Styrofoam & Polystyrene

Those of us who work in education, or in any way associated with children, are duty-bound to ‘walk our talk’ and set the best possible example we can. It is for this reason that I have expressed in earlier blog posts my unhappiness that schools waited for the intervention of the Supreme Court before removing ‘junk food’ from the menus in schools.

Another area where schools have to make massive leaps forward in their practices, in order to match the rhetoric of their teaching is in relation to environmental practices. Children today are not foolish or easily taken in. They are increasingly exposed to school curriculum within which they learn about perils of climate change caused by man-made factors and the benefits of reusing and recycling. They are encouraged to take personal responsibility for things like reducing water wastage, switching off lights and sometimes planting trees. However, at the same time, they see evidence every day that in the actual practices of the schools in which they study the environmental factors of the school practices are not given utmost priority.

Sometimes there’s a need for a firm hand and strict policies that encourage people to expend effort in finding new innovative ways to do what they do. I was therefore impressed to see this article from New York about how the Mayor intends to outlaw Styrofoam from that city; NBC News – New York Mayor

In my view, while he’s at it, he should also target polystyrene where the non biodegradable character is, as far as I’m aware, just as bad.

Whilst the article talks in some detail about the anger and sense of persecution of the fast food industry, the first thing I’m pretty certain of is that this enforced change will lead to positive innovation. I’m old enough to remember when a Big Mac or a Burger King Whopper came in a Styrofoam box. Those are long gone, but the burgers keep coming and lost nothing as a result.

Also, there’s another place that will have to adjust to the elimination of Styrofoam and polystyrene and that’s schools. No more use of these un-environmentally friendly products to adorn school noticeboards, to form the backdrop for children’s projects or 3-D models of their school. It will take a little adjustment, but has to be the right thing to do. What’s more, when these products are eliminated from school it will get that bit easier to look children in the eye honestly when we’re talking about them playing their part for a greener environment and for ways forward in the future that don’t perpetuate the negative ways of the past.


6 Responses

  1. Was an interesting read. Just to clarify…..Styrofoam and Polystyrene are really one material…Styrofoam is the trade-name of a range of products made of polystyrene foam by The Dow Chemical Company.

    • I have to admit, I’d always wondered on that – thanks for the clarification.

      • Only some people are aware that the greatest danger of using Styrofoam/polystyrene/Thermacol is not just its non-biodegradable nature but rather is its carcinogenicity. Styrene (the monomeric form of Polystyrene) is a known human carcinogen and long-term exposure to it is suspected to trigger a range of cancers, including Leukemia and Lymphoma. Styrene is believed to be released from polystyrene when it comes in contact with even slightly acidic foods and beverages. And burning it in order to dispose it of only aggravates the problem…we poison the air with carcinogens. I have been advocating a total ban of this material in my school but it seems not to be taken seriously till date.

      • Rajesh, you make an excellent point there. It may well be that the answer here is not necessarily individual educators trying to bring about change in each of their own schools, but marshaling the evidence so that a mass movement insists on change across all schools.

        If school management and teachers aren’t changing things, pressure from students and parents armed with effective knowledge would surely make a big difference.

  2. Mark,

    You have touched a raw nerve there. I have been uneasy with much of the things that happen around us…the yawning gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘havenots’, gender insensitivity, the patriarchal mindset in most of India, the almost criminal lack of civic sense. I became a teacher with a deep sense of concern for the larger issues with life and have made a mark along with kids in the area of community service…but the larger question remains…when does a teacher stop being one and starts becoming an ‘activist’? Can a teacher be an activist? Is he doing justice to his chosen ‘profession’? Is teaching about a ‘career’ or an impassioned cry for a just, compassionate world? Is ‘taking sides’ on a debate missing the point of it all?

    My friends have a familiar refrain whenever I try to raise the really important issues of life….”stop being a jholawala and be pragmatic”.

    A teacher then, ipso facto, has no right to advocacy and has to, some day, fit in to the confines of teaching a subject?

    Thank you Mark…your thoughts in you blog gives me hope that all is not lost. Dare I say…you have become my ‘conscience keeper’ Mark?

    • Hi Rajesh,

      I think, to me, there are two kinds of ‘activism’ – one of which is perfectly acceptable territory for a teacher and the other being dangerous ground.

      In the latter case, I would include taking children to take part in protests at such places as Jantar Mantar that have the potential to become manipulated as inherently political. To me, this risks having the children drawn in to often cynical political matters. However, leading students to join in with a ‘clean up Yamuna’ exercise or a river yatra where they research the implications and impacts of pollution are not inappropriate.

      There is probably a case at times as to how much we, as educators, should drive an agenda, or how much we should simply support and facilitate an agenda driven by the children. Personally, my feeling is that if you make information available to children, listen to their views and opinions and give them the right to have a voice about the kind of world they want to grow up in, then some degree of ‘activism’ is an inevitability.

      Having opened the children’s eyes we can hardly wash our hands and tell them to look for their guidance elsewhere for what to do about the anger and frustration they are likely to feel. I believe good educators ask awkward questions, enable children to find their own answers to those questions and help them explore possibilities for what they do about the things they discover.

      To do nothing and feign ignorance isn’t an option for some of us!!

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