TRANSITION Year students Eoin Cottrell and Benjamin Velon, both 16, and 15-year-old Jamie O’Callaghan think that packaging is nuts.
Specifically, they are concerned about the foam packing peanuts that come in so many parcels, usually made from non-recyclable, extremely polluting plastics like polystyrene and Styrofoam, which are destined for landfill or incineration after only one use.
For their Young Scientists Biological & Ecological project, the three Douglas Community School students may have discovered a perfect eco-friendly, biodegradable alternative: sunflower stem pith.
Eoin, Jamie and Benjamin have discovered that the core of the sturdy stem of the sunflower plant is made of a foam-like pith that, when dried and cut to size, performs as well as commercially available packing peanuts, with the advantage that they come from a completely renewable source and are fully biodegradable.
“Our science teacher, Mr O’Mahony, came in with sunflower stems that he got from his back garden and we were looking at them in science class,” Eoin explains.
“We realised that the inside of the stems reminded us a lot of the kind of foam packaging you find in parcels from places like Amazon, so we decided to do some tests on it.
“We think it’s a great idea because after you get a package you can just put it in your compost bin and it will break down over time.”
Sunflowers may not be the most common sight in Ireland, but sunflower oil is a massive global crop, so as a source, the stems are not only a renewable resource but are currently a waste by-product that aren’t put to use.
“Right now, the stems aren’t being used for anything; they’re just discarded and left to rot,” Eoin says.
The boys were astonished by how well their new material measured up.
“We dried it out in the oven and then we did tests on it to find out how durable and dense it was,” said Jamie, who wants to be an engineer.
“We figured out that it’s a really good packaging material.
“It was always on par with or better than Styrofoam or polystyrene in every test that we did.
“We were surprised at how like polystyrene or Styrofoam it was: like a replica, but biodegradable.
“Processing it is a challenge at the moment because by hand it’s very slow and the shapes are very irregular but if it was going to be a business we’d be able to make custom machinery that would be able to process it quickly.”
Benjamin, who wants to pursue a career in accounting, says they feel their project has the potential to go further and to become a real-world packaging solution.
“There’s a big environmental movement at the moment and Styrofoam and polystyrene harm the environment a lot,” he says.
Our material biodegrades and it doesn’t need to be dumped or burned after it’s used.”
Young people have been charged with the task of coming up with solutions to the environmental problems created by older generations, he believes.
“Technically, we are the future,” Benjamin says.
“By developing something like this, we can really help and even if this doesn’t work out, hopefully it will inspire other people to try other packaging solutions.”
Food mile app
Meanwhile, in Ballincollig’s Coláiste Choilm, where student Simon Meehan picked up the Young Scientists’ overall top prize two years ago, a team of three 16-year-old girls have been developing an app to help consumers get to grips with food miles.
Rhian Dawkins, from Inishannon, Faustina Sheehan, of Waterfall, and Abbie O’Sullivan, from Ballincollig, examined the carbon footprint of three diets — carnivore, vegetarian and vegan — and discovered that buying local and seasonal makes the biggest impact of all.
And they feel that Irish consumers need help to understand how the food miles of their meals clock up.
“I found a report in the Irish Times that said that 60% of the Irish population hadn’t heard the term ‘Food Miles’ and I told the girls and we decided we wanted to do something about it,” Faustina says.
“We feel that if food miles were included in labelling it would influence people’s decisions; for example, there are potatoes from Ireland and potatoes from Egypt.
“People might not think about it, but if they took those small things into account it would really help the environment in the long run.
“We were surprised with the feedback and how many people said that if they felt they knew, they would want to take food miles into account with their shopping. The younger generation is especially interested.”
To explore the carbon footprint of different diets, the girls drew up seven-day meal plans for carnivore, vegetarian and vegan diets, and then calculated the food miles involved in transporting each ingredient from the country of origin listed on the label.
The girls also examined three different income levels by comparing own-brand, mid-range and luxury lines of products.
Rhian, who wants to study ecology at third level, says that their project, in the Social & Behavioural Sciences category, was an eye-opener when it comes to their own diet.
“It’s really shocking to see how far everyday foods travel to get to Ireland,” she says. “We were looking at things like apples from New Zealand and I didn’t expect that at all.
“It was mind-blowing just thinking about my own diet and where all my food comes from, and the impact I’m having on the environment by buying those foods.”
The BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition runs from January 8 to 11 at the RDS in Dublin.
The Primary Science Fair will also take place at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition from January 9 to 11.
For more on the competition see www.btyoungscientist.com