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SocietyJanuary 31, 2023

An investigation into school uniforms, by three intermediate students


Our uniforms are overpriced and so packed with plastics they’ll outlive our great-great-grandchildren, write the student journalists of Balmoral Intermediate. 

Last year, Balmoral Intermediate’s student-run newspaper Kawepūrongo released a multi-part investigation into their polyester-packed school uniforms. The first instalment, titled “What Really Goes Into Our Uniform?” was initially sparked by feedback from the student body that the uniform was far too hot. After looking into the materials used, their investigative unit discovered that their shorts, fleeces, jackets and P.E. uniforms were made of 100% polyester, while their shirt and hat were a cotton and polyester blend. 

After researching why so many students were experiencing extreme heat, they found that the non-breathable plastic fibres in polyester were to blame. Heat aside, the students were primarily concerned with the harm that polyester poses to the environment. “As it is an oil- based plastic, polyester is not biodegradable and can shed toxic microfibres. It will take hundreds of years to completely biodegrade!” The discovery leads to one crucial question that uniformed schools are facing across the country: 

“Why is Balmoral Intermediate, a school which is determined to be eco- friendly, using this harmful material in their uniform?” The next two parts attempt to answer that very question. 

A change that’s bigger than us 

In the last term of 2022 we had Plastic Free August. What better time to make a real difference to the environment? Only around 9% of all plastic is even recycled, with the rest of it being sent over to Third World countries to be burnt, causing harm to the local people and the air they breathe. It also floats out to sea, forming large islands of plastic that build up to be about twice the size of New Zealand, or it just gets dumped into landfill. 

Everyone in our school community wants to make a difference to the climate crisis. But our Year Sevens and Eights are currently dressed in plastic based clothes that take over 500 years to decompose. Imagine your school uniform outliving you or even your great-great-great grandchildren! If we could find a non-pricey, eco-friendly alternative, we would be doing considerable help to our environment. 

The entrance of Balmoral School in Auckland.
Balmoral School in Auckland (Photo: NZEI)

There are a bunch of sustainable clothing options out there. Bamboo cotton is an excellent alternative fabric – it is a nice and breathable biodegradable material, therefore making it a great fabric for clothing. It’s also very soft and comfortable, especially compared to the hard fibres of polyester. Bamboo grows very quickly, spreading everywhere, and is a weed that would be handy to get rid of. It also needs very little water, so bamboo fabric is a great way to use up all that annoying bamboo. 

Both Twenty-Seven Names and Recreate suggested a company based in Wellington called Little Yellow Bird which produces eco-friendly clothing for kids and adults. They use sustainably sourced cotton, which is an excellent material for uniforms. Throughout the delivery and manufacturing of these products, sustainability is of top priority, with all packaging recyclable. Also, Little Yellow Bird prides itself on its fair trade conditions. This local business has also begun to make school uniforms, which is an awesome discovery. 

If we began to get our uniforms from them, the price would go up, because sustainable materials cost more, so we invited parents of Year 7 and 8 students to answer a survey – they would be the ones buying the uniform, after all. Overall, we got an astounding 83 responses. 94% of the surveyed people had environmental issues listed as a worry, but only 67.5% were concerned about the current intermediate uniform being made from polyester. There were a lot of comments about eczema and breathability for the increasingly sweaty (!) teenage boys, suggesting that some kids have complained to their parents about the crazy summer heat. 

We got some interesting comments, which gave us even more to think about. “I have read recently that recycled polyester (that is polyester made from recycled plastics) is the most eco-friendly of all when considering a range of factors,” one of the respondents said. When this uniform was first designed, one of the highest priorities would have been durability and washability. Our current uniform is brilliant in both regards, so in future perhaps recycled polyester would be a nice compromise. 

Many respondents also expressed concern about the extra cost for families who are struggling. 65.1% would be prepared to pay extra for the environment, and the majority of the remaining answered “maybe”. That was only 4 straight “nos”. One respondent made an important point: what would happen to the current uniforms? Our office staff also talked about where parents would buy the uniform and if we would need to store any here, which would be difficult. 

The Balmoral School uniform.
The school uniform in question (Image: Balmoral School)

We’ve found that over the uniform saga, there just seems to be more questions than answers. New Zealand wants to phase out single use plastics by July 2025, and while our uniforms are not single use plastic, their unsustainability compromises Aotearoa’s wish to phase out plastic altogether. While we will continue to find how we can change our uniform, in order to actually make a difference it will take not just us but every school who wears a uniform. 

Our fight continues

Two very important people saw our last Kawepurongo issue and have replied to our emails about it. Jan Tinetti, the associate minister of education, replied to us first. She began by saying that both the government and the Ministry of Education “acknowledge that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing our planet.” She applauded our initiative to attempt to change our community. However, she explains that all schools are most influenced by their school boards, so that our best move would be to directly chat with them. 

Our then-prime minister Jacinda Ardern thoroughly read through our last issue of Kawepurongo. She was very interested in our polyester troubles, and said she would be “speaking to her colleagues” about the issue. She explained that while polyester is recyclable, hardly any polyester is ever actually recycled. This is because in the case of our uniform tops and hats, both are only half polyester, making them “blended fabrics”, i.e. cotton and polyester. These blended fabrics need to be separated before recycled, making it an extra challenge to recycle. 

The Balmoral School campus.
The Balmoral School campus. (Photo: Balmoral School)

Ardern told us that while there are more complex recycling projects in the making, they could take a while to land in New Zealand. She reminded us of the soft plastic recycling that we knew the government was capable of putting in place, and spoke about the future plans for New Zealand which were already in development. She thanked us for bringing this issue into her attention and explained that she would be sure to discuss our problem further with the minister for the environment. 

We wanted more coverage of people’s opinions on changing our uniforms, so we listened to Jan Tinetti’s advice and spoke to both our principal Malcolm Milner and board chair Kyle MacDonald, the chairs of our school board about our issue. While they were enthusiastic about our uniform becoming more environmentally friendly, the expenses to the school could end up being drastic. It also would definitely not be instant (for example, our PE shirts are still in the process of being changed). This is a good example of how long and expensive the change between uniforms can be.

We had again begun wondering whether such a change was really worth the cost and hassle. A compromise seemed likely at this point, such as contacting our supplier (The Warehouse) to ask about the polyester in our uniforms, as recycled polyester is so SO much better for the environment. But unfortunately, we had heard no response from them by the end of the term, so the long standing mystery still remains. 

As this is our last issue for the year, we want you to know that our uniform is a battle that we can keep fighting. The environment continues to be of top priority to our school and its community, and 2023 can still be full of a fight for the world around us.

Keep going!