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The eco kids changing the world
Greta Thunberg is not alone. Nicole Mowbray meets the planet-conscious children changing the way their parents, and the rest of us, live
‘Can you hear me?’ the 16-year-old eco activist Greta Thunberg demanded of UK politicians this April. The rest of the world’s children certainly could – and, months later, the Thunberg effect is still being felt in thousands of households around Britain. From cleaning up beaches to starting green businesses, Nicole Mowbray meets the kids fighting for the future of our planet – changing their parents’ behaviour along the way. Photographs by Kitty Gale
They find it ‘embarrassing’ to be dropped at school in a Chelsea tractor, and pressure parents to ditch plastic and boycott long-haul holidays. The ‘Greta Generation’ is changing the way adults think, behave and shop because of concerns about climate change.
The moniker comes from 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, whose School Strike for Climate movement hit the big time in March this year when 1.4m children around the world took to the streets in a single day to protest against their governments’ lack of action on environmental issues. ‘We proved that it does matter what you do,’ said Thunberg, ‘and that no one is too small to make a difference.’ Last week Thunberg’s collected speeches were published in a book, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, and a family memoir is due later in the year.
It’s a message that really resounds with the young, who are being spurred into their own eco-action at home. ‘Plastic is the tobacco of our generation,’ says 11-year-old Millie Harper Bailey, from Worthing, West Sussex, who regularly ropes her parents into litter picking on her local beach. ‘We’ve all seen the pictures of birds and dolphins with tummies full of rubbish. In five years’ time, it will be as socially unacceptable to walk around with a disposable plastic bottle as it is to blow cigarette smoke in someone’s face today. I think, in future, people will feel ashamed about flying around the world for meetings.’
‘I don’t really feel angry with the older generation but this is everyone’s problem and we should all be part of the solution,’ says 11-year-old Heather Kent, from Fairford in the Cotswolds. Like Millie, Heather spends much of her spare time organising litter picks around her local area. ‘Every generation should get involved. Sometimes I see really old pieces of rubbish – crisp
packets that have been there 20 or 30 years and they haven’t biodegraded. It kills snails and other parts of the ecosystem and it makes me sad.’
‘I think it’s bad that adults still use single-use plastic for wrapping food,’ says seven-year-old Ella Turns from Salcombe in Devon. ‘We need to switch to reusables and throw less away, full stop.’
Concern about climate change is growing among all age groups, with a recent Yougov poll showing that 24 per cent of British people now see the environment as one of the big three issues facing the country. Those figures almost double for voters aged between 18 and 24, with 43 per cent putting the environment in their top three concerns. And children are influencing their parents, too. A paper published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change last month by North Carolina State University found that young people can increase their parents’ concerns about the environment because, unlike adults, their views on the issue do not generally have any political agenda.
Thomas A Becket Junior School sits at the end of a quiet residential road in Worthing. The school, flanked by the sea and the South Downs, finds that protecting the environment is one of its pupils’ most pressing concerns, says 41-year-old Michelle Mayes, the school’s eco co-ordinator and forest school leader. ‘This is a key part of our school aims, and we have an ethos of “everyone works together to make a positive contribution to the world”,’ Mayes says. The school – which has nearly 800 kids – even has a student eco committee who make decisions about recycling, saving energy and plastic usage. ‘We believe in giving our children the knowledge required about our planet, and hope that this knowledge will be passed on to their families and friends.’
‘This is everyone’s problem and we should all be part of the solution’
Julie Kent, 40, is mum to Heather, the litter picker. While Heather’s rubbish-collecting started as a solo endeavour for Lent in 2018 (‘because she couldn’t give up chocolate’), it’s an activity that the whole family has taken up, including dad Bob. It doesn’t stop there; Heather’s extended family and local community are also increasingly engaged. In April 2018 the family organised a litter pick and only eight people turned up – all members of the family. This year, however, 40 people from the local area came along. ‘We went on holiday to Somerset the week before Easter, and what would have been a normal beach stroll two years ago is now a comb for microplastics and old litter,’ says Kent. ‘Heather has changed our entire attitude. While we’re very conscious about what we buy now, we can’t afford to go completely plastic-free so we’ve made small significant changes – we don’t buy or use cling film, for instance, or food bags. We carry eco cups, we never accept straws…’
‘We recently had a family meeting about the environment because of coverage in the media,’ says Kirsty Robinson, 46, a writer who lives in Blackheath, London, with her husband and their two children, aged 14 and 11. Robinson says the kids have been instrumental in changing the family’s behaviour. ‘It’s part of their consciousness. I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to be more like my kids when it comes to being aware of eco issues, but it’s not as automatic or as ingrained for me. As a parent you do your best to instil values in your children – but with this, the knowledge is going the other way.’
There have been other changes, too. ‘We’re eating less meat in general but in particular red meat, and we no longer buy prepacked fruit or vegetables,’ adds Robinson. ‘Flights are another thing; we all still want to go on holiday, but we are considering how often we fly. The kids are really keen we swap our diesel 4x4, so we are working out whether to get a hybrid or an electric vehicle. It’s a big, long-term decision so we need to consider it carefully.’
Hannah Amos, 35, is head of business development for a communications agency and lives in Falmouth in Cornwall. Within the family, her six-year-old daughter has earned the nickname ‘Eco Evie’ because of all the environmentally friendly improvements she’s suggested for the family’s day-to-day life. ‘We’ve made changes because of what Evie has learnt at school,’ Amos explains. ‘We have milk in glass bottles instead of plastic cartons, we have bamboo toothbrushes that can be composted, and whenever we go for a walk or to the beach we do a litter pick. For her birthday, Evie asked my mother to buy her a subscription to Eco Kids Planet magazine and she wanted a 4Ocean bracelet for Christmas – when you buy one, they pledge to remove 1lb of plastic from the ocean, which helps baby turtles and sea creatures. She’s also our home’s recycling buddy, collecting it in the house, taking it out to the bin and watching eagerly from the window as the council come and take it away.’
In Salcombe, Anna and Chris Turns are parents to Ella, seven, and threeyear-old Stanley. ‘Both of the kids are really into wildlife, and they realise the animals they love are in danger. If they see [footage on TV of ] a turtle with a straw up its nose or a dolphin tangled up in fishing nets, it’s upsetting,’ says Anna. ‘They know they cannot fix the whole planet, but they’re doing their best in our own little patch.’
Their best has been pretty impressive. After getting involved with the Kids Against Plastic organisation, Ella and Anna have persuaded 68 out of 114 businesses on their high street to ditch single-use plastic bags, bottles, straws and cups with lids. Ella even goes to school in a uniform made from recycled plastic bottles by schoolwear brand David Luke. The mother-and
‘I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to be more like my kids when it comes to eco issues’
daughter duo also did a two-day tour of the creeks of the Salcombe Estuary on paddleboards, doing beach cleans. ‘I’ve been amazed at the strength of the children’s voice, they get it really quickly and grasp the solutions,’ says Turns. ‘It doesn’t seem preachy if a six-year-old asks a hotel manager to stop using plastic straws. Were I to do it, I’d probably get a different reaction.’
Kids also influence their parents’ behaviour at the checkout, says Chase Buckle, trends manager at market research company Globalwebindex. ‘As the youth climate protests and the Extinction Rebellion have demonstrated, Generation Z (aged 16-22) has a deepseated discontent about the impact of consumer behaviours on the environment,’ he explains. ‘Our data shows that almost half do not feel positive about the future of the environment, and just over half of that generation currently live with their parents. Among these eco-conscious Gen Zs, 55 per cent say they regularly inform their friends and family about new products or services, and 78 per cent say they take part in the household shopping. As such, there’s a strong chance that younger consumers with a passion for improving the environment may be impacting their parents’ shopping habits.’
Like in Lizzie Owen’s house in Marlow, Oxfordshire, where her daughters Isabella, 13, and Poppy, 10 – who recently attended the Extinction Rebellion march in London – influence what the family buy. ‘Products that use palm oil are a no-no in our house,’ says Owen, 47. ‘Isabella wants to make a video blog helping people make sustainable fashion and cosmetic choices.’
Talking of which, the Robinsons have agreed that they are going to buy better-quality clothes, ‘only if we truly love them’, and wear each new thing they buy at least 30 times. They’re also going to mend clothes and look after them so they last longer.
Some eco kids have even changed their parents’ lives. Susie Petersen is mum to Oskar, 10, and Sofie, nine, and they live together with father, Jesper, near Bromley in Kent. It was a simple school project in the summer of 2018 that effectively changed the family. After learning about the devastation wreaked on the ocean by single-use plastic, Oskar set about trying to eradicate it from his family’s life – he persuaded his sister to stop buying throwaway toys such as glitter slime, set up an eco-committee at school and lobbied the family to use a milkman with glass bottles. And his aim for the year? To persuade every pupil at his school to swap their plastic toothbrush for a biodegradable bamboo one. Not only that, he started to wonder if the family could make and sell them too.
‘Oskar tried to find a company to donate bamboo toothbrushes to the school by writing to them, but he realised it was only small companies that produced them. He asked me if we could make our own,’ says mum Susie, who by her own admission had never felt passionately about the environment before. ‘Our research showed that yes, we could manufacture them, which started a mammoth journey. Oskar did the logo: Oskeco, with a turtle in the O, which is not only the start of his name, but stands for Ocean Seas Kindness. It was a nerveracking process because we invested a bit of money in it, so we really hoped it would work – but it’s been so popular and people got behind it.’
After toothbrushes Oskeco expanded into recyclable stainless-steel water bottles and reusable straws and began selling the range online. This year they also ran stalls at some small festivals in the local area, and Oskar was invited to speak at London’s Canary Wharf as part of its #breakingtheplastichabit campaign. ‘I love David Attenborough,’ Oskar says, ‘and when I saw animals being killed by plastic, I just wondered why, if people know about this, are they still using it?’
Last year, environmental journalist Lucy Siegle wrote a book called Turning the Tide on Plastic. She says she’s noticing more kids in the audience at her talks and says that some of the most difficult questions she’s asked are now from the eight- and nine-year-olds. ‘They’ll ask, “Why don’t we just ban plastics that can’t be recycled?” which is a very good question. I find it hilarious that for years we’ve been agonising over how to engage kids in environmentalism. We’ve had years of patronising superhero-themed calls to “be a hero for your planet”. I think in the current context, after straight-talking Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion, some of those old ecokids’ materials look pretty cringeworthy. It turns out the kids were more like sleeping assassins, preparing to kick through and cut to the chase. Many are pretty furious that adults have wasted so much time on pivotal issues like climate and species loss. They are rightly outraged.’
What they’re not, however, is hopeless. ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m not making a difference, but then I remember that Mum, Dad and I cleared 300 plastic bottles from a ditch near where we walk our dog,’ says Heather Kent. ‘On holiday, some days I picked up two bags of plastic on the beach. It’s hard to stop as there is so much to do. If animals could speak they would tell us about the problem, but as they can’t. We have to do the talking for them.’
‘I’ve been amazed at the strength of the children’s voice – they get it really quickly and grasp the solutions’