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Children are the true ambassadors for recycling corks

Portugal 18/9/2020

People love what they know. That is why it’s so important to pass on the message and talk about the characteristics and potential of cork. Working at Corticeira Amorim since 2003, as part of Amorim Cork’s communication team, Joana Mesquita is one of the most active figures in the group’s awareness and educational initiatives. Her mission is to give a voice to cork. To allow children and young people to gain a deeper knowledge of this unique raw material, including its sustainability and importance for Portugal. Passionate about what she does, she believes that cork will be part of the future of these generations, and that makes her job even more rewarding.

You joined the group in 2003. How did the educational initiatives in schools begin?

In 2004, we received requests from schools and universities to visit our units. Most of the visits at that time were technical, linked to viticulture and oenology, and also the areas of hospitality, economics, industry and design.
The requests then started to increase. In certain cases we were also asked to go to educational establishments, so that we could reach a larger number of students.

Studying forests in Portugal was already part of the curriculum, and this was then complemented by the concept of Eco-Schools. There was greater interest in cork and Corticeira Amorim. Unfortunately, schools say that companies aren’t always open to support such initiatives. But that wasn’t the case for us at Corticeira Amorim. We always wanted to share and expand our knowledge about cork, which we understand better than anyone. But at the same time, due to safety reasons, nursery schools and primary schools couldn’t visit our production lines inside the factory and could only visit the Cork Museum. That was how we began training initiatives in schools, in 2011.

What kind of initiatives does Corticeira Amorim develop in the educational field and in terms of raising awareness in the school community??

The initiatives we develop for children and young people cover all ages - from nursery school to university. We didn’t decide which schools to include. We started by developing initiatives with the schools and universities that contacted us. We started to receive an increasing number of requests and often the teachers, and the people in charge of the groups, asked to repeat the actions over consecutive years, given that the classes are different. In the case of schools in the municipality of Santa Maria da Feira, we often received requests from students’ parents, who are also employees at Amorim.

What are the main messages conveyed to this audience? What are the key objectives? How do they vary in function of the students’ ages?

The initiatives are designed in function of the age groups. In general, we want them to learn about cork as a raw material, its sustainability and what it represents for Portugal. I always bring an “Educational Kit” with me - which includes cork planks, sections from which cork stoppers have been punched out, granules and other products from Corticeira Amorim, as well as articles, brochures and books about cork. The focus on sustainability and circularity is also very important. That’s why we place special attention on the question of recycling cork stoppers!

For example, for very young children, from 3 to 5 years old, we have to use very simple terms. These pre-school students start by watching the film “David in the Cork Adventure”. At the end I ask some questions about the film, we talk about the animals and plants found in cork oak forests and the properties of cork. The experience primarily involves a practical and sensory approach - because they love to touch cork. At the end, they receive a book or a brochure with a story and a “rolhinhas” collection bin, which is used to collect cork stoppers for recycling. They can take theses items home with them, and then ask and explain to their parents why it’s so important to recycle cork stoppers.

We also organise initiatives for primary school pupils, from 6 to 10 years old. The language can be a little more elaborate, because they already know how to read. They are the most receptive age group in these initiatives because they really want to participate and say what they think. It's really fun. The sessions also begin with the film “David in the Cork Adventure” and then we talk about the Portuguese forest, native species, endangered species and the importance of recycling. I always call them the “cork stopper police” because teachers say that their family members tell them about the lesson they later receive from their children. They are the true ambassadors for recycling cork stoppers. For example pupils from the Ribeirão schools grouping, in Famalicão, or from the schools grouping in Santarém, ask restaurants to save cork stoppers for them, which they then take to school! In some schools, students receive a diploma for having taken part in the cork stopper recycling initiative. At the end, they also receive the book or brochure, with a story and a “rolhinhas” collection bin. In certain cases, for example in the Municipality of Coruche, we did even more, and involved technicians related to beekeeping, forestry and study of birds. Handicrafts are also sometimes carried out, using recycled corks.

What initiatives do you organise with young people?

For the 11 - 14 and 15 - 17 age groups, I begin by talking to the teachers to find out what their final objective is. Then I adapt the key message and language to the group and the students’ social environment. To trigger students' interest in cork, I often begin by talking about cork’s “invisible” applications, that they are almost certainly unaware of - surfing, aerospace, football, fashion, etc. - but with which they can easily identify with. I use audiovisual media and references that are familiar to them. For these age groups, I use the institutional film and a Power Point presentation, that demonstrates cork’s various applications in different professional activities. In the end it is important to ensure that everyone knows where they can find more information about the company – our websites and social network pages.
Finally, we have professional courses and undergraduate degree courses. For this segment, every request is treated differently, because the areas of study are extremely diverse. We begin by making a brief presentation of Corticeira Amorim’s universe, and then we go into detail in the desired subject area. In certain situations, we use sales teams and technical teams from different business areas. Many are interested in learning about the requirements for working for a company such as Corticeira Amorim.

You are one of the main people associated with these awareness and educational initiatives. What motivates you to become involved in these types of initiatives?

First of all, I believe in the project and the company, and I really like what I do!
I like to think that I am making a difference to the lives of these children and young people.
Sometimes we work with children who have physical or learning disabilities and it’s incredible to see the enthusiasm with which they receive what they are given, even with these limitations. I receive kisses, hugs and requests to come back the next day. You go home with a feeling of great human warmth.

When I was at school I went on several study visits that I can still remember today. I think I must have been five years old when I visited a book printing company. I went home with a personalised stamp, with my name on it. I remember loving the experience!
Later, in secondary school and university, I had contact with professionals from different areas and I can still remember the subjects presented, and above all some of the important messages I received from these people - who left a mark on my professional career. Issues such as learning languages, reading, short professional experiences during the summer holidays, the importance of flexibility and adapting to our surroundings and respect for that which has been already achieved, even if we do not always agree with it... Today I try to give back what I was given.

Have you encountered any kind of myth or preconceived idea about cork amongst young children?

Young children know very little about cork. I always start by asking about the area in which Portugal is the best in the world. The first thing they mention is football, but never cork ... At the end of the presentation, I repeat the question to see whether the message has got across (smiles).

For older age groups, many still think that cork is just about cork stoppers and is a thing of the past. I love to see their look of surprise when they realise that cork will probably be part of their future!

And what have you learned from the students over the past few years? Do you feel that there is a greater awareness among children and young people about the importance of protecting our planet?

Children and young people are much more aware of the need to protect the environment and the planet than we were. We were told that we had to nurture a better world for our children. They tell us today that the world would not have the problems it has if it weren't for people’s actions, and that we have to nurture better children for our world. Our educational project undoubtedly contributes to this goal!