In a great circular hall in the depths of the European Parliament in Brussels there was a distinct whiff of the Eurovision Song Contest about proceedings. Except that nobody could score nul points and in the end everyone got some sort of prize.
The occasion was last week's awards ceremony for a Euro-wide competition organised by the plastics industry. Teams had been asked to submit reports on how the environmental performance of their school could be improved. The English winners, from the Gryphon School in Sherborne, Dorset, were competing against students from schools in eight other European countries who had also won their national competitions.
The 13 to 17-year-olds and their teachers waited with polite impatience for the ceremonies to reach the awards phase. It took a while. Channel 4 newsreader Sheena McDonald hosted the proceedings, a British MEP, Angela Billingham, gave a bracing speech, an eloquent Dutchman explained how energy-efficient plastic components in cars were, and a video provided a taste of what the eight national winners had done to reach the finals. Then, at last, the results - announced with a touch of charming embarrassment by the Dutch MEP Elly Plooij Van Gorsel. The winners were . . . the Berger Scholengemeenschap from the Netherlands.
Their entry had ignored most of the broader requirements of the competition and concentrated on a single aspect - transport to school. They designed a lightweight, easy to maintain, safe, ecologically-sound and technologically-advanced scooter made almost entirely from (you've guessed it) plastic, and powered with a solar battery. Their report was presented in written form and as an Internet site.
Whoops of joy ensued from the Dutch boys, who were rewarded with kisses from their glamorous MEP. Then came three top commendations - the Gryphon school for "teamwork", a German school for "vision", and an Italian one for "humour".
In the end everyone got a prize. The Italians brought their classroom-made plastic chair onto the stage, the girls on the Swedish team received their commendation with charming curtsies, the Spanish sported skirts nearer the micro-end of the mini-range, and the five Gryphons - all aged 13 - looked a little vulnerable among some hirsute 16-year-olds.
The reason all these students, teachers and luminaries had gathered in Brussels was simply that plastic, as a material, has an image problem. The Greens have savaged it. The trouble is it's too clever for its own good - too malleable, too versatile and, above all, too long-lasting. How to live with it - now and in the next century - is one of our biggest challenges.
With the help of the APME (The Association of Plastics Manufacturers in Europe) hundreds of English and European schools have been taking up that challenge. The APME represents major polymer-producing companies such as Shell, BP and Exxon, and it frankly admits its aim is to counter some Green criticism about its environmental impact and disseminate information about the real potential of plastics. So it has been involved in education projects in schools since 1994, when it launched Platform, a teacher's resource pack that has reached 35,000 European schools over the past three years.
The competition that ended with this grand event in Brussels is another attempt to get students to think constructively about plastics, the environment and, in particular, their own schools. The main themes were using less raw materials, using less energy, transport for schools and sustainable school buildings.
The Gryphon students' response was to set up a school environmental committee, the Enviro-Gryphon, which will continue on a permanent basis. Under the guidance of their design and technology teacher, Gareth Stamp, the students carried out individual research, reviewed behaviour and concluded that although their school is only two years old, it is far from being the school of the future.
Areas seen as especially environmentally unfriendly included the school canteen, the recreation areas, the reprographic areas and the outdoor congregation space. "Suggested actions" include the creation of plastic sculptures by the art department, a display by the Enviro-Gryphon committee, a recycling day and perhaps more unusually - a process of consultation with the architects who are designing new buildings for their rapidly expanding school. This consultation is already taking place and has turned out to be mutually beneficial.
Gareth Stamp says entering the competition has made his pupils more enthusiastic about design and technology. "They're beginning to see its relevance," he says. Eighty students spent a minimum of three hours of class time on the project and many much more time than that. Although he has found the platform pack useful, he found the constant emphasis on plastics in the competition was sometimes a constraint. But while he believes no one can say unequivocally that plastics are good, the message that "in the end you have to learn to manage plastic" has come across clearly to students.
After the awards five delighted Gryphons, Chris Burge, Andrew Daum, Lizzie Bowen, Rosie Thornton and Vicky Leak, said they had found the environmental element more interesting than the plastics side of the competition. They believed they had found out for themselves about the environment, which in turn had made them want to solve its problems and more determined to find a voice to speak out on environmental issues.
They were full of praise for their "cool" teacher. "He egged us on, got us to search harder. He always thought we'd win. We didn't think we could, but he was very sure about it," they chorused. And Gryphon's headteacher, Chris Shepperd, was there as well, beaming with satisfaction at his school's citation for teamwork.
"The Gryphon is an amalgamation of three schools, so we've had to have teamwork from the start," he said. And he's not worried about the "be-nice-to-plastics" drive behind the competition. "We can still get plenty out if it educationally," he says.
For more information about the Platform pack contact APME, Avenue Van Nieuwenhuyse 4, B-1160 Brussels, Belgium. Tel: 00 32 2 672 8259. Fax: 00 32 2 675 3935