Sylvie Verinder has recently been appointed as Director of Education for Plastic Oceans UK. With an impressive background that spans waste management, regulation and teaching, we are delighted to have her on board to deliver formal education programmes in schools, colleges and Universities. She writes about why education holds they key to a healthier ocean for future generations.

“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” Socrates

The omnipresent, visible tidal wave of plastic pollution – stretching from the mid-Atlantic to Antarctica to the Mariana Trench; to blight beaches from Bali to Bognor is devastating our oceans; causing carnage to our coastlines; destroying wildlife and finally coming back to bite us as micro plastics enter the food chain and end up on our dinner plates. Retribution at a catastrophic cost.

In our drive for convenience, we have potentially destabilised the fragile balance of Earth’s normal functioning equilibrium to such an extent that the ocean, which covers 71% of our planet, could become irreparably dysfunctional if the trend of human behaviour towards the ocean continues. Ocean plastic has exploded into public consciousness through daily headlines and viral social media posts. The plastic plague is touching emotions like no other environmental issue; creating a surge of beach clean ups; kickstarting a consumer revolt; forcing governments to revise and devise legislation, mobilising innovation in the waste industry and driving businesses to reconsider their models. Hopefully this awakening will pull with it an acceptance of the reality of climate change; a potential sixth mass extinction as well as all the other threats to the survival of life on Earth as we know it.

Thinking is not driven by answers but by questions. We need to learn to question, and we are starting to…Socrates, one of the founders of Western philosophy (Greek from philein: to love and sophia: wisdom the love of wisdom) held no theories but persistently asked questions, and in doing so evolved a new way of thinking. We need to follow this example. This is learning – an informal process which is continuous through life, through experience, it is that which is the basic instinct possessed by all individuals. Education on the other hand is gained through teaching, where knowledge is imparted.

So why have we not been educated to think, to question, to have a global view and to consider different perspectives and think systemically? The answer is because each society’s education system has an ideological and political underpinning which is shaped by the agendas of individual governments, groups of academics, businesses and their own society’s beneficiaries.

Our traditional mass education system was the “ingenious machine” constructed by industrialism: designed to raise compliant individuals, not to become creative thinkers, but to be unquestioning, yielding workers who would drive the “machine”. The hierarchy of education followed the model of industrial bureaucracy: regimented and lacking individualisation, with rigid systems of assessment based on predetermined answers – not questions. This system is outdated and in urgent and desperate need of reorientation. The recognition of the need to shift towards an education system which imparts the skills of learning to think and question; to enhance the process of learning for life so that people are open minded in their adoption of knowledge, skills and values is emerging and new ways of educating are being implemented across the globe.

Historically we have drawn upon our experiences to navigate our way out of environmental problems, catastrophes and disaster through learning – an evolutionary reactive process.  We are now at a point of inflection; a tipping point; a crisis point and we no longer have the time to learn from our mistakes – we need to formally educate the next generation through critical global learning for sustainable development to enable us to respond to the complexity and changes we face so that our future leaders are equipped to deliver a sustainable existence. Environmental, social and economic considerations are intrinsically woven together and must be balanced if we are to achieve a sustainable future.

For Plastic Oceans UK, as an evidence-based NGO, working within the science and technology, policy and education arenas, we are on a mission to support the delivery of a systemic, holistic set of solutions to prevent plastic pollution entering the ocean within a generation. We recognise the value of plastics as a material; the complexities of its management and the importance of recognising its value and why and how it can become problematic: due to the nature of the polymers which may make recycling difficult; due to design issues which can impede keeping it in the loop through recycling or reuse; the potential for leakage from the loop through waste management collection and behaviours of individuals such as littering and the design as single use items.

Through formal and informal education at all stages, we are raising awareness of all these issues by taking the messages to different audiences: to schools, universities, communities, businesses and NGOs. We are delivering education about the importance of a healthy ocean, educating about plastics and their role in society but also the problems they can cause when leaked out of the loop; the impact on wildlife, the environment and human health and most importantly the complex web of solutions that can prevent this and resolve the issues to help to keep the oceans healthy.

Our formal education programme, which is currently under development, will provide an engaging e-learning training programme  for teachers and educators (as well as units appropriate to businesses and employees) which will underpin a  structured and complete programme of ocean literacy education and solutions-focused learning modules based upon creative and critical thinking to identify the importance of a healthy ocean; an understanding of plastics as a material;  the need to recognise and raise its value  and the problems its mismanagement and misuse presents. Our programme covers plastics in the environment and the impact on wildlife health and human health based on evidence and scientific knowledge and current research.  These modules provide a solid grounding in the origin of the issues which lie behind the need for urgent and systemic solutions.

Subsequent modules are heavily solutions focused – illustrating the complexity of the situation but showcasing emerging technologies, how policy is changing around single use plastics, labelling etc, the changes being made by businesses and actions which can be taken at an individual level. The focus is on positivity, empowerment and discovery through global critical thinking.

The programme is a blend of education and learning – developing the ability of both teachers and students (and leaders in business and communities) to make connections within and between systems, to contest concepts and respond to change in our complex and ever-changing world. Those embarking on this learning journey will develop the ability to see solutions systemically and throw away linear thinking. Through their learning journey,  they will question their own stance and carry out self-reflection on their own position in the global context; explore their prejudices and connect to their own narratives to understand and develop their own values. It is imperative that teachers go through this learning process too – it is a different approach to the traditional model and in order to be able to not pass on their own stereotypes they will go through the process too – developing their own understanding and assumptions.

Our e-learning modular programme will engage and support teachers in developing their own knowledge and skills and support them in self-reflection to explore where they see themselves in the global as the first stage of the programme in each module. From there they will be supported in looking at how the learning can be immersed throughout the traditional curriculum progressively from KS2 – KS5 – they will be provided with the materials and structure to do this. The flexibility of the programme will also facilitate the learning being embedded through global learning theme weeks, schemes of work and other frameworks.

Plastic Oceans UK is delivering this education programme to ensure the legacy of the film A Plastic Ocean makes a lasting impact – in doing so the programme will be supporting delivery of the United Nations Sustainability Goal 14.1:

By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, particularly from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.

The programme will also deliver on sustainable development target 12.8 : By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.

The indicator for this target is: the extent to which (i) global citizenship education and (ii) education for sustainable development (including climate change education) are mainstreamed in (a) national education policies; (b) curricula; (c) teacher education; and (d) student assessment .

Through delivering ocean literacy and the problems we are facing, we have a window of opportunity to inspire the development of a talent pipeline of our current secondary students into further education in ocean sciences and research. These students will come of age during the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science. The United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021 -2030) was declared by the UN, on 5th December 2017, to be the decade to create a, “new foundation, across the science-policy interface, to strengthen the management of our oceans and coasts for the benefit of humanity.”

The Science We Need for the Ocean We Want (June 2018) states that, “The Decade will strengthen the international cooperation needed to develop the scientific research and innovative technologies that can connect ocean science with the needs of society. It will also contribute to the UN processes protecting the ocean and its resources, such as the Aichi Biodiversity targets, the SAMOA Pathway, the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

The Decade will require the engagement of many different stakeholders to create new ideas, solutions, partnerships and applications, these include: scientists, governments, academics, policy makers, business, industry and civil society. The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO has now been tasked by the UN General Assembly to work with all interested stakeholders to design a Decade of ocean science that will help us to deliver the ocean we need for the future we want.”

As 2018 draws to a close, we have two more years to prepare for The Decade, to ensure that ocean science delivers the desired outcomes of SDG14. IOC’s Decade of Ocean Science represents an inspirational focus for the recipients of our secondary education programmes to potentially follow a career in aspects of ocean science and research. Those students currently in secondary education, studying GCSEs and A Levels will be the graduates and researchers of the Decade.  We have a window of opportunity to prepare a new generation of ocean literate citizens who will be ready and inspired to support the Decade of Ocean Science and beyond.

Not every student wishes to be a scientist. The solution will require a new generation of designers, business leaders, policy makers, marketing and communications specialists – the list goes on. Plastic touches almost every aspect of our lives and as such there are opportunities for everybody, whatever their chosen career path, to be involved in the solution. Look to the music of Novo Amor, their song and video, Birthplace is a stunning, inspirational and emotive piece about the situation with plastic in our oceans which is supporting behaviour change through the arts. Working with this as a Case Study, and inspirational stimulus we will excite students to compose, design and produce musical and media pieces through. There are no limits to the ways in which we can instigate change through education for a sustainable future.

The UK Plastics Pact is a trailblazing, collaborative initiative that will create a circular economy for plastics. It brings together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain with UK governments and NGOs to tackle the scourge of plastic waste. The UK Plastic Pact recognises the importance of plastics and plastic packaging as an integral part of the global economy but also the problems caused due to their persistence and general degradation over time when leaked into the environment.

The signatories are working towards carefully considered and evidence-based approaches that “avoid conflating the issues around plastics and unintended consequences, along with targeting action and recognising the roles and responsibilities of players in the plastic loop.” The Pact is carrying out actions to, “eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (re-use) delivery models.”

The work of the Pact can be supported by Plastic Oceans UK, as an NGO, through the delivery of the Plastic Oceans UK education programme. We will embed Case Studies and positive behavioural, procurement, practical change actions by different signatories around improved and consistent labelling, highlighting the changes which have been made in the design of products and disposal options.

The e-learning programme will be modular and continually added to through incorporation of new case studies which are related to learning outcomes in specific curriculum linked areas. The format of the e-learning for teachers and the resources for embedding into the curriculum through inclusion in specific subjects or through Global Learning objectives and initiatives will provide pressing, real life contexts for learning outcomes to inspire and engage students and teachers.

The e-learning programme will be linked to a learning management system to facilitate collation of engagement and impact and provide feedback and certification to participants, ensuring that our commitment to delivering on the UN Goals is SMART :

  • Specific: our e-learning programme and education materials which will sit on a learning platform will represent concrete deliverables, contributing to the specific goals and targets under the 2030 Agenda as detailed above.
  • Measurable: the LMS will measure the number of participants and their success rates as well as the delivery within schools.
  • Achievable: the number of teachers and students who we aim to reach will be defined upon the launch of the programme in 2019.
  • Time-bound: from launch of the programme we will set targets for each academic year up to 2030 and report on each period of delivery.

To quote, as many do, the infamous words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world”; it is only through communicating through education and learning that we will truly understand the impact of our behaviour, the causes and the solutions. We must believe it is not too late and make every effort to stop plastic pollution from entering the oceans within the next generation.

Sylvie Verinder

Director of Education.