St Mary’s Ditch Plastic for the Planet

St Mary’s Christian Brothers School, Northern Ireland

YRE 2018-2019 – Age 11-14

St. Mary’s Christian Brothers’ Grammar School is an all-boys school in Belfast with approximately 1,200 pupils. Naturally enough, boys have ravenous appetites, so there is a gargantuan amount of litter produced by these hungry little learners. The school’s Eco Club did a survey of the litter on the school grounds and found that, amidst all the rubbish, single use plastic bottles were the main contributor to the school’s waste. The Eco Club then had to come up with a plan to reduce this plastic waste. We decided that we would introduce a school reusable water bottle and encourage our fellow pupils to use them.

Our first plan was to design our own reusable bottle. However, there were many obstacles such as cost, materials etc. Then we had a stroke of luck – our Eco school’s co-ordinator had a conversation with one of the education officers from Northern Ireland Water. He said that NI Water would donate a free reusable water bottle to every single pupil in St. Mary’s if NI Water were allowed to come into the school and give presentations relating to plastic waste and water issues. A win as far as we were concerned!

Parents were told about the scheme in June. We promoted the health, environmental and the economic benefits of boys having their own water bottle in a letter that accompanied end of year school reports. In September 2018 we took delivery of 1,400 reusable water bottles. Pat from NI Water delivered very informative assemblies on the health benefits of water and the plastic waste issue to all the boys in the junior classes. The Eco Club were responsible for promoting the bottles among the senior pupils. We did this at their assemblies during the school week. The bottles also generated great interest in the local community and other schools got in contact with NI Water wanting to become part of the project. As well as that, staff in our school were also keen to use the reusable bottles.

As with any new initiative the novelty of the idea creates great enthusiasm but there is a decline of interest or in this case, use, after a while. We decided that a competition among junior classes was the way to keep pupils using their reusable water bottles. The competition was called ‘Show Some Bottle’. One day a week for four weeks after the bottles were handed out, form teachers of the junior classes were asked to count how many boys in their class had their reusable NI Water bottle in school. Eco Club members went around the classes and collected the stats. The results were displayed on the Eco Club noticeboard and emailed to all form teachers. The charts on the next page illustrate the results for week one of our competition. This was a fun way to get the boys into the habit of using their water bottle and generate a little bit of class competition. At the end of the four weeks the overall winner for each year group was announced. The classes won a fantastic free non-uniform day.

According to The Guardian Online (June 2017) a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute. It can take 700 years for the plastic bottle to dissolve according to EQUA website 2015. We know our scheme has managed to change old habits but a look in our recycle bins tells us that St. Mary’s is far from free of the single use bottle scourge. We feel that our school needs to be more proactive. Simply giving out a free reusable bottle is not going to change the behaviour of all 1,200 pupils.

With this in mind we are now in discussions with our bursar about removing the two vending machines in our school that sell juice and water in non -reusable water bottles. We have two water taps outside for the boys to fill up their bottles and we are looking for a good location for a third water tap. Our taps also have useful signs above them promoting the health benefits of water – kindly provided by NI Water.

The Eco Club are hoping to put a proposal before the school’s student council about banning single use bottles from our school altogether. After all, if the town of Concord in Massachusetts in the USA could manage to ban single use water bottles, surely a school can do it? In the meantime, NI Water have provided us with some extra bottles for those who have lost or damaged their bottles.

As we come into the warmer weather we are going to start putting messages about the benefits of water – and the environmental damage caused by plastic waste – around the school as a means of encouraging boys to stop using single use plastic bottles. It’s a huge challenge, but if we don’t try to make a difference, who will?

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