School aims for zero waste by 2025
Tenison Woods College in Mount Gambier, South Australia, wants to be zero waste by 2025 and off-grid by 2030. So, for the past six years, the college’s sustainability officer, Tom Linnell, has been guiding the school toward those goals. He’s overseen a number of projects, none more impressive than the Project Recology Centre, a waste management hub converting the college’s plastic waste into everyday items. Eight months in, they’re churning through 20 kilos of plastic a day. All up, they’ve recycled more than five tonnes of plastic that would have otherwise gone to landfill.
The centre, which is the old reclaimed groundskeeper’s shed right in the middle of the school, is a hive of activity. And for some students, it’s one reason to come to school, something Linnell credits to the site’s new overseer Callum Unger. “He’s been a real driver in building those relationships,” Linnell told the ABC’s Beth Whetham.
Unger designs projects with individual classes as well as offering one-on-one sessions with older students who’ve take a special interest in the field. A recent project involved Year 5 students making classroom benches. “The ownership and the pride of having their design out and used in the classroom for the rest of their schooling is great,” Unger notes.
As the students get older the projects become more advanced. “The kids are a huge driver. When they want something made they’ll find a way,” Unger says.
One of the designers is Year 10 student John, who’s always been interested in “anything you can get your hands on”.
“This has opened my eyes a fair bit,” John says. “It’s amazing how everybody can just chuck bottle caps out but you can reuse them. You could build cubby houses, benches, tables, anything really. Callum and I thought, ‘What can we make?’ We’ve got so many options that we don’t even have the time to do it.”
More into cars than anything, John now wonders how he might add recycled plastic to vehicle manufacturing. “Most of your car is made out of metal but the front and back bumpers are made out of plastic, so possibly there and in the interior,” he says.
At first, the school had “too much plastic”. Now, they can’t get enough. “We’re fighting to get more colours and more plastics through as the students are coming through and more class projects are happening,” Unger says.
The centre is now making items such as plant boxes, clipboards, jewellery, school signs and crates, many of them made with polypropylene because it’s the best to laser cut. “That's how we’re making coffee cup holders, you can make what you would normally consider wood joinery but out of plastic,” Unger says.
A recent project with Linnell’s Year 9 Precious Plastics class was salvaging some old school desks. “The class saw one of the school’s groundsmen driving a trailer stacked sky-high with old school tables that were headed to the scrap metal yard,” Linnell says. The students instead suggested the frames be kept and the tops be replaced with recycled plastic sheets. “It feels good to know that that much plastic is removed from landfill but also young people are having a say in how it’s used.”
The school is now looking for potential partnerships in the region, offering businesses their products as well as taking their waste. “That wasn’t really the goal when we started out,” Linnell says. “Add young people to the mix and I think you’ve got a really different perspective and one that’s worthy of a voice at the table.”
Unger believes “hopefully within the next little while we’ll be able to sell our products within the community.” Even if nothing comes of it, he says the most rewarding part had been passing his knowledge on to people such as John. “In a couple of years they’ll be out of school, and it’s going to be their generation who will have to deal with the problem and see what we can make of it.”
TOP Year 5 students show off the benches they designed and made from recycled plastic
ABOVE TOP LEFT A refurbed plastic-topped desk
ABOVE TOP RIGHT Callum Unger teaching students about upcycling plastic waste
ABOVE BOTTOM LEFT Reusable coffee cup holders
ABOVE BOTTOM RIGHT Donations of plastic from residents and businesses
ALL PHOTOS Bec Whetham/ABC South East SA