws, glitter and cling-film.

“The glitter was really hard to say good-bye to,” Francy admits. “Children and practitioners love using glitter for crafts, but we’ve had to find ways of decorating without it.”

The team has gone above and beyond their original task, and has also stopped using their laminator so that paper and cardboard items can be recycled when no longer needed.

Oak Tree also recycles all the waste paper, including paper towels, metals and plastic. The children use any plastic items that can’t be recycled to make eco-bricks – plastic bottles filled with plastic waste to create building blocks.

Francy says: “It’s lovely to hear the children saying things like: ‘Look at me, I’m a superhero, saving the world!’ when they are making up the bricks. It’s really magical and I hope they take this all with them for the future.” 


Plastic not so fantastic webinar 

Plastic not so fantastic article

Plastic not so fantastic audit — Alliance members can use this spreadsheet to carry out an audit of the single-use plastics they use in their settings. It's available to download from the Alliance Members Area.


Coming soon...

More great tips for reducing, re-using and recycling at your setting from our partners at Famly