Cork students investigate: How much plastic is in your teabags?

ELLIE O’BYRNE reports on more of the fantastic projects at this year’s BT Young Scientist awards, which gets underway tomorrow.— including projects on plastic in teabags and another on synchronised swimming.
Cork students investigate: How much plastic is in your teabags?

Transition year students at St Mary's High School in Midleton, Suzanne Dignam, Grace Rooney, and Anna Brenner with their science teacher Niamh Jones who have worked on their project on plastic in teabags for the BT Young Scientist Awards. Picture: Dan Linehan

IT’S well known that, for Cork people, Barry’s Tea is the only real tea, but recent controversy around the fact that Barry’s tea-bags contain plastic has been a thorn in the side of tea-lovers who also love the environment.

Barry’s tea has come under fire for its non-biodegradable teabags, which contain polypropylene, a type of plastic, since an Uplift campaign was started in 2018, and the company pledged to design a compostable bag suitable for the brown bin.

Teabags containing plastic that are placed in compost bins add to the burden of microplastics in the environment.

Following a recent protest outside the Barry’s Tea headquarters in Cork, the company released a statement saying that they are still working to eliminate plastic from their bags, and that by October, 2020, 70% of their bags were biodegradable.

A group of Transition Year students in St Mary’s High School in Midleton has now revealed through their research that the beloved Cork brand is still the worst offender when it comes to the plastic content of one line of their teabags: Barry’s Gold Blend.

Grace Rooney, 15, Suzanne Dignam and Anna Brenner, both 16, used their chemistry know-how to dissolve the paper content of 12 types of teabags and then weighed the remaining plastic to reveal which contained the most.

And while Barry’s Original bags contained no plastic, Barry’s Gold Blend was the worst offender at just under 50% plastic by weight, while Barry’s Decaf bags contained just over 34% plastic.

“We came across an article that said an Irish tea company was trialling biodegradable teabags,” Grace says, explaining their inspiration for their project.

“We were really interested, because like many people we hadn’t realised there was plastic in teabags at all.”

It might seem like a small issue, but each tiny extra unnecessary quantity of plastic released into the environment is a part of the overall problem, Anna says, adding: “Plastic is a big problem all around the world so we think that when you can see what’s in your teabags, you can choose the best type of teabag to be more sustainable and do a little better for the environment, so hopefully it will make a difference.

“We used a solution of copper ammonia to dissolve the cellulose, which is the paper,” Suzanne explains.

“We left it soaking for days to leave behind the plastic skeleton of the bag, and then we weighed it to find out how much plastic was in the different brands.”

The girls used 12 different varieties of teabags including Barry’s, Lyons, Twinings, Bewley’s, and several supermarket own-brand bags.

And Barry’s Gold Blend fared the worst: from an original weight of .17g, .08g of plastic remained when the paper had been dissolved, the girls reported.

Barry’s Decaf, Bewley’s Original and Lidl’s Knightsbridge Jasmine Green Tea all came in at .06g of plastic, while Twining’s Chamomile bags and Aldi’s Diplomat Lemon and Ginger contained .05g of plastic, the students’ research revealed.

All varieties of Lyons teabags tested contained no plastic residues at all, the pupils reported.

This year, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the BT Young Scientists exhibition has moved online.

Instead of the hustle and bustle of the RDS and the excitement of the journey to Dublin, the girls, and all the other 120 County Cork project this year, must impress the judges online.

“For a normal year you do a poster, but this year that’s not the case but we have a report book, a project diary and a three-minute video that explains it really well,” Grace says.

 Transition year pupils at St. Aloysius Girls Secondary School, Cork, Eve Knowles, Liah Cotter, and Sara Khorchani have worked on their project on synchronised swimming for the  BT Young Scientist of the Year. Picture: Dan Linehan
 Transition year pupils at St. Aloysius Girls Secondary School, Cork, Eve Knowles, Liah Cotter, and Sara Khorchani have worked on their project on synchronised swimming for the  BT Young Scientist of the Year. Picture: Dan Linehan

The scope of Cork projects across categories of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Chemical, Physical and Mathematical Sciences, Biological and Ecological Sciences and Technology is as stunningly creative and diverse as ever.

At St Aloysius in Cork city centre, sports projects dominated this years finalists. Leah Cotter, and Sara Khorchani, both 16, and Eve Knowles, 15, chose a topic with a difference: they explored the physics of synchronised swimming for their Chemical, Physical and Mathematical Sciences entry.

The trio of Transition Year students are all keen swimmers themselves and they hope that their project will help swimmers to improve their swimming style by revealing the science behind the sport, and even to give synchronised swimmers a competitive edge.

“We’re all really into swimming and watching the Olympics every summer got us really into it too,” Sara explains.

“Synchronised swimming has only recently been introduced as an Olympic sport.

“We looked at the angles of hand motions, and things like what happens under the water and the power needed to generate a lift using three of Newton’s Laws,” Leah explains.

Covid-19 restrictions impacted on the girls’ ability to perform their experiments in a pool, but eventually they managed to take to the water to put their theories into practice.

“We tried the sculling technique,” Eve says. “When you do that movement, you are able to feel the water moving around your hands in different ways. When you test different angles, you can immediately tell yourself that some angles just don’t feel right.”

Learning about the physics behind the sport gave the girls an even more keen awareness that synchronised swimming is a serious sport, despite perceptions in the past of it as frivolous, Eve says.

“If men were more into it, I think it would be taken more seriously,” she says, “but when you think of synchronised swimming you think of colourful little hats and waterproof make-up and little outfits.

“The swimmers are very strong and have to train their breath to stay under water for a long time, and to stay in sync. I think people need to realise that it’s a serious sport.”

The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition is taking place online from tomorrow, Wednesday January 6 to Friday, January 8.

See http://www.btyoungscientist.com

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