Merrion Centre Recycling Plastic Challenge with Leeds West Academy Year 9s

The Merrion Centre Challenge is an annual project led by Ahead Partnership, an organisation that runs programmes that link businesses and schools together. This was a project that I organised both this year and last, and one where I really enjoyed seeing how much the students had developed by the end of it.

For this project, Town Centre Securities (TCS), owners of The Merrion Centre, invited students to take part in a repurpose and project design challenge. The task was for students to create an Easter themed product/prototype made of recyclable items, generate a campaign around the product and discourage the use of single use plastics. Students also had to prepare a five-minute pitch to present to VIP judges from TCS, covering key messages from the launch event, details of the environmental research undertaken, a breakdown of their chosen design and decision-making process and evidence of encouraging young people to choose to reuse!

The project launched at the Merrion Centre on Tuesday 4th February where students were introduced to what recycling projects the Merrion Centre did already, the scale of the issue of plastics to our environment, and were given time to think about how the students wanted to approach this challenge. Over the next month, I met with our group for a few half day meetings in preparation for the final presentation and showing the products to judges on the Thursday 19th March.

The students chosen to be part of this project were part of the “environmental” Student Parliament group and so were extremely engaged and ready to get stuck in with this project. The students split into two groups and each group developed their ideas. The final two products were an Easter bunny made from bottle caps, and the second was a lip balm container that was nicely decorated and had sustainable ingredients within it.

I found this project to be more successful than other long-term projects as it had a brief timespan (six weeks) which allowed momentum to be kept up. Working together with another staff member, Laura Dinu, was also invaluable as it meant that if I was unavailable to run some of the meetings, she could step in and run them. The project was extremely time intensive, including two half day trips, around eight additional hours to work on the project, and dealing with constant queries from the students: all within the space of six weeks!

There were lots of disputes, tears, students changing teams, restorative conversations, and me having to chair a meeting with one of the groups who just couldn’t agree with the final product to make! I remember there being a large argument over whether a shampoo bottle design should have attachable or detachable ears. They did resolve it and I did my best to chair this heated discussion while keeping a straight face!

At the final meeting where we recorded a video of the final products and presentations, we also had a debrief about the project and went around the room and said what we liked about each team member. It was heart-warming and clear to me then that despite all the bickering that they had done throughout, they had gained a genuine appreciation of each other and had found ways to compromise and work as a team; something that at the start of the project seemed almost impossible.

The students took this project seriously, which was commendable. Looking back at this project, which was likely that last extra-curricular project I will be running this year due to the current circumstances, I saw that it was something that gelled the environment group together and helped them to understand the importance of communication, team-work, resilience, and creativity. It reminded me of why I organise events like these. For students, developing these key skills will be useful in the months and years to come.

Judah Chandra, Go Higher Progression Officer at Leeds West Academy