Hundreds of thousands of children across the world took to the streets in March to demand that governments move faster to protect the environment. The unprecedented "youthquake" seemed to signal a new era and world leaders sat up and paid attention.
Now, UN Environment and the British government have teamed up to harness this youthful activism by working with Scouts, Girl Guides, university students and the Junior Achievement movements in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana, with India and Mauritius to be the next countries to come on board. The aim is to encourage children, teens and young adults to earn a Plastic Tide Turners Challenge Badge and lay the foundations for a new way of dealing with our addiction to plastic.
With initial funding from Britain's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, youth leaders have already been trained and are ready to spread the learning and start awarding badges. An extensive toolkit has been produced to guide the youth organizations and inspire the citizens of the future to take practical steps to reduce plastic use.
"The energy from youth movements around this issue is huge and the combined reach of Scouts, Guides and university students is well over 2 million young people across Kenya. We have to work with the next generation now," said Bryan Michuki, education and youth communications assistant at UN Environment in Nairobi, who has been carrying out the training.
"I've never seen so much passion when it comes to plastic pollution and marine litter as I've seen in the last few weeks, especially in Kenya," he said. "In every country where we've done training, we get one speaker who says, 'Enough! Our parents have messed up the environment, it's our turn. We need to act right now'. So there is a sense of urgency. The youth are frustrated, angry and upset about environmental pollution."
The project aims to channel this anger into constructive action through the Plastic Tide Turners Challenge Badge, which mirrors traditional achievement badges.
"Everyone deserves a clean and decent environment to live in, to admire the beautiful nature," said Pankaj Varsani, a student from Strathmore University in Nairobi who took part in the Challenge Badge training. "But what are we doing? Polluting it. By teaching the youth to make a difference today, together we can make a change for the future."
The badges have three levels: entry level, leader level and champion level. At entry level, young people are asked to think about how they can reduce plastic in their daily lives and get others to do the same. Once completed, they can move onto leader level, which involves checking the plastic footprint of schools, developing a poster campaign, or organizing an assembly or lesson on the issue.
The final champion level involves extending advocacy efforts to the community, region or even to a national level. Young people are asked to create a plastic collection scheme, or raise concerns about waste management with local authorities. They could also ask shops and companies to reconsider their plastic use or try to persuade a local politician to get on board with the campaign by sorting out one specific plastic-use issue.
"The Challenge Badge has made me live by the 3Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle," said Yussif Kamara, a Scout from Accra in Ghana, who also participated in the training.
Young people are also encouraged to take UN Environment's Clean Seas pledge and join the largest global alliance against marine litter. Sixty countries have already signed up to the initiative, covering 60 per cent of the world's coastlines.
However, talk can be cheap and so the main focus of the Challenge Badge is practical action. The aim is to bring about lasting change, says Ivy Wanjeri, a project officer for Junior Achievement Kenya, a non-profit organization that aims to inspire and prepare young people to succeed in a global economy.
Junior Achievement is offering the new Challenge Badge in over 300 schools in Kenya and Wanjeri says youths are already dreaming up innovative ways to tackle plastic pollution. The hope is that their ideas could result in projects and business models that create employment opportunities.
"One of the things we are incentivizing our young people to do is to begin to build a green economy and understand that they can contribute to what is happening. Beyond just talking about (the problem), let's create solutions that are sustainable and that create economic incentives for our young people and the communities where they live," Wanjeri said, speaking on the sidelines of the UN Environment Assembly in Kenya where the toolkit was presented.
Michuki agrees that the goal is systemic change.
"This badge is not just sensitizing youth on plastic pollution. It's much bigger than that. We hope it can contribute to creating green collar jobs," he said.
The initial countries participating in the new Challenge Badge were chosen because they are all part of the Commonwealth with strong scouting and guiding traditions. The aim is to spread the programme over the coming months to Mauritius and India, where the government has pledged to eliminate single-use plastics by 2022.
Wanjeri says Kenyan youth are increasingly aware of the dangers of plastic pollution and more broadly of climate change, given cyclical droughts in northern regions, recent forest fires on iconic Mount Kenya, widespread deforestation and perennial floods, exacerbated in some areas by plastic waste blocking city drainage systems.
"It's now beyond awareness and instead we are coming to the realization that this is actually happening... We can feel the impact of the things we have been doing to degrade our environment," she said.
The Challenge Badge programme was initially announced during British Prime Minister Theresa May's visit to Kenya in August, 2018. The British government is also supporting an exchange programme to connect Scouts and Guides in the United Kingdom with their counterparts in Kenya and elsewhere. The Tide Turners badge is also available to young people in Britain.
Although no badges have yet been awarded, change is already happening. Michuki said one of the groups that he trained in Uganda was inspired to approach Coca-Cola after the session.
"Just days after the training, we heard that the youth had already collected plastic bottles to make furniture out of the recycled bottles. They then went to Coca-Cola and they are in talks right now to see if they can do something together," he said.
"The whole idea of this badge is not only to sensitize young people about single-use plastics. It's scaled up to the producers and manufacturers at the Champion Level. It's up to you and your friends to change the system."
For more information about the Plastic Tide Turners Challenge contact us at unenvironme[email protected].
About UN Environment
UN Environment is the leading global voice on the environment. It provides leadership and encourages partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations. UN Environment works with governments, the private sector, the civil society and with other UN entities and international organizations across the world. It recently launched its new Youth and Education Alliance, which is working with over 800 universities and youth partners, such as the Scout Movement and the Girl Guides, to build environmental awareness and actions into their youth programmes.
About Clean Seas
Launched in February 2017, the Clean Seas campaign urges governments to pass plastic reduction policies; encourages industry to minimize plastic packaging and redesign products; and calls on consumers to change their throwaway habits before irreversible damage is done to our seas.