On Tuesday 5 June, it’s ‘World Environment Day’ – the United Nations’ most important day for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of the planet.
This year’s theme is ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ and focuses on how we can reduce plastic waste. This article explains where plastic comes from, how its production and use damages the environment, and what we can all do about it. This is an ideal explanation text for children to read for World Environment Day, and can be used to inspire questions and discussions in the classroom and at home.
Where does plastic comes from?
Plastic is made from oil, which is a type of fossil fuel, like coal and gas. Most of the fossil fuel we use today comes from petroleum, which occurs naturally underground, and is better known as crude oil.
Crude oil was made over millions of years from the remains of tiny plants and animals, called plankton, living in the sea. If the seabed is not disturbed, plankton will slowly transform into oil over about 150 million years. So the plankton that lived at the time of the dinosaurs became the crude oil we use today.
Oil is a really popular fuel because it’s more energy-rich than coal, easier to transport and has lots of different uses. It powers vehicles and we use it for packaging, pesticides, clothing fabrics, electronics in our laptops and smartphones, and for loads of other everyday objects.
Millions of barrels of oil are transported around the globe every day via a huge network of pipelines, fleets of ships called oil tankers, and thousands of specialist trains. Great care is taken because oil is extremely flammable and can cause enormous fires and explosions. It can also cause devastating spills, harming animals and the environment.
Question: How many products made from plastic can you name?
The worst oil spill in history occurred in Kuwait on 19 January 1991 during the Gulf war. Iraqi forces opened oil valves to slow the advance of American troops, releasing 330 million gallons into the sea, covering more than 4,000 square km with a four-inch-thick oil slick.
The second worst spill happened in the Gulf of Mexico on 22 April 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, releasing an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the ocean, covering 572 miles of shoreline in slick oil and killing thousands of birds and marine creatures.
Plastic, oil and global warming
Fossil fuels have been the engine of modern human history. They sparked the age of the machine and the Industrial Revolution. They spurred us on to create the steam engine and the internal combustion engine. Without them the modern world would look very different. But burning fossil fuels causes pollution and harms nature. And the biggest problem of all is global warming. Our planet is warming up, faster than at any time in Earth’s history, and it’s due to too much carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.
We’ve known since the 19th century that increased levels of carbon dioxide in the air raise the temperature on Earth. Burning fossil fuels means increased carbon dioxide levels. As temperatures rise, the ice caps start to melt, causing higher sea levels, flooding and loss of habitat for animals.
Global warming is making extreme weather events happen more often. There are more heavy rain downpours which cause flooding. There are also longer dry periods between the rainfalls, which, combined with higher temperatures, leads to drought.
The more we rely on fossil fuels, the more pollution we create. Oil spills happen when we transport crude oil around the world. Smog, soot and toxic air emissions are the result of burning coal. And acid rain happens when polluted air combines with water.
How can we stop global warming?
Reduce, reuse and recycle! Recycling paper uses 65% less energy than making paper from raw materials. This means less fuel is required, so we could slow down manufacturing to a lower level.
To help reduce the negative effects of burning fossil fuels, we need to balance each source (things that add carbon to the air) with a sink (things that remove carbon from the air), for example by planting more trees. Research into this is vital as we haven’t yet found the answer.
Burning carbon is a huge world problem because it changes our climate. Renewable energy is the power of the future and we need to use energy sources from natural elements instead: geothermal (from the Earth), wind (from air), solar (from the Sun) and tidal (from water).
Let’s all use less plastic!
Join World Environment Day and say no to single-use plastic. Swap a plastic water bottle you might buy in a supermarket for one that’s reusable and built to last. Instead of buying carrier bags that’ll probably end up being thrown away, get yourself a strong, reusable shopping bag that looks good and won’t break.
Remember, if you can’t or won’t use the product again, choose one that you can.
Most of this extract has been taken from Lonely Planet Kids’ The Big Earth Book. To find our teacher resource pack created specially for this book, head to lonelyplanetkids.com/activities. It’ll get kids thinking like real-life scientists and comes with a lesson plan to support KS2 teachers.
With thanks to Lonely Planet for this brilliant environmental blog. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.