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Pack it in

An eco project with 'an added edge' is getting pupils involved because they want to, not because they have to. Jan Trebilcock explains

If you are the type of shopper who growls when you see apples wrapped in plastic on polystyrene trays, you are likely to applaud the thinking of a group of County Durham teenagers who are fighting against wasteful packaging.

The Year 8 pupils at Lord Lawson of Beamish School in Birtley have been developing prototype food containers, which will be re-useable, eco-friendly and should replace those used by their school's dinner service.

They are among 15,000 pupils across the North-east of England who have been taking part in the 2007 ECO Design Challenge, which asks pupils to come up with ways to make aspects of their schools more eco-friendly. The competition is being run by Designs of the Time 2007 (Dott 07), an initiative of the Design Council and the regional development agency.

Pupils start by using resources on the Dott 07 website, which allow them to assess their school's carbon footprint. The Lord Lawson pupils decided to work on food containers after discovering that recycling the plastic and polystyrene packaging currently used would cost more than replacing it daily. They are also trying to tackle the eco-unfriendliness of the school run by designing some funky bike sheds.

Denise Taylor, the school's director of art, says two of the Year 8 groups have been so excited about the eco designs they have put in at least 10 hours at lunchtimes and after school, on top of a full school day.

"Sometimes getting them involved can be like pulling teeth," she says. "But they are incredibly motivated and driving this project themselves, even exploring their ideas at home and bringing the results back to school.

Because the project is so real, it has an added edge for them."

The school was one of 20 shortlisted to receive a visit from Sebastian Conran, an internationally renowned designer. Denise said the designer's visit had added to the buzz at Lord Lawson about the project. He spent the day giving children insights into the design process and their project.

"The children used him as a consultant," says Denise. "He discussed lots of creative ideas and challenged their thinking - for example he suggested that you could save on materials by incorporating the lid into the design, perhaps using wooden cutlery as a closing device. He was able to talk to them about ethical products and manufacturing, branding, using alternative materials and he gave them feedback about their ideas. I'm pretty sure we've got some budding designers here now."

Nick Devitt, ECO Design Challenge project manager, says: "The young people have come up with ideas from collecting rainwater to flush the school loos, to kitchen gardens and solar swimming pools. It's a fantastic way to explore sustainability and design across the curriculum and everyone has really gone for it. It's such a success we hope to expand the project nationally in the future."

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