It all started with the children, in 2017. They became very concerned about the environmental impact of single-use plastic and decided to act. I contacted Litter Free Coast and Sea and Litter Free Dorset, who helped us launch Refill Poundbury, a scheme to encourage the public to refill reusable water bottles at businesses displaying a sticker. When the children signed up 23 businesses in one afternoon, I realised we had the pupil power to become a pioneering eco school.
I put together a group of class reps to take the lead on environmental issues, following guidance from the Eco-Schools programme. The Damers First Eco Crew worked hard to reduce single-use plastic in school and to help Dorchester achieve Plastic Free Community status. Things snowballed and today we are an award-winning Ambassador Eco-School, with a high profile nationally and internationally. The crew have appeared on CBBC Newsround and BBC Radio Solent to explain Refill Dorchester, which now has 40 local businesses displaying the refill bottle sticker. The Prince of Wales and our local MP, Oliver Letwin, have visited to see our eco work in action, while Eco-Schools has sent our ‘Refill Rap’ to 55,000 schools across the globe. Three pupils received Green Blue Peter badges for writing poems about plastic pollution and dedicating their weekends to cleaning up beaches. In December, we were named Eco-Schools Primary School of the Year.
It has been inspiring to see how much our pupils have achieved. But none of this happened overnight. Seven years ago, our pupils knew little about the environment. Our old school site had no garden and limited outside learning spaces. When I arrived, I began to construct gardens and environmental learning areas. One project involved Year 3 children and community volunteers reusing plastic bottles to construct a greenhouse. Children planted seeds here before they were transferred to our raised beds, and in a way it sowed the seeds of later campaigns.
In 2017, the school moved to a new site with planned garden space. The campaign to reduce plastic started with the eco crew organising a litter pick and making an audit of single-use plastic in school. Every pupil made a pledge about what plastic they would remove and what alternatives they could use, for example reusable food containers, having a waste-free lunch, refusing plastic straws, and using stainless steel or wooden cutlery.
The children asked Damers PTA for its support, particularly in ensuring that school events were plastic-free. They wrote to suppliers asking if products could come to school free of single-use plastics.
One business agreed to send fruit in cardboard boxes, and another delivered milk in glass bottles with reusable beakers. The children also asked the school, parents and staff to give up three single-use plastics in their home and at school.
We thought about alternatives too, and came up with our own Waxtastic No Plastic, a homemade eco food wrap. The community donates cotton, the PTA members cut it to size and the children dip it into donated Dorset beeswax. Selling this product has raised more than £4,500 to fund the creation of a school pond. At the pupils’ request, we also introduced Damers First stainless steel water bottles, which sell well across the community.
The result is that nearly all single-use plastics have been eliminated at Damers. We have won four awards for ‘Best School Product’ in the Young Enterprise Fiver Challenge for Waxtastic No Plastic. We were also awarded ‘Outstanding Group of the Year’ at the Jane Goodall Roots & Shoots awards.
Last year, the eco crew went to Westminster to question the then environment minister Michael Gove on his plans for tackling litter. They presented him with their ‘golden rules’ for the deposit recycle scheme, suggesting that every bottle and can should be included. Having achieved Surfers Against Sewage Plastic Free School status in May 2018, we were recently crowned SAS’s National Champion. The judges, who included Ben Fogle and Turning the Tide on Plastic author, Lucy Siegle, were amazed by the work we have done to reduce plastic in school, locally and across the UK.
Damers First has also signed up with TerraCycle, which partners with individual collectors to combat waste by recycling the ‘non-recyclable’. We’re now a community collection point for a whole range of recycling, including biscuit wrappers, sweet bags, crisp packets, batteries, water filters, pens, beauty product containers, ink cartridges and printer toners. Our local Waitrose and post office collect on our behalf and the WI volunteers help sort and send off the recycling. We earn about £750 a year this way. The money goes into our eco work and outside space – we recently created a bird hide.
Eco is now embedded into everything we do, both within and beyond the curriculum, which fits with Ofsted’s desire to see more environmental work in schools. I’m inundated by requests from schools and businesses to help them reduce plastics. Most importantly, every child at Damers understands that their actions can make a difference to the quality of the environment for everyone.