ON a recent Friday morning, young, boisterous members of Cork city’s Wise Owl Afterschool Club were busy making durable objects out of fragile, single-use plastic.
The children, who were on their Easter break from school, filled plastic bottles with a variety of wasteful material, from food packaging to clingfilm to plastic bags, for making ‘eco-bricks’.
The result is colourful, artsy and whatever you want it to be: ornaments, chairs, tables, you name it. The idea is to prevent plastic waste from ending up in the oceans and landfills.
The children are enthusiastic, and although all under 13, they realise the growing threat that plastic presents to our environment.
Julie Kingston, a smiling 12-year-old, who has been attending the club since her junior infant years, picks up soft plastic wherever she spots some for her club’s eco-friendly project.
“I bring in the soft plastic here, and I recycle at home, and when I’m at the beach I pick up some litter,” she says, proudly.
“All the plastic is bad for the earth, and we’re just trying to make people aware.”
Cork is developing a reputation for raising eco-conscious teenagers. In March, about 5,000 schoolchildren marched in the streets of the city and protested outside Cork City Council, demanding rapid, far-reaching climate action from adults.
So, the robust spirit of environmental activism among pre-teen members of the Wise Owl Afterschool Club may not be that surprising.
Karen Deasy, the young woman who manages the children’s club, is responsible for the initiation of the eco-friendly project. A graduate of Early Childhood Studies from UCC, Karen says child activists are the most energetic and committed drivers of environmental campaigns.
“They’re so enthusiastic, they want everything to happen now and they do their very best to make it happen,” she says, laughing.
“Once the idea is pushed out there it’s all blazing guns, and they want to go with it, whereas adults might put it on the long finger.”
Rory Lane, a 10-year-old, who uses his hand-made eco-bricks as a reliable chair, says he feels good about engaging in the after-school project since plastic “kills animals and can make us sick if we eat it”.
“If we eat a cow or a pig that had eaten a part of plastic, it can make us sick,” he explains.
Karen brings out a giant box decorated with a children’s painting of a smiling crisp bag in which the young club members store all types of crisp packs they come across on the streets. They have banked nearly 200 packets to recycle so far.
“It started off as a very small project, let’s collect soft plastic and two-litre bottles because they’re not recyclable,” Karen explains.
“Soft plastic isn’t recyclable, but we thought it was, and our big message is that soft plastic isn’t recyclable.”
Committed to making useful yet beautiful objects out of the unrecyclable material, Karen and the children taught themselves to make eco-bricks by watching tutorial videos on YouTube.
Cormac Hogan, 10, cites data and statistics to prove the detrimental impact of plastic.
“I think by 2050, there’s going to be more plastic in the sea than fish, so we don’t want that to happen,” he says. Cormac is right. The World Economic Forum estimates that 50 million tonnes of plastic currently exist in the world’s oceans and that there may be more plastic than fish in the oceans in 30 years’ time.
A recent study conducted by Irish scientists also revealed that 73% of 233 deep-sea fish examined in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean were contaminated with plastic.
Jacob O’Callaghan, 9, explains the process of making eco-bricks and the simple joys he has discovered while being involved in the eco-friendly project.
“Me and my brother fill the bottles with glitter and shake them, and it’s really fun,” he says.
Isabella McGrath, 8, says she has been collecting plastic bottles and bottle caps for the environmental project. “Just so we stay healthy, and animals and all the environment stay healthy,” she explains.
Niamh McCarthy, 9, says she and her mum go on plastic-finding missions and “pick up plastic that they find on the road” for their project.
Karen agrees that the initiative has also got the children’s parents, their teachers at school and the rest of the staff at the Wise Owl club more interested in preserving the environment.
“The kids are pushing their parents to do it at home and then their family and friends, so the message is spreading,” she says.
“Simple messages like this are able to make a difference, and that’s very rewarding.”
The manager of the Wise Owl club says such concern for the environment among very young children was almost non-existent in the past, including her younger self.
“I don’t remember ever being environmentally aware or eco-friendly as a child until, I suppose, my teens and secondary school,” she says.
“The digital age that we’re in now, and these images (of plastic pollution) flashing up on your social media makes it a lot more out there.
“There is still a long way to go, but I think people are becoming more aware of it.”
The children of the Wise Owl Club also grow plants and help the homeless. For more information visit http://www.wiseowlsafterschool.com/.