Richard Cairns: Why I’m banning plastic at Brighton College

Brighton College’s headmaster explains his recent decision to ban all single use plastic bottles from September 2018

Every day, up and down the country, boys and girls can be seen clutching plastic water bottles as they walk around their schools. This happens even though we know that most of this will end up polluting our seas and our land.

We have watched David Attenborough’s distressing TV images of marine animals being strangled on human plastic – and we have all said to ourselves that we need to do something.

Incredibly, one third of all UK-caught fish contain plastic. And we are eating that fish with no idea of the consequences for our health. Some 8 ½ billion plastic straws are used every year in the UK, made up of plastics that take hundreds of years to decompose.

And then there are the disposable coffee cups. Only 1% of them can actually be recycled because they are usually lined with plastic.

This is why I announced at Brighton College’s annual education conference in May that I wanted to ban all single use plastic bottles from being brought on site from September. We are also banning all plastic straws and all disposable coffee cups unless they are biodegradable.

We will be treating all of these objects as the anti-social things that they are and being in possession of any of them will be on a par with being caught smoking.

We have watched David Attenborough’s distressing TV images of marine animals being strangled on human plastic – and we have all said to ourselves that we need to do something

To ensure that pupils are regularly hydrated, the school is installing additional water fountains and water stations. We are also commissioning refillable bottles, each etched with key environmental messages, for all pupils.

And we plan to go further still, environmentally.  The World Health Organisation has classified diesel as a class one carcinogen and the cause of thousands of premature deaths in Britain yet nearly all school minibuses are powered by diesel. 

So, I am tasking six sixth formers – all heading for top universities to study science subjects – to look into the published research into diesel and to advise me as to whether we should ban parents and teachers from bringing a diesel car on site. This is a great research project for them and a really meaningful way of showing that we listen and we are prepared to act. In the meantime, we are incentivising the drivers of electric or hybrid cars by installing electric chargers in our school car park.

One pupil, Millie Critchlow (L6), has her say:

This project is really exciting to be involved in as it is an extremely important topic which our school is very passionate about.

It is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the issue of plastic and pollution and it can feel futile making any personal changes so this is an amazing opportunity for us to make a collective difference and to feel a part of something which can really make a big and clear difference in the fight against excessive plastic use.

I know that for many of my friends and I, the recent Blue Planet documentary and its distressing images and warnings against the use of plastic have led us to make changes to our daily habits and its really encouraging that our school is going to become a part of this fight. The concept of fishless oceans is an unthinkable idea which is completely possible in our futures if we carry on doing nothing. 

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