Plastic bottle in the sea - Getty Image

Story writing can help children to rethink their response to environmental challenges and focus more on their role in preventing them, a new study has found.
An international team of researchers used a writing activity to explore schoolchildren’s perceptions of marine litter and how they are responding to the increasing global problem.  
The children were encouraged to use their imaginations about common litter items found on the beach and in the marine environment, which included toys, plastic bags, toothbrushes, bottles, and straws.
They were also asked to write a story or comic book and to consider how the items came to be in the ocean, enabling them to think about ways of preventing the litter from entering the environment.
The activity showed that after taking part in the writing activity, children mostly focused on preventing the problem from worsening, rather than cleaning up existing litter, with the most popular solution being adequate disposal of litter and recycling.
Other solutions included reducing plastic use, reusing items, education, and convincing the community of the importance of the issue.
The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Plymouth, University of York, and Galapagos Conservation Trust, as well as various academic and community partners in Chile and Mexico.
By developing stories around the items and recognising that human behaviours are at the root of plastic pollution, the exercise was also found to have an impact on the children themselves, with 77% of the stories including possible solutions that people can do to help address this global issue. 
Dr Kayleigh Wyles, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Plymouth who contributed to the paper, said:
“A key element of our project was to examine the children’s responses to questionnaires they completed before and after writing these stories. We found that their knowledge on the topic increased and they became more proactive, as they reported doing more pro-environmental acts afterwards.”
Dr Kayleigh Wyles
Dr Kayleigh Wyles
The research took place during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and schoolchildren along the East Pacific coast were asked to create a story and answer a survey before and after doing so.
The participating children were part of the school citizen science programme Cientificos de la Basura (Litter Scientists), and the study was designed and timed to give schoolchildren in this region an activity to engage with while the schools were closed.
In total, almost 100 children aged between ten and 18 years old took part from countries including Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama and Peru.
More than half of the children’s stories showed awareness of the harmful nature of plastics when interacting with marine life, including when animals ingest plastic, get entangled or become intoxicated by the components of the plastic. 
Many of the stories described several consequences, including injuries, death, impact on the environment and the widespread effects on beach aesthetics. 
Lead author of the study Estelle Praet, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said:
“Stories offer a new and different way to explore what people believe and how they perceive and make sense of their environment, including, as in this study, marine plastic litter. The results were truly inspiring and showed the children’s awareness of the impact on marine life and the environment.”
Professor John Schofield, also from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, added:
“By viewing these plastic items as artefacts, each with its own story, we can bring this back to the human behaviours that related to the objects' use and their disposal. This project has helped show how we can get that message across to children and hopefully then make a difference.”
Researchers involved in the study working with community organisations and residents along the East Pacific coast
This research was funded by the Galapagos Conservation Trust and the Global Challenges Research Fund as part of the Pacific Plastics: Science to Solutions (PPSS) programme.
  • The full study – Praet et al., Bottle with a message: The role of story writing as an engagement tool to explore children's perceptions of marine plastic litter – is published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2022.114457.

International Marine Litter Research Unit

Marine litter is a global environmental problem with items of debris now contaminating habitats from the poles to the equator, from the sea surface to the deep sea. 
Furthering our understanding of litter on the environment and defining solutions.
Marine litter

The Queen's Anniversary Prize for pioneering research 

Nearly two decades of world-leading research into the effects of marine plastics on our environment by Plymouth researchers, led by Professor Richard Thompson OBE, has resulted in repeated scientific breakthroughs which has influenced national and international legislation.
This ground-breaking research and subsequent policy impact on microplastics pollution in the oceans has once again been recognised – this time with the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a higher education institution – a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.
Queen's Anniversary Prize ceremony
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Research in the School of Psychology

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