SocietyAugust 23, 2019

Why I’m taking on my school examiners over their plastic habit


Every scholarship exam and approximately every two external assessments are wrapped in their own single-use plastic bag. We’re asking the NZQA to cut it out, writes year-13 student Sophia Honey

Every year after an exam, I see the same conversation happen. Friends turn to each other, talk about how difficult that question was, and then say how ridiculous it is that their exam was wrapped in plastic. Every piece of plastic from that room is chucked into the bin, to be sent to the landfill the next day. I am a year 13 high school student who wants to change this. Our country can do better. I have created a petition to end single-use plastic packaging for NZQA exams. We’re hoping it will be presented to parliament by Chlöe Swarbrick next month.

I was inspired to take action after many discussions with friends and other young people about the decline of our environment. There’s been a huge culture shift even within the last five years, as more and more people have realised how serious and immediate the problem is. I’ve been to events and meetings that show an incredible sense of solidarity, as we share with each other the tools to create change. We’re playing catch-up to mobilise and take action on the issues of climate change, plastic pollution, and resource shortage. It’s a task that undoubtedly requires teamwork.

Each piece of plastic will take hundreds of years to break down, contributing to the overwhelming problem of plastic pollution our world faces. To put it in context, it’s believed that every piece of plastic ever made still exists. A massive 988,990 external assessments and 14,255 scholarship exams were sat last year for NZQA. Every scholarship exam and approximately every two external assessments are wrapped in their own single-use plastic bag. That’s over half a million plastic bags being used which could definitely be avoided.

NZQA chooses to use plastic wrappings to keep bundles of exams together and to avoid tampering or water damage. However, this solution does not respect that our earth’s resources are finite. Our country’s national examination system should be an exemplar to all New Zealanders of environmental sustainability and consideration of future generations. Our exams prepare us for our future, but the packaging is part of what threatens it. Such irony.

Campaign artwork: Maya Van Der Laan

Other, larger countries avoid this overuse of plastic by holding exam bundles together with a paper strip. Students rip through this to break it and the paper can then be recycled. It’s worked very well for the SAT’s in America. I want NZQA to adopt this method. I appreciate that NZQA has tried to embrace more environmentally friendly options such as using degradable plastic. However, as they have already found, it’s difficult to dispose of these plastics properly so they can decompose.

Much of the time, they will end up in the landfill where they cannot decompose due to a lack of oxygen and light. I’ve researched the environmental impacts of biodegradable plastics to find that they do still require very high temperatures and ideal conditions to break down.

This does not happen in a landfill or in the ocean. NZQA is in the process of moving towards online examinations, which is a good long-term goal. Unfortunately, this will take a long time to implement and will need paper back-up systems for a while yet. Recent online trials have faced hurdles that will need to be fixed before this is a realistic, widespread solution.

In the meantime, it is achievable to put an end to single-use plastic wrapping and make our examination system more sustainable. This builds on and strengthens previous awareness and outrage about this issue, and that’s why we’ve launched our petition, inviting those who care to add their voice.

Keep going!