With the UK producing around five million tonnes of plastic waste every year, it is time for all of us to consider how we can improve our environmental sustainability. The Government has now urged all schools to eliminate single-use plastics by 2022 and early years providers will inevitably have to follow in their footsteps. Elizabeth Walker looks at the practical changes nurseries can make to reduce their use of plastic and how they can teach the next generation about their role in looking after the environment.

Use of plastics in the early years sector

Unfortunately, the early years sector contributes greatly to the production of plastic waste due to the use of nappies, baby wipes, plastic gloves, aprons, craft materials, toys and so it goes on. Nurseries need to reflect on their current practice and consider areas where they can improve or switch to sustainable alternatives.

Food and mealtimes

In today’s throwaway culture, half of plastic is used only once and this includes vast quantities of plastic bottles, coffee cups and food packaging.

There are many ways nurseries can reduce the plastic waste generated from food and drinks. Early years providers should:

  • consider how food and drink is packaged and choose loose fruit and vegetables where possible or try growing their own as an activity with the children

  • avoid carton milk or juice drinks as often these are non-recyclable cartons with plastic straws attached in plastic wrappers. Nurseries could look into options for buying milk in glass bottles

  • avoid single-use plastic cutlery, plates and bowls

  • swap plastic straws for paper or metal straws

  • use alternatives to cling film such as beeswax wrap

  • use fabric, paper or bags for life instead of plastic ones for shopping

  • avoid single-use plastic water bottles as less than 50% of these are recycled, and encourage staff and children to bring in reusable or metal water bottles

  • encourage staff to use reusable coffee cups.

Nappy changing and personal care

Early years providers contribute to the eight million disposable nappies that are thrown away in the UK every day which can take 200–500 years to naturally decompose due to the plastics they contain. However, nurseries should be supportive of parents' choice of nappies but should make it clear that staff are happy to use cloth or reusable nappies in the provision as requested.

As well as the nappies themselves, baby changing can involve many other single-use plastics such as baby wipes, nappy bags, disposable plastic gloves and aprons. Most wet wipes are made with plastic resins which will never fully biodegrade and recent data has revealed a 94% increase in wet wipes being washed up on UK beaches. Although early years providers need to maintain hygiene and infection control measures, they could consider making the following changes to their intimate/personal care practices.

  • Use cotton wool or cloths instead of wipes during nappy changes.

  • Use biodegradable nappy bags.

  • Use flannels or washable cloths to wipe hands and faces instead of disposable wipes.

  • Use fabric aprons.

  • Swap hand wash in plastic containers for bars of soap.

  • Swap plastic toothbrushes for bamboo ones.

Activities and toys

Some arts and crafts activities involve plastics without us even realising. For instance, the majority of glitters are made from non-degradable microplastics which can be dangerous to the environment and harm ecosystems, particularly when they enter seas and other waterways. According to a recent survey, nearly a quarter of nurseries want to ban glitter following concerns over its environmental impact. Confetti, sequins and balloons should also be avoided or early years providers can source other biodegradable options on the market.

Nurseries should consider using fabric aprons or shirts instead of plastic ones for messy arts and crafts and cooking activities. When choosing or replacing toys, furniture and outdoor equipment, staff should consider opting for products made from sustainable materials such as wood.

Educating children

Now that plastic pollution is recognised as one of our largest environmental threats, it is vital that we teach children about living sustainably and reducing waste. Early years providers are well placed to raise children’s environmental awareness at an early age which will help them to develop their own sense of responsibility as they grow older.

Nurseries can teach children about the three Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle — using fun activities that will engage them such as stories, songs and craft.


Staff should help children to understand the importance of not producing unnecessary waste and set a good example by avoiding single-use plastics themselves.


Children can make use of scrap paper and suitable packaging for use as craft materials and junk modelling activities.


Involve the children in an easy-to-follow recycling plan with clearly labelled boxes for different items, or use pictures on each box for younger children.

Eco-Schools is an international award programme that provides a framework for schools and nurseries to embed environmentally sustainable policies and principles into their day-to-day running, teaching and child development activities. Nurseries and schools can work towards attaining “Bronze”, “Silver” and finally “Green Flag” status.

Best practice and action points

Early years providers should:

  • review current practice and identify any sustainable alternatives or areas for improvement

  • develop an environmental action plan including the nursery’s policy on recycling and single-use plastics. Share this with staff and parents

  • manage recyclable waste efficiently ensuring that any unavoidable plastic waste is separated for collection

  • be environmentally conscious in their purchasing of food, drink, resources, etc

  • ensure staff are acting as positive role models for the children

  • link the nursery’s environmental practice into the curriculum and activities

  • teach children about the environment through outdoor learning

  • involve parents and children in discussions about recycling and environmental issues in their homes and communities

  • share or promote the nursery’s commitment to eco-friendly practice — this can be an important consideration for many prospective parents

  • monitor and evaluate any changes made and set targets for maintaining future sustainable practice.

Further information

Last reviewed 13 May 2019