Climate justice for the next generation
Climate justice for the next generation

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Climate justice for the next generation

5 Plastic childhoods

While climate change – its impact on the earth’s temperature and the subsequent consequences of that – has been the focus of protests by young activists such as Greta Thunberg, other young people have focused their protests and campaigns on other forms of environmental damage.

An obvious example of environmental damage is the use of single-use plastics by richer countries of the world. Images of marine life swallowing and choking on plastics have been hugely influential and have come to symbolise the damage done to the ocean environment by human carelessness and poor stewardship of the natural world. These have drawn significant responses from young people. In India, for example, 14-year-old student Aditya Mukarji launched a campaign against plastic straws after seeing a video of two vets trying to remove a plastic straw from a turtle’s nose. Since 2018 when he first started to campaign, Aditya has helped replace more than 500,000 plastic straws in restaurants and hotels.

In the next activity you will explore the impact of plastics on children’s lives in more detail.

Described image
Figure 11 Young environmental activists are also campaigning to reduce the use of single-use plastics.

Activity 8

Timing: Allow 15 minutes

Earlier in this course you heard Peter Kraftl talk about children and young people’s environmental activism. In the audio that follows you will hear him talk about the research he carried out between 2018 and 2020 as a Leverhulme Research Fellowship on a project called ‘Plastic childhoods’.

This phrase ‘plastic childhoods’ immediately conjures up images of damage and waste but in his research Kraftl focuses on the wider, and more nuanced, impacts of plastics on children’s lives. He focuses on the different ways in which plastics appear, travel through and disappear in children's lives, and also considers the ways in which plastics evade human control and how they appear in the environment at many different scales from the global right down to the microscopic and the nanoscopic.

In his research, Kraftl argues that while children often express hostility towards plastic waste and want to see an end to it, they also acknowledge plastics can be useful and necessary and it is too simplistic to ban all plastics from children’s lives. He emphasises the importance of listening to children’s views and allowing them to develop their own ideas about how they wish to use plastics

Listen to the audio then answer the question that follows.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: audio_2_plastic_childhoods.mp3
Skip transcript


Hello, I'm here today with Peter Kraftl from the University of Birmingham. And in particular, we're going to talk about what sounds like an absolutely fascinating project that Peter's involved in at the moment or leading on at the moment called Plastic Childhoods. Peter, could you start just by telling us what the phrase "plastic childhoods" means?
I'd been wanting, for some years, to put together a project about children and plastics and to do so in a way that wasn't necessarily just focusing on the negative. So it was also focusing on, for instance, the ways in which for some children, some plastics are vital parts of their lives, even though childhoods are often seen as quite artificial and plastic, especially in the Western world. So I was interested, for instance, are there toys that children think are really actually very, really quite crucial to their identities or are there prosthetic limbs or their use in glasses or hearing aids or other things that we, in our modern world, couldn't do without.
And I know the project isn't finished yet, but can you tell me something about your findings so far on it?
Yes, I think it's probably helpful first just to talk a little bit about the methods that I've used in the project and then to say something about the findings. So the project is split into two. The first is a social media analysis, where we looked at Twitter and eBay. And in both cases, we used an API, which is a programming interface, which enabled us to harvest hundreds of thousands, if not millions of tweets.
And then secondly, there was a programme of work in a local school in Birmingham, which involved a number of workshops. Those were interactive workshops which were partly about learning around issues related to plastics, but also enabled us to undertake a novel programme of testing, of bio sampling, whereby we tested children, young people, both for the presence of plastics and other materials in their breath and urine and worked with them to train them to take soil and tap water samples to look at the content of those samples.
In the latter, we fortunately didn't find any plastics in children's breath and urine. Had we done so that would have indicated a problem particularly with their kidneys. So that was a relief. But we did find plastics in some of the soil and also in the water. And those are mainly what we call macro plastics, visible plastics, and that really kind of conforms with what we already know about the presence of plastics in tap water and elsewhere. But just as interestingly, I was interested in the entanglement of plastics and other materials. So, for instance, we found levels of titanium and aluminium and other elements and metals, not necessarily at dangerous levels, but certainly indicating that they've been produced either by industry, by local industries, including power generation and brick works. But also these are materials that are present in the microscopic or nanoscopic form in suncream, in a range of clothing, and other places, and in products directly targeted at children and young people.
And have you been able to ask children and young people, themselves, about the impacts of plastics on their lives?
Yes. So the workshops enabled us to do that as well as interviews that we did after we use the app with the young people. I think the first thing to say is that the people who took part opted in to the research at the school that they were attending. And surprisingly, for that reason, were acutely aware of many issues around plastics. And it's in some cases, far more knowledgeable than we were about both the effects of plastics and the material properties of different kinds of plastics. But we actually spent a long time sort of talking through those and talking through their perceptions of those plastics. And interestingly, given the aims of the project, they were generally very anti-plastics. So some of what we did was actually asking them to critically consider some of their preconceived opinions about plastics and their usefulness.
And one of the fun ways we did that was to create what we called a plastic totem poles where we worked with some local artists who had sourced all kinds of plastic stuff from skips and secondhand stores and so on and actually made some totem poles and got the children to think in a different way about how they related to plastics, their use value, their aesthetics, and so on. The other thing that we did after the app was to create a kind of map and then put out some photographs that the children had taken through the mobile phone app. And we ask them to talk in a lot more detail about their use of certain plastics, whether it's packaging, whether it was plastics that they'd used in making slime or in other toys, or whether it was the kind of plastics they just relied on or came across in their everyday environments. So we've got a wealth of really detailed information both about how they were using plastics and where they use those plastics.
End transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Which of the following statements is not true?


Plastics can be used both negatively and positively in children’s lives


The project used many different methods, including biological sampling and social media


Plastics pose no risk to children


Plastics, and their impacts on the environment, are a source of concern to many children.

The correct answer is c.

While many of us might have a rather simplistic reaction to the idea of plastic childhoods – and think about the large amount of plastic waste we accumulated as children or our children accumulate – Kraftl’s work goes beyond this. He looks at the ways ‘micro’ plastics enter children’s bodies as well as how the ‘macro’ plastic waste in the ocean affects children. His work draws on human geography, anthropology and sociology, and also on children’s own views and ideas and the ways they differentiate between good and bad plastic.


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