3.1. School Environmental Policies and Code of Conduct
Significant differences (χ2
= 16.005, p
= 0.001) in primary and secondary school educator responses on environmental policy, code of conduct and banned plastics between schools were observed, with secondary schools having the most disagreements on plastic code of conduct and bans, and enforcing fewer policies and bans (Figure 2
a and Figure 3
a,b). Punishments were imposed on pupils who failed to adhere to the code in only one school. Even though most of the educators highlighted that schools had a no littering code of conduct, a visual assessment of the school premises showed that most schools maintained a clean environment (Figure 3
a,b), with the exception of primary school B (Figure 3
and Figure 4
“Secondary School B, Deputy-principal: Yes, learners are not allowed to throw rubbish everywhere because we have rubbish bins in front of every class. On Wednesdays, rubbish from the bins must be collected. There are dire consequences if a learner is found littering in school grounds.”
Schools have introduced plastic bins and instruct learners to use the bins for litter, thereby reducing the amount of plastics and other materials from being dumped into the immediate natural environment. However, both primary and secondary school educators highlighted that it was difficult to ban plastics from entering the school premises as most of the food items are sold packaged in plastics. Similarly, Adane and Muleta [35
] and O’Brien and Thondhlana [19
] highlighted widespread use, easy availability, and lack of alternatives as key drivers for continued plastic use. Therefore, both studies and the current indicated that there is motivation for promoting pro-environmental behavior, however the learners’ demographic background makes it challenging as there are few single-use plastic alternatives. Indeed, one primary school teacher highlighted that most learners are from poor backgrounds and generally use plastic containers and bags to store or carry their stationery, making it difficult to ban non-reusable plastic within the school premises. O’Brien and Thondhlana [19
] further highlighted that respondents used purchased plastic bags for other purposes similar to the current study. Thus, these learners are in fact promoting the re-use of plastic bags, but this comes at a cost for the environment as many are not durable, have a high turnover and can be easily discarded in the natural environment. As such, the promotion of alternatives for plastic and introducing subsidies could result in low or diminished use of plastic, yet most alternatives also come at a cost for the natural environment [19
Secondary school B had posters to educate pupils on the need to protect the environment (Figure 3
c,d). Hay and Thomas [40
] highlighted that posters make sense as a means of communicating scientific investigation results quickly and effectively and also as an important teaching and learning aid. Pursitasari et al. [41
] observed that students’ responses improved when provided with a strong validation through content, presentation, and language via books and posters, which also assisted educators in the learning process, and improved students’ critical thinking skills on environmental pollutions.
“Secondary, School B, Senior Teacher A: Yes, do not litter, there are also posters that encourage learners not to throw litter around and trees should be protected as they create a healthy and clean air environment.”
All secondary school educators highlighted that there were no banned plastic materials within the school premises, whereas 64% of primary school educators suggested that there were items banned. The observed results might have an impact on the schools and surrounding areas, including the general environmental policy at national and international levels.
“Primary School A, Teacher C: Yes, learners are reminded to pick any plastics and other materials and throw them in the dustbins.”
Most of the teachers were not knowledgeable, proactive and aware of the dangers of plastic pollution, and were not able to educate learners and take action against improper use, purchase and plastic disposal in the natural environment. However, it has been argued that being in positions of authority or being educated does not promote pro-environmental behavior [42
]. Similarly, Kowalski [43
] highlighted that some educators were not knowledgeable to plastic pollution prior to training or attending a plastic workshop. In primary school B, there was also a lack of understanding the potential dangers posed by plastics to the environment and also the burning of plastics by the educators.
“Primary School B, Senior Teacher A: Yes, keep the environment safe by not littering in the school grounds. For instance, burning of plastics and other materials is done after school hours when learners are not present to protect them from inhaling smoke as it will pose a health threat to them.”
Integration of plastic pollution issues in the school curriculum could enable teachers to discuss innovative ideas with learners so that they can mitigate the problems associated with plastic pollution in the wider environment. Several studies [44
] are already advocating for greater education, outreach and awareness within schools as a way of protecting the environment and various practices may be fostered that lead to different perceptions of environmental protection. Thus, the learners would also be able to disseminate their knowledge gained with wider communities. Kolwaski [43
] highlighted that students and educators generally had an improved understanding of plastic-related issues after training, which resulted in changes in behavior and attitudes.
3.2. Education and Awareness
No significant differences (χ2
= 10.617, p
= 0.059) in primary and secondary school educators were observed with regard to plastic pollution education and awareness (Figure 2
b). Students were encouraged to pick up litter both in primary and secondary schools. Thomas [46
] noted that behavior change interventions in New Zealand schools resulted in a significant reduction in littering rates when used in conjunction with education, and also resulted in reduced amounts of plastic being brought into the school premises. In the present study, this was done through four different codes of conduct which were routinely identified in primary schools:
“Primary School A, principal…early in the morning, learners pick up plastics and dirty materials and throw them in the dust bins”
“Primary School C, Teacher A…late comers pick litter in school grounds”
“Primary School A, Teacher C …last year there was a competition where learners challenged each other on keeping the school free of plastic and papers. In addition, the classes that won were foundation phase classes which start from grade R to grade 3”
collaboration with solid waste-preneurs;
“Primary School B, Teacher B…there are people who come with bicycle carts to collect plastic materials and in turn send them for recycling in exchange for money”.
In secondary schools, the above sentiments were also shared by the educators; there were additional programs from outside private and non-governmental organizations which encouraged and instilled a sense of ownership to the environment to learners by teaching them about different types of plastics, different ways of recycling and the impacts of plastics on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Similar to So and Chow [17
], where educators used different strategies to improve pupils’ involvement, the involvement of outside stakeholders can significantly improve the students’ pro-environmental behavior. For instance, one educator highlighted that:
“Secondary School B, Teacher A…there is Limpopo Green Schools for the Earth which is a four-year program whereby learners and communities are part of it. It encourages people to protect water resources as most of the improperly managed plastics end up in rivers”.
With regards to resources available towards environmental education, it was clear that in both primary (73%) and secondary (94%) schools, most educators associated the availability of dustbins (question 6; Figure 4
) as the only form of awareness about proper disposal of plastics. The way that different schools tackled waste management could easily be identified by how clean and empty the bins were within each school (see Figure 4
) and was a key precursor to pro-environmental behavior attitude and awareness. In another school, a teacher explained that dustbins are labelled in a way that depicts which type of waste is to be disposed in them.
“Primary School A, Teacher A…dustbins are provided in the school yard so that plastics don’t end up in the ground.”
“Secondary School, Teacher C…there are plenty dustbins around the school and are classified on what waste is disposed.”
Encouraging waste recycling in schools by educators has been found to generally improve students’ attitudes and behavior towards general waste and the natural environment [22
]. However, concerns have been raised that, despite the availability of rubbish bins, some students still do not throw waste in designated bins as they associate picking up waste with being the cleaners’, janitors’ and/or care takers’ job. Similarly, Kanene [47
] and So and Chow [17
] highlighted that environmental education has failed to transform students’ attitudes towards responsible and action-oriented environmental stewardship.
“Secondary School A, d/principal… the school has bought bins but learners lack interest on the issue of throwing litter in the bins. The reason behind is that they expect cleaners to pick up the litter as it is part of their jobs.”
All educators in both school types were very much aware of the impacts of plastic pollution in the environment, and aware of the plethora of challenges that emanate from the use of plastics. Teachers gave examples which showed that plastic pollution impacts the society at different scales. In primary schools, concerns about the probability of children suffocating as a result of improper disposal of plastics were raised.
“Primary School C, d/principal…because we are living in a dirty environment, so we should alert learners on the dangers of plastics as it may harm them in one way or the other. For instance, children might cover their faces with plastic and end up suffocating thus dying.”
Whilst the dangers of plastics on different land uses were raised:
“Primary School C, Teacher A…because plastics have been a global problem which results in death of birds, fish and livestock”.
For instance, one respondent mentioned that stray dogs and browsing goats that enter the school premises have suffocated after ingestion of plastics (“Secondary School A, principal…because plastics may suffocate animals, for instance lingering goats and dogs that enter the school premises might eat them and end up suffocating”). Whilst, other respondents cited that plastics are non-biodegradable and that burning of plastics results in toxic gases being released into the air, contributing to the greenhouse effect.
“Secondary School B, Teacher C…it is important because locally people burn plastics and other waste which releases dangerous gases that harm human health. Inhalation of gases released contributes to diseases such as asthma and lung diseases. In addition, burning of waste also adds the amount of heat in the environment which results in global warming.”
It is also interesting to note that in the secondary schools, burning of plastics was considered a way of disposing of plastic waste.
“Secondary School C, Teacher A…there are dustbins and a site where plastics and other waste are burnt.”
This is despite several studies [48
] highlighting that plastic waste incineration was a major source of air pollution, and ~12% of plastics burnt released toxic pollutants which impact the climate, and threaten plant, animal and human health.
3.3. Curriculum Development
Responses from primary and secondary schools to theme three differed significantly for both question two and question eight (χ2
= 10.058, p
= 0.018) (Table 1
, Figure 2
c). Overall, responses in both primary and secondary schools suggested that pollution as a general concept was accommodated within the existing curriculums, and educators had the opportunity to teach on the subject matter. However, it seems that the issue of plastic pollution is rarely taught and therefore, educators should be encouraged to train students to think about the environment in the context of the human body and health [50
]. Several studies [51
] have shown that students do not have sufficient knowledge to contribute to the development of environmental awareness habitats/attitudes. However, the latest changes in school policy and curricula confirm that the relevance of environmental education has been recognized around the world [54
], but changes in school practice are lacking. Out of a total 27 responses in the present study, nine reported that no aspect of plastic pollution specifically is taught within the curriculum. This was mostly observed in the responses given by primary school teachers. Only the grade 7 teachers indicated that there was specific curricula content covering plastics:
“Primary school A, Teacher C:Yes, in grade 7 there is a topic of matter and materials whereby learners are taught about the manufacturing of plastics and the environmental impacts they have on the environment.”
Curriculum content for secondary schools covered aspects of pollution, and mostly water pollution rather than plastic pollution. Pollution was generally covered in the technology subjects, with life orientation also having components of pollution. Not all students study technology in secondary school, however, and this potentially limits the awareness on plastic pollution to all students and teachers. For instance, in European countries, Stokes et al. [57
] and Stanišić and Maksić [54
] pointed out environmental education is taught as a standalone subject or embedded within other subjects. Language teachers, for example, pointed out that they do not have any content on pollution in their subject. It is important to note that other areas such as Hong Kong allow educators to design their own school-based curriculum, where they are incorporating plastic pollution in all subjects given its importance as an everyday issue [17
]. The people of Hong Kong waste millions of plastic bags and this waste causes an enormous pollution problem, and thus, plastic bag pollution was chosen as a lesson topic as it is a familiar issue with school students [17
All secondary and primary school teachers felt it was important for them to teach about plastic pollution, yet the reasons for this varied. Although there was variation in the motivation for teaching plastic pollution, all teachers displayed knowledge on the general problems of plastic pollution, which include the difficulty of plastic disposal due to the non-biodegradable nature, the dangers to aquatic and terrestrial fauna, negative effects on aesthetics and their release of toxic gases if wrongly disposed of by burning. A senior member of staff did, however, point out that although educators responded in the affirmative to the importance of teaching on issues of plastic pollution, their own behavior seemed to contradict their beliefs:
“Secondary school C, deputy principal:Yes, it is vital to ensure a green footprint, however, teachers do address the dangers of pollution, yet they (the teachers) litter daily…”
This observed behavior by the deputy principal highlights the challenges in trying to implement the pro-environmental behavior within schools when the educators have a negative attitude towards pollution i.e., littering.
3.4. Stakeholder Partnerships
Our results showed no significant differences (χ2
= 3.307; p
= 0.579) between primary and secondary schools in terms of the existence of stakeholder partnerships or networks that promote environmental awareness (Figure 2
d). The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 17 recognizes the importance of partnerships and collaborative governance in solving escalating ecological problems, meaning that collective capacity and knowledge roles are critical in finding key solutions [58
]. Thus, organizations in the civil society, private and public sectors are experiencing pressure to address complex environmental challenges through collaborative action via multi-stakeholder partnerships. Mannathoko [60
] observed that school-stakeholder partnerships provide an effective approach in curriculum development and implementation, and further promote students’ academic success and effective schooling in Botswana. The study further revealed benefits of school-stakeholder partnerships due to educators’ limited skills in the matter. In primary schools, the majority of the respondents agreed that there were networks within the area that played an important role in promoting environmental awareness. Indeed, private companies and volunteers within the community were found to be frequent networks mentioned in by primary school educators. In secondary schools, reference was made to the various programs that already existed in the community. For example, in response to the existence of networks that promotes awareness, one respondent said:
“Secondary School C, Deputy Principal: Yes, there is Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme (TVEP) that raises awareness on social problems and are addressing environmental problems. For instance, improper disposal of disposable nappies has impact on the environmental and human well-being as it ends up on roads and nearby rivers.”
3.5. Resource Availability
Our results showed no significance differences (χ2
= 1.395; p
= 0.238) between primary and secondary schools in resource availability that promotes environmental awareness (Figure 2
d). Liefländer and Bogner [61
] observed that system knowledge may also influence utilization, i.e., students who desisted from (ab)using nature also seem to put more effort into improving their environmental knowledge, and/or students who engage in learning about the environment will become less exploitative towards the environment. Thus, it should be noted that the environmental knowledge promotion is often viewed as a fundamental environmental education component and an essential prerequisite to ecological behavior; however, it has little effect on actual individual behavior [62
]. Resources allocated towards environmental education in the sampled schools include textbooks, dustbins and posters. Environmental protection education textbooks and posters have been highlighted to play a significant role in students’ pro-environmental behavior [41
]. Dustbins are the most utilized resource allocated in every sampled school as they educate learners regarding where to throw litter, thus making the immediate environment look tidy. However, learners and educators often ignore throwing litter in the bins provided and litter the school ground instead. Such individualistic behaviors have been attributed to most environmental problems [63
] and need to change in order to move towards more environmentally responsible schools and sustainable societies [64
]. Otto and Pensini [62
] further observed that increased nature-based environmental education participation was related to greater ecological behavior, mediated by increases in environmental knowledge and connectedness to nature which was lacking from the educators.
As such, issues related to resources availability cannot be neglected. Our results also show that on one hand, students are educated in the context of pro-environmental behavior (for example, how to separate reduce, recycle and reuse), whilst on the other hand, the schools do not make it feasible to practice this behavior by not providing the necessary resources. Although bins were commonly mentioned to be available, most schools did not have clearly labelled bins for separating waste (for example, plastic, paper, organic waste). These structural changes are needed in both primary and secondary schools, which concurs with Kullmuss and Agyeman FF [65