I thank the convener and the committee for inviting me here today to give evidence on my petition.
The environment is the most precious thing that we have. It is what supports us and gives us the ability to live, but it is under direct threat from us. My petition seeks to address the two simplest things that we can do to help protect the environment: educate the next generation on the environment and ban all single-use plastic bags. I will address separately the two things that my petition calls for.
The first part of my petition calls on the Scottish Government to make teaching about sustainability and the environment mandatory in secondary schools. Currently, it is not a required part of the curriculum to teach about the environment and sustainability. The decision on what to teach about that topic is left in the hands of local authorities and schools but, in my opinion, that must change, as many schoolchildren go without teaching in this area as a result.
Making the teaching of sustainability and the environment mandatory will help Scotland guarantee an overlooked right of children. Article 29(1)(e) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that education should include
“The development of respect for the natural environment.”
That means that all children should receive teaching on how to care for and protect the environment, which is an issue that is overlooked in many countries, including Scotland.
The word “environment” and words to that effect appear only in social outcomes SOC 4-08a, SOC 4-09a and SOC 4-10a in the experiences and outcomes for the social studies section of curriculum for excellence. For example, SOC 4-08a states:
“I can discuss the sustainability of key natural resources and analyse the possible implications for human activity.”
That experience and outcome is non-specific and is often taught as, “How can we keep using oil for as long as possible?”, which is the complete opposite of what we must do to protect the environment. SOC 4-10a states:
“I can develop my understanding of the interaction between humans and the environment by describing and assessing the impact of human activity on an area.”
That is also non-specific, but it could mean teaching children how they can help stop climate change. However, in my school we decided to study the trans-Alaskan pipeline instead, which is something that we in Scotland cannot change.
We should be teaching children things that they can do on a day-to-day basis to protect the environment. We should be teaching them about things such as walking instead of taking a car, and maintaining good gardens to promote plant and wildlife diversity. They could be taught in relevant subjects such as geography or personal and social education. I believe that they should be taught as part of the broad general education at around the fourth level to ensure that the children are mature enough to understand the issues being taught.
The second part of my petition calls on the Scottish Government to ban all disposable plastic bags in supermarkets and shops. Plastic bags will take around 400 to 1,000 years to degrade and they are produced and used globally at a rate of 500 billion to 1 trillion a year. They are already banned in many countries throughout the developed world, such as Germany and Australia. As recently as 30 September, California joined a line of states in the United States that have banned plastic bags. They are even banned in some of the poorest developing nations in the world, such as Somalia, Botswana and Uganda—countries that have to deal with famine, drought and disease took the time to ban plastic bags.
It is no wonder that countries have banned plastic bags, given their environmental impact. Worldwide, discarded plastic bags kill nearly 100,000 turtles and other species of marine wildlife every year because they are mistaken for food. Their effect is worse when they begin to break down, because that releases their toxins into the soil, and parts that tear off in the wind are swallowed by wildlife ranging from birds to hedgehogs. The use of plastic bags affects not only Scotland but everywhere because, thanks to the wind, plastic bags end up all over the planet. That fact is no more visible than in what is called the great Pacific garbage patch, where rubbish, much of it plastic bags, has ended up in an area that covers about 700,000km2, which is the size of Texas.
The Scottish Government has attempted to take action on plastic bags, but its action does not go far enough. The 5p mandatory charge on carrier bags was a step in the right direction, but it is by no means the final step. Recent data shows that supermarkets have seen a reduction in plastic bag use of around 80 to 90 per cent since the legislation on carrier bags came into effect. If nine tenths of the population can ditch their plastic bags in a matter of weeks, why can the rest not?
When I started this petition three months ago after a nudge from one of my subjects at school, I never thought that it would get this far or get as much support as it has. From conversations that I have had with teachers, friends and families I have heard one consistent message, which is that there is an appetite to protect the environment and for Scotland to set an example to the rest of the world by doing so. I believe that the two points that are outlined in my petition can set us on that path to protecting the environment.