This week, our plastICS team are in Wisconsin competing in the International Future Problem Solving championships. It’s been a long road to get to this point, and it all began in a school playground in Wollongong.
The plastICS group are a team of students in Year 8 who formed through their involvement in the Future Problem Solving challenge. From the very beginning the team was united in their love of animals and the ocean. They were horrified by the devastating effect that rubbish in the ocean was having on marine life. They saw that soft plastic (wrappers, cling wrap and ziplock bags) was often scattered about the playground and in drains. These drains lead directly to the ocean where marine life mistakenly consume them and often die.
Initially they were determined to solve the whole issue. They were going to eradicate all plastics! After some grounding and narrowing, the team decided that the area where they could have most impact was soft plastic in lunch boxes.
Phase 1: eradicating soft plastics at school
The team conducted a soft-plastic audit, collecting all the soft plastics brought to school on one unannounced day. The pile was overwhelming and the girls made a video showing the students how much plastic waste would be brought to school in one year. It filled the COLA. They began to think of how they could engage students in the solution of this issue.
Realising that alternatives to soft plastic packaging were expensive and difficult to find, the team decided to make beeswax wraps and to sell them to the school community. Their aim was to raise awareness to provide affordable alternatives to soft plastic use. PlastICS would like to thank Illawarra Beekeepers for their support and donation of the initial 2kg of beeswax.
The team soon realised that eradicating all soft plastic was unrealistic and very difficult. Instead, they instigated soft plastic recycling at school. From some of the money earned through the sale of their beeswax wraps, they bought bins and placed them around the school. The girls educated students at assemblies and the take up of this plan has been excellent. There are eight bins around the school and the team collect the rubbish weekly and place it in their plastICS ‘bunker’. The plastic is taken to Redcycle for recycling, and then on to Replas in Melbourne to be converted into furniture and other great products.
Phase 2: getting the word out to others
Since Nationals in October 2017, the team have been expanding their project so that other schools will also jump on board. In April they held the plastICS Regional Training Afternoon. Schools from around the region were invited for an afternoon of plastic education. Dr Karen Raubenheimer from the University of Wollongong, Mrs Fiona Netting from Wollongong City Council and Mr Andy Gray from Boomerang Alliance have all been partners in the plastICS journey from its inception. All three gave up their time to educate the wider community and the team is incredibly grateful.
They have had a lot of media attention including an interview on 94.1 Pulse FM, and an Illawarra Mercury interview.
The team were searching for a way to take the message out further when the breakthrough came. Unbeknownst to the team, Taronga Zoo were creating a toolkit for schools based on preventing marine litter. Kate Nairn from Taronga Zoo’s Conservation Education team was searching for a school that was working to reduce plastic pollution. She found the Illawarra Mercury article, followed the link to the plastICS website and contacted the team. PlastICS is now a major case study in the toolkit, which will be available to schools from this week.
The team have been on excursion to the Illawarra Beekeepers and ANCORS at the University of Wollongong; been in contact with the ABC, Nev House, Wollongong City Council, Pulse 94.1 and the Illawarra Mercury and were invited recently to spend a day at Taronga Zoo learning about the problems of plastic ingestion from the marine animal perspective. On this day the girls were treated to a personal seal talk, special access to a private penguin encounter and behind the scenes access to the Taronga animal hospital. Seeing the plastics that had been ingested by animals was devastating, but just the motivation the team needed to continue on their way.
PlastICS in the USA
Early this week, most of the team flew to the USA to compete in the International Future Problem Solving competition. They are supported by several teachers and family members who have travelled with them, and remotely by team member Skye, who is keeping the home fires burning here at school. Together, they have developed a new video, updated and expanded their display, created a brand new 50 page scrapbook and are preparing for their interview.
This week we are following their progress closely and we wish them well in the competition. But whatever the outcome, the journey has been worthwhile. If the team has educated the school and community about the need to reduce and recycle soft plastics, then it has been effective. You can see more of the plastICS journey at their website, and keep an eye out for them on ABC ME in July, when they’ll be telling their story nationally.