How Newpark School became the first plastic-free school in Ireland

Thousands of children across Europe have been protesting against climate change in recent weeks with plenty more protest to come. Sixty schools in Ireland have signed up to walk out of lessons on Friday, March 15 as part of a global day of action demanding governments tackle climate change.

With their actions, they’re not just inspiring their own peers to take more responsibility for this planet but also their teachers, parents and communities. Their slogans such as “Like the oceans we rise,” or “Don’t f*ck us over” show us that children are great ambassadors, maybe the natural leaders when it comes to climate action.

With Plastic Free 4 Schools by Change by Degrees, we have a fantastic solution on the ChangeX platform to support primary schools in running a plastic-free campaign with their students – an opportunity to take very concrete action on one climate related issue. Firstly in their own school environment but hopefully also beyond in their local community.

But teachers also ask us how to run a Plastic-Free 4 School programme in secondary schools? While some actions in the guide for primary schools are relevant for older students, there might be some different ways you can go about it.

The Newpark Comprehensive School in Dublin managed to get into the news with their Plastic-Free campaign last year.


Sue Adams is the woman behind this campaign. She talked us through some details on how the campaign was run, the impact it had and how other schools could copy this idea. She has been working with a few schools in the Dun Laoghaire and the Dublin area to empower students to take action for issues they care about.

Tell us something about yourself first, how did you get into working on climate issues with schools?  

My academic studies in ecology and zoo animal management ignited a sense of wonder and enlightenment about the environment. Working in the education department in Dublin Zoo in 2014, I was drawn through the window of the wild which translated into wanting to cultivate a sense of voluntary stewardship for the natural world.

At Dublin Zoo, I had the opportunity to work alongside some inspiring environmental activists that had dedicated their lives to conserving animals and habitats all over the world, which had a massive impact on me.

Inspired, I began to wonder about the role of environmental education in schools as a solution to turning the tide on how we see and deal with our current environment and climate crisis. I have 4 children and I felt that young people weren’t connected with what was happening around them in the context of the environment.

So you left Dublin Zoo and worked on a school programme?

I decided to open a new dialogue that included young people in schools being a part of the solution in a practical and active way. I wanted to develop attitudes informed by understanding of social and environmental issues from a local to global scale and to bridge the void between the information and the emotion needed to take action and to give young people the opportunity to take responsibility on environmental issues across the board, from animal extinction to climate change to the plastic crisis and everything in between.

It was my mission to develop a programme that would inspire young people to act and to tell them that they had a choice. I wanted to emotionally connect them with the environment and to inspire them to care enough to do something about it. I wanted them to be the change that they wanted to see and to grow up in a world they created, not a world that they just accepted.

With this in mind, I designed an 8-week modular sustainability action programme aimed at transition year students.

What exactly did you do with the students at Newpark school?

As a result of my sustainability classes, a group of 14 students approached me about getting their school to go single-use plastic free. My classes offered students a platform to take action on issues that were important to them. Their idea fit my mission to get students involved in environmental issues by taking action.

These students worked outside of my class. We met once a week for 6 weeks to get the project over the line. Our focus for the campaign was plastic bottles and packaging in the school canteen. We mapped out our campaign by identifying tasks and we divided the tasks up in relation to each students’ strengths and skills.

What kinds of tasks did the students take on?

For example, we had a secretary to record the minutes of our weekly meeting and to keep each group focused and accountable for their job that week.

We did a bin audit to assess the problem with plastic in our school and to have a baseline for improvement.

We had a surveys team to survey parents’ staff and students. A petitions team collected 800 signatures to support a plastic-free school. They also sent the petitions to the relevant Governmental Ministers. 

The presentations team pitched to the teachers, Parent Teachers Association and to the Board of Management.

The canteen team researched solutions to packaging for the canteen area and liaised with the canteen manager during the transition.

We also had a social media team for Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and an artwork team that designed posters for the campaign.

Why did you choose to do this as a school-wide campaign and not just a workshop and let students just follow up with actions at home? 

The campaign objective was to influence behaviour long term. We believed that if students were not allowed to have single-use plastic in school for six years that they would continue with this behaviour when they left school for college or to work. We wanted to embed a plastic-free culture into the moral code of each student.

What are your 3 or 4 tips for other secondary schools who might want to copy the campaign idea? What are the most important lessons you learned, to make it work?

  1. It has to be student led. Students become engaged and empowered by taking action. 
  2. It should be a whole school approach with the campaign message spreading across each level of the school. For example, starting with teachers and students, then parents and the parent-teacher association, then the board of management, then you go outside the school to shops to influence meal deals to have no plastic and finally you reach out to politicians and others outside the school community. 
  3. Make use of social media and public engagement to gain traction with the campaign.
  4. Divide up the teams and jobs so that each student has responsibility and is accountable to the rest of the group. 

You also applied for the Young Environmentalist Award. What role did that play for the motivation of the students? Would it all have worked the same way without it?

The decision to enter the Young Environmentalist was secondary to our project. I had previous schools enter the awards, therefore, I knew that the awards would complement the campaign and I encouraged the students to enter. The advantage of the awards was that we had deadlines, therefore, we had a lot of work to do within a six-week timeframe as the students had to submit a written project contained with all of the evidence of their actions. The awards gave the campaign an extra platform for raising awareness however it isn’t necessary.

Could you measure the actual plastic reduction of the students (and their families)? Or how do you think about impact and measure it?

We did a bin audit before we started the campaign. This is our baseline. We will remeasure this month.

Did you take the initiative into the wider community? 

The Dun Laoghaire Council Environmental Officer was extremely supportive. He posted about the campaign widening the reach of the campaign to local councillors and politicians. We approached local shops to encourage them to change their lunch deal. The local sailing club also supported our campaign and Flossie the Beach Cleaners, a local beach cleaning charity, also supported us. We invited politicians to speak at our launch.

What surprised you most about working with the students?

The peer to peer influence and the students’ commitment to the campaign was incredible. Once they were given the platform to take action their performance was exceptional.

Do you think this is a programme worth spreading to other schools? 

This campaign has the potential to influence long term change in the fight against plastic. If students become accustomed to not using single-use plastic, it will become habitual. Education on plastic is critical for the health of our planet.

The students also learned tonnes of skills throughout the campaign: Turning an idea into action, presentation skills, organisational skills, project management, teamwork, community engagement, campaign strategy and follow through, and many more. The students and their peers were empowered by executing a project that was their own vision and that supported a mission for their own future. 

Run your own campaign

For teachers who might want to do this in their schools, here are Susie’s 6 Steps to making it happen. 

1) Get a team together. 6 minimum but the campaign can be run with an entire class.

2) Identify teams and targets (Research, Presentations, Bin audit, Social Media, Canteen team, Art team, Surveys, petitions, bottle research to replace single-use plastic) purchase reusable bottles for the school (fundraiser for this)  Targets: students, teachers, parents, local community, shops, politicians).

3) Make a timeline for task fulfilment. Have weekly meetings and hold each team accountable for executing their weekly tasks.

4) Run peer education workshops so that the team can educate others about the impact of and solutions to plastic pollution.

5) Use social media and surveys as a tool for spreading awareness.

6) Launch campaign and celebrate.

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