South East Technological University (SETU) welcomed Malcolm Noonan, Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform and Green Party TD, to its Carlow Campus to acknowledge the work of local primary school students who took part in the Sustainable Packaging Challenge (SPac) in conjunction with the university. The SPac Challenge is an initiative funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and coordinated by SETU’s Dr Adriana Cunha Neves, Department of Applied Sciences in Carlow, and Dr David Culliton, Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering in Carlow. EPA funding was awarded on the basis of the potential high impact this initiative could have for education on environmental issues within the community, and the contribution it could make to SETU’s research in this space.

The aim of the challenge was to encourage families to reduce their dependence on plastic packaging in their weekly shopping. Encouraging families to shop sustainably is a crucial step towards reducing our negative environmental impact. The initiative has provided an opportunity for communities to learn about the benefits and possibilities of sustainable (reduced plastic) shopping, and how making these small changes to their daily routines can have a substantial positive impact on the environment.

An invitation to participate was issued to all schools in Carlow, with twelve schools taking part. This meant that over 250 children and their families embarked on a mission to shop more sustainably, paying greater attention to the types of packaging food products were wrapped in. Of these twelve schools, two excelled in meeting their sustainable shopping goals; Carlow Educate Together and St Joseph’s National School, and so they were invited to come along to SETU’s campus in Carlow for a morning of fun science activities where they learned more about bioplastics and how to scientifically test them. Alongside this, the students were able to ask their own questions and provide ideas about how to solve the problem of plastic pollution during a Q&A session with Minister Noonan and SETU scientists and educators.

Minister Noonan commented, “The issue of single use plastics is one that really resonates with people because we see the amount of unnecessary waste that is being produced, and we see it not just on our supermarket shelves, but frequently as litter in our communities, in our national parks and on our beaches. Not only does this make our parks and green spaces less enjoyable places to be, but plastic waste poses a real threat to nature and to wildlife too, so it’s in everyone’s interest that we promote a more sustainable approach to packaging.

“That mission is at the heart of the government’s Circular Economy Act, which aims to reduce single use plastics at source, making it easier for families to make those sustainable choices. Initiatives like the Sustainable Packaging Challenge are so valuable in helping us to highlight this issue and I’m grateful to SETU and the EPA for helping us achieve the transition to a Circular Economy.”

Commenting on the importance of the initiative, particularly the participation of children, Dr Adriana Cunha Neves says, “The problem of plastic pollution will only be fixed if the effort comes from everyone; policy makers, academics, industry, educators and consumers. Children are the biggest influencers of the household purchases, if they are invested in fighting the plastic pollution problem, they will influence their parents to buy in a more sustainable manner. This was the goal of this event.”

“Plastic pollution is a serious national and global problem. In the home, children are widely acknowledged as highly effective influencers of household purchases. Children can therefore have a significant reductive effect on the prevalence of plastics, so we want them to be involved in the shopping process. And to open the discussion about our role in reducing and recycling plastics, not only in schools and communities but also by urging their parents to buy in a more sustainable, plastic-free, manner” said Dr David Culliton, lecturer and researcher at SETU.

Well done to all involved in organising this event. Particularly the young students who have already made a great impact on reducing harm to the environment within their local community.

Photo caption: Minister Malcolm Noonan visits South East Technological University (SETU) for sustainability initiative for local primary school children. The Minister is pictured here at SETU's campus in Carlow with students from Carlow Educate Together and St Joseph's National School.