Our children's plastic lives seen through lunches

Updated 0803 GMT (1603 HKT) June 8, 2018

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(CNN)If children anywhere should care about plastic in our oceans, it's those in the Maldives, a country that is 99% water and 1% land. From the tourism that generates 37% of all jobs on this idyllic chain of coral islands to the quality of the tuna eaten there for three meals a day, their future hinges on clean seas.

But there's a problem. Until this year, most Maldivian children had not seen a coral reef, could not swim (most still can't), and often held a deep-rooted fear of the big blue. Ghost nets entangling turtles, plastic bags defiling corals, and straws in the guts of fish existed in a different world.
In 2018, that is changing.
A government project called Faru Koe, meaning "Child of the Reef," aims to take all 81,000 students in the Maldives to a reef this year, and is pushing schools to eliminate single-use plastics.
"We're an importing economy and everything comes wrapped in plastic," says Fathmath Hulwa Khaleel, program officer for the project. "So it's a big battle, but we're starting where we think we'll make the most difference: with schools. Showing kids what it is we want them to protect."
For World Oceans Day (June 8), all 212 schools in the Maldives have joined CNN's #zeroplasticlunch campaign, which has asked students to strip single-use plastics from their lunch.
But how unique is the Maldives' student awareness of plastic pollution? We visited schools from Venezuela to Tokyo to find out.

New York, United States

At High School West, the lunch options are healthy -- perhaps surprisingly so for a nation plagued by obesity. There's a salad bar, and a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. But for the environment it's not so healthy.
    Salads are still served in plastic containers, while breakfast and lunch come on single-use biodegradable trays. The cafeteria uses plastic cutlery.
    Some steps have been taken, however, for the better.
    "We use self-serve dispensers for condiments and salad dressings instead of individual packets," says Bonnie Scally, school lunch administrator for the local area. "We do not serve foods that come packed in (sheet) plastic. The district also installed water bottle refilling stations."
    "We are a lot more aware now of our plastic use than we have been in the past," says Julia Jassey, a junior at the school. "Classrooms have recycling bins and teachers encourage us to recycle our water bottles."
    In 2014, the United States produced 33.25 million tonnes of plastic, only 9% of which was recycled -- 75% of plastics ended up in landfill sites, according to the Environment Protection Agency.
    Words by Kwegyirba Croffie. Pictures by Kwegyirba Croffie and Charles Parker.

    Tokyo, Japan

    Surrounded by high-rise buildings, the Azabu Elementary School is a typical Tokyo school. But lunch today is not very Japanese: Keema curry, naan, nata de coco yoghurt, and milk. School nutritionist Emiko Shiokawa says Monday will be back to rice, miso soup and stewed mackerel. "Children love school lunch," says principal Yasumasa Kuroda. "Some schools even show the menus on their website!"
      Four students in doctor-like white gowns, masks and caps serve lunch into reusable porcelain dishes and hand out stainless steel cutlery. The only waste here is the milk carton, the straw and its wrapper. These are saved. Later, the manufacturer collects all three to recycle into refuse plastic and paper fuel (RPP) or boiler fuel.
      Japan is crazy about separating garbage: "the 3Rs" (reduce, reuse, recycle) has been a national motto since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997.
      Student Hironori Motoki says: "I try not to throw away plastic toys. Plastic affects marine animals. I heard that other countries just throw plastic into the ocean and that it is eaten by sea animals. I think that is not good."
      Kuroda adds: "Decent people do not throw garbage into the nature. If there is plastic waste at school, the students needs to take it home."
      Yoko Wakatsuki

      Paris, France

      At Diderot High School in Paris's 19th arrondissement, the menu of the day is salad and couscous with meat or fish, served with cheese, and rounded off with ice cream or yogurt. Sounds tasty, but there is a lot of plastic waste. And no recycling bins. Students don't bring in their own lunch boxes.
      David Wainer, 17, says: "I come from a green family and we've always recycled. The worst things at the canteen are the cheese wrapping and yogurt pots. It would be better to buy real cheese and cut blocks off it, but that's more complicated."
        The students here seem willing to do more recycling, but no one knows how to. Chef Daniel Palmont says: "It is true, we have a lot of plastic wrapping in this canteen. Products arrive wrapped on platters and are also individually wrapped. I don't think pupils are aware of all the single-use plastic they consume. It is a generation problem but it's our role to inform them."
        Lucile Turut, 17, says: "I'd like to be able to change things when it comes to plastic consumption but it's difficult for our generation. We don't feel concerned enough."
        Earlier this year, France pledged to recycle 100% of its plastics by 2025. There is a long way to go. Among the 28 EU countries, France currently ranks 25th in terms of plastic recycling, according to PlasticsEurope, which represents plastic manufacturers across the continent.
        Antoine Crouin

        Lagos, Nigeria

        It's 11.30am, and the bell is going off. That can only mean one thing: after a long morning session, it's lunchtime.
        Aunty Ayo School doesn't offer hot meals, so the children bring food from home. Yam and beans, jollof rice with tomato stew, bun with fried egg, and instant noodles. Lunch boxes are mostly plastic containers and styrofoam boxes.
          As we entered the school there was a heap of uncollected trash full of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, nylon sachets and styrofoam. I ask one of the students how she feels about plastic, and she shrugs: "Wetin concern me" -- meaning: "It doesn't worry me."
          Plastic is convenient for her since she doesn't have to carry a lunchbox home. A truck will come and take it to the dumpsite.
          Mr Chukwuemeka, a teacher here, says the school is strict on littering. Plastics and their effect on the environment, however, has not been discussed.
          A megacity of 21 million people and growing, Lagos generates at least 4.7 million tonnes of solid waste each year -- little of which is recycled. It's common to see overflowing bins and drains that are clogged with plastic and nylon.
          But with an estimated 86 million people in Nigeria living in extreme poverty in 2013, according to the World Bank, most people here struggle to put three square meals on the table. In that context, the environment isn't a priority.
          Fridah Okutoyi

          Hong Kong, China

          In Hong Kong, space is tight and a school kitchen is a luxury. As a result, external catering firms normally arrive at lunchtime to serve meals -- the Chinese YMCA Secondary School, on the border with mainland China, is no exception.
          Green Apple runs a small food shop that serves, among other things, about 60 single-use plastic lunch boxes containing rice meals each day, as well as bottled water. Snacks such as fish balls are served in reusable bowls.
          Deli-Honour, meanwhile, dishes up hot meals, such as meat and rice, in a sports hall that doubles as a canteen. Hong Kong schools often receive hot lunch deliveries in single-use plastic boxes, but this school has asked for meals to be delivered in metal vats and served on reusable trays.
          In May, the school installed free water coolers on every floor, and asked students to bring in reusable bottles. Still, the message is slow to sink in.
          "Young kids are brought up to think you're supposed to help the environment," says Monica Lam, aged 12. "Yet there are so many adults around them who don't do that."
          In 2015, of the 5.7 million tonnes of waste generated in Hong Kong, only 35% was recycled. The rest went to landfill.
          Faith Wong, aged 12, says: "We have to work, we have to study -- we've got loads of stuff to do. We've become more and more fast paced, and we won't want to waste time recycling stuff."
          Andrea Lo and Katy Wong

          Delhi, India

          Roti sabzi, parathas, and pasta typically fill the reusable lunch boxes of the students at Tagore International School. There is a cafeteria here, but most students dine there just once a week. That's lucky: it serves single-use plastic cutlery, paper plates and cups.
          This school, on the whole, is plastic-conscious. It doesn't allow students to bring polythene bags onto the campus. The waste items in most lunches are crisp packets and chocolate wrappers.
          "We're a school with a conscience," says Rina Singh, the school principal. "Whenever we get an opportunity, we say we're a no-plastic zone."
          "At our school, they don't serve straws," says student Nasra Yahya, proudly. "A piece of plastic is a lot more harmful to the aquatic animals than it is to us," adds fellow pupil Shayan Basu. The school even has a paper recycling plant, which turns waste paper into folders, envelopes, and gift wrap.
          However, Tagore International School is a private school, with more resources than most in India.
          Swati Singh Sambyal, program manager of environmental NGO, Center for Science and Environment, explains that across India, plastic production is growing at 10% a year. And of the 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste generated every day in India, only 9,000 tonnes is collected and processed, according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).
          "Single use plastics are a major problem, as such items (cups, straws, plates) are disposed of. They either litter drains and roads, or wind up in dumpsites -- or worse, are put on fire," Sambyal says.
          "Kerala is the first state in India that has banned one-time disposable products in the entire state. Maharashtra, too, recently banned multi-layered packaging, and disposable products. India still has a long way to curb the issue of single-use plastics."
          Sreoshi Mukherjee

          Caracas, Venezuela

          "I like everything here, everything's so tasty!" says Keynalis, who is eight years old. A day at the Fe Y Alegria School in La Vega, Caracas, means at least one meal that day is guaranteed.
          An independent survey by three universities in Caracas found that, last year, six out of 10 Venezuelans went to bed hungry because they couldn't afford food. Venezuela's hyperinflation is so bad that food prices can double every week.
          "My son only eats once a day, here at the school," Gilda Gutierrez, 48, a single mother with no fixed income to feed her son, Jordi, age nine. But even here the service has been cut. Years ago, all 900 pupils would have eaten at the Fe Y Alegria School. Now, only 120 can do so.
          Today, lunch consists of a bowl of black beans and rice, with an orange.
          "We try to cook rice at least once a week, give out a little bit of protein in every meal, so that the children can gain some strength, but it's hard," says Yasiri Valle, 32, head cook at the school. Red meat disappeared long ago. Chicken feet are now used for soups.
          Environmental concerns are on hold. "Right now, thinking of the environment is absurd for me," Valle confesses. "The kids are taught to re-use their bowls and cups, but it's because they have nothing else to use."
          Words by Stefano Pozzebon Pictures by Fabiola Ferrero/VII Mentor Program

          Beijing, China

          At the Er Fu Zhong High School cafeteria there are two places to order from, with different menus. On one side it's noodles, dumplings, mala tang and, on occasion, a Chinese version of spaghetti with tomato sauce.
          The other is offering fragrant meat slices, spicy hot pot, kung pao chicken, and a tomato and egg dish, its menu lit up on a fluorescent LED board overhead. Kids quickly line up in front of glass windows to order.
          All foods here are served on silver metal trays and the utensils are reusable chopsticks. Er Fu Zhong more or less has no plastic waste, other than milk and sour yogurt cartoons. After lunch, kids stack up their dirty trays, which get washed and used again tomorrow. It seems old fashioned, but it's efficient.
          China seems to be waking up to the plastic problem. For decades, other countries shipped containers full of scrap and waste to China for recycling. But Beijing stunned the recycling industry last year with its ban on imports of 24 varieties of solid waste, including many plastics, which it extended in 2018.
          Ellie Sullivan

          Dubai, United Arab Emirates

          The American school of Dubai stopped using disposable paper plates and plastic cutlery a while back, and has prohibited vendors from selling bottled water. Water dispensers have been dotted over campus, and students are urged to carry their own reusable water bottles.
          The school also has a "People for Alternatives Against Plastic" club, in which students try to raise awareness of the effects of plastics, and think of ways the school could be more plastic free. Lindsay, 14 years old, is a member. "I know that single-use plastics take many years to decompose," she says. "It kills fish and gets into their system and blocks their digestive system and then they die."
          Dubai produces about 8,000 tonnes of waste a day -- about 75% of which is produced by the private sector.
          Kathleen Mills, a visual arts teacher, says it isn't all about plastics, it's about changing the general mindset. "We have recycle bins in the art room for example," she says. "Because we are privileged, we have lots of materials. Sometimes, especially just being in Dubai, children are used to the idea of throwing things out and not thinking about it."
          Alma Al Turkmani