Our children's plastic lives seen through lunches

Updated 4:03 AM ET, Fri 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