Ambitious environmental science wonders abound in the Lexus Eco Challenge, a national STEM-themed contest for grades 6–12 that offers teens the chance to make a difference in the eco-health of our planet. In our seventh year, we’ve certainly seen a great deal of interesting projects. Just take a look at what this year’s 16 winning teams had to offer in the Land & Water Challenge. Wow, right?!
Guided by teacher advisor Colleen Brandner, students on a high school team in Illinois tackled an unconventional issue and made it their own. Here is what Greengineers had to say about the award-winning Action Plan that they submitted in this year’s contest!
Explain a bit about your project.
Our team decided to help resolve the issue of improper medication and medicine bottle disposal. Currently, common amber-colored pill bottles are not able to be recycled using curbside community recycling programs. Consumers also do not know how to properly dispose of medications and often end up keeping old medications around the house or flushing them down the toilet. Our team opted to raise awareness about this issue and to be a part of the solution by creating the ThinkPharm campaign, which involved handing out flyers and directing community members to a centralized education base, ThinkPharm.org. The goal was to reduce inadequate medication disposal and medication bottle disposal through a strong educational outreach.
How did you choose your topic?
While there is some discussion about this issue, it is not highly prevalent in the mainstream media. It seemed to need more attention and to be addressed. Many people are flushing pharmaceuticals down the toilet and are not aware that this is impacting the water supply. Education can help reduce this practice. In addition, most people are not aware that amber medicine bottles are not recyclable in most curbside programs. It appears that take-back and recycling events are not available everywhere and are infrequent in many communities.
Did you have to do a lot of research?
Yes. We had to explore FDA Guidelines, potential solutions that already exist, and overall perceptions of the problem. Some research was completed online and other research was completed via conversations or discussions with the community and with pharmacy or medical professionals.
Why did your team initially think that improper medication disposal was an important topic?
While doing the initial research to explore the topic, the team noticed that there wasn’t a centralized place to find information about FDA Guidelines, take-back events, and medicine bottle recycling. For example, most websites simply told people to check with their local waste management companies or municipalities to see if any pharmaceutical take-back events or medicine bottle recycling events were planned in their areas. This would require a significant effort for the average person to track down, which probably results in improper disposal because the right solution isn’t made simple. The issues of improper pharmaceutical disposal and medicine bottle recycling also seemed to lack attention despite their potential long-term impact on water supplies and the environment.
What did you enjoy most about the experience?
We greatly enjoyed working together as a cohesive unit to solve a complex and large-scale problem. Our team enjoyed brainstorming the solution and also creating the campaign components, including the Public Service Announcement Video.
You approached national chain pharmacies or drugstores in order to expand your reach and further the project. Did you have any luck in securing partnerships or establishing communication with these stores?
We primarily focused on speaking to local pharmacy or medical professionals for its initial research to measure perceptions and reactions to a potential ThinkPharm program with the intent to approach national pharmacy chain headquarters in the future. Most people who the team spoke to were receptive to the idea and confirmed the need for further community education related to the responsible disposal of pharmaceuticals and recycling of medicine bottles.
What was the biggest challenge your team faced in putting this project together?
Our biggest challenge was time because this is a large-scale initiative. We created a website concept (prototype) to establish our idea for a centralized ThinkPharm information base, but the back-end database work will be extensive to finish this resource and will require corporate sponsorship for funding of development. However, we were able to establish a detailed and well-organized action plan for the ThinkPharm Program that sets the framework for future rollout, including an Awareness Campaign, potential Corporate Sponsorship Program, and the website concept.
What are the next steps for Greengineers?
We are going to explore finding a corporate sponsor to help us continue work on this program. We are also planning to participate in the remaining Lexus Eco Challenges. As high school seniors, we are also preparing for college enrollment next year in engineering and medical fields.
-- Jessica Quinones, Scholastic
The "Greengineers:" Pawel, Evan, Krusha, Jamie, Jill