Young people helping companies achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals at Port Esbjerg

Mushrooms, straw and grain husks may help make the packaging of the future more sustainable. Pupils from Rybners technical college in Esbjerg got the idea from an innovation programme facilitated by UN SDG house GenIN. GenIN is helping companies based at the port of Esbjerg put the UN SDGs into practice, while the programme is part of a 2-year collaborative venture with the company Polytech.

Mushrooms, straw and grain husks – perhaps not the first items you think of as packaging material for products that have to be shipped around the world.

Nevertheless, they are the raw materials in a green packaging solution developed by a group of second year pupils at Rybners technical college (‘HTX’) during a programme run by UN SDG house GenIN (Verdensmålshuset GenIN) in collaboration with Polytech in autumn 2021.

Polytech designs and produces technical solutions for offshore wind turbines that are shipped out from the port of Esbjerg. UN SDG house GenIN runs activities related to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and facilitates collaboration between companies and educational institutions.

“Our mission is to help companies work with the UN SDGs in real life,” says founder and owner Gert Barslund.

This is done in various ways, and one is to bring schools, educational programmes and companies together in a concrete manifestation of the UN SDGs.

More than half of all enquiries stem from companies based in the harbour area. Port Esbjerg has agreed to let GenIN use a former fish packing facility at the harbour as a kind of science centre in which to coordinate its work with the UN SDGs via meetings, events and cases that can stimulate the development of ideas.

“This is exactly the type of innovation and collaboration Port Esbjerg is keen to support. Achieving the goals of the green transition requires working together across the entire value chain and getting the next generation onboard to help develop the solutions of the future,” says CEO Dennis Jul Pedersen.

GenIN offers various programmes depending on how far a company has progressed in its work with the UN SDGs. Some companies have difficulty making a tangible start to their work on the UN SDGs, and the programmes help the company to integrate them into their business, marketing and much more.

The group of students who won the GenIN and Polytech project.

UN SDGs in real life

One particular programme is designed to put focus on one of the UN SDGs by getting young people involved in real cases from a company. Polytech initiated its collaboration with GenIN because it was keen to work towards reducing the environmental impact of the packaging used for its components.

The programme culminated in a panel of judges, which included a representative of Port Esbjerg, selecting a winner. Central to the winning proposal is that the packaging should henceforth be made from mushrooms.

Two of the young people behind the idea, Noah Nicol and Sofie Ravn Christensen, both 18 years old, had just learned about mushrooms and fungi in their biology class. That inspired them to utilise the mushrooms’ root network (mycelium), which can be used as a binding material and functions like a rope with lots of small knots.

“We wanted to use a waste product and came up with this idea,” says Noah Nicol.

The prototype was made using stalks from hemp production, which are bound together using the mushrooms’ root network. This acts like a glue. The pupils also see possibilities in waste products from rapeseed, hay and straw.

Meanwhile, the young people are investigating the potential for moulding the product into small peanut-shaped pieces that could replace polystyrene. If they succeed, the solution could be scaled up and tailored to many products.

“We continue to work on our idea, as we hope to further develop it into the best possible product – and preferably for more companies. We’re starting small and seeing what emerges,” says Noah Nicol.

A selection of the young people who help companies achieve the world goals at Port Esbjerg.

New generation of idea developers

The impetus for connecting young people with the corporate world revolves around both good ideas and the workforce of the future.

“We need young people to be able to think in sustainability terms, and we have to help them take responsibility for a better world. Many companies are keen to reach out to young people, so they can strengthen their profile among that generation. At the same time, young people want to get a taste of the real world,” says Gert Barslund.

Adolescents and children as young as ten participate, so they do not necessarily have the technical skills to solve the challenges. However, they can contribute creative and alternative thoughts, and then the companies can elevate these to a professional level.

The project with Polytech is a good example of this. The young school kids pitched 40 ideas, with the winning projects then being professionally developed.

Interest in sending concrete cases to school pupils is increasing, according to Gert Barslund.

“The potential here is huge. Both with respect to this specific project and in the longer term. We have also begun to work with Aalborg University, so the perspectives are huge, and companies can see this,” he says.

The young people from Rybners college also have big ideas about where this specific project should end. They are keen to start their own company and to further develop the solution.

“Being able to work professionally with a company like Polytech instead of doing a school assignment is a fantastic opportunity. We’re almost 100% certain we can make sustainable packaging with these materials, so now we’re trying to launch both nationally and internationally. It’s fantastic. No-one expected this when we started,” says 18-year-old Sofie Ravn Christensen, who is already in the process of developing new ideas:

“Why stop with mushrooms for blade packaging? We’re also considering waste agricultural material. We want to work with real sustainability challenges and help make a difference,” says Sofie Ravn Christensen.

Gert Barslund is equally enthusiastic.

“When two parties can meet each other like this and create something, then the project has succeeded in my opinion. And this can help strengthen both the young people and the companies,” he says.

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