The importance of reducing waste and recycling in universities.
Waste in universities is a big problem. Whilst the education sector produces nearly 700,000 tonnes of waste each year (Sustainability Exchange), about 250,000 tonnes is produced solely by universities (HESA). And if this waste isn’t disposed of properly, it can harm our environment. But it’s not all doom and gloom; universities are doing - and can do - their bit to help.
Many universities across the UK have implemented waste reduction and recycling initiatives because of their positive impact on the environment and because they can help universities save money, provide educational opportunities, and enhance their reputation. And those universities yet to act are likely to be actively considering their options.
Higher education institutions are, therefore, at the forefront of making change happen. By implementing waste reduction and recycling policies on university sites, they’re helping to educate and change behaviour in our next generation of leaders.
Whether you’re doing your bit, considering doing more, or just curious to make a start, we want to help university stakeholders (such as the governing body, vice-chancellor, and faculty members) understand the problem, but more importantly, understand the solutions to the problem.
What type of waste do universities produce?
University is a big place, home to many different types of people. Not only will you have students and teaching staff, but there’s also a lot of support and administration staff spread across multiple campuses. And not forgetting the various halls of residence too. This means that all kinds of different waste types are produced at university.
- Paper: Universities generate significant amounts of paper waste. Consider the role that different university staff members, teaching and non-teaching staff, and the students play in generating paper waste. This can be caused by excessive printing, photocopying, and unnecessary paper use, e.g. printing lecture notes. Additionally, many universities receive a large volume of paper-based mail and documents that may go unused.
- Plastic waste: Plastic waste can be found on campuses, halls, and administration offices. For example, water bottles, food packaging, straws, stirrers, plastic bags for groceries, and even plastic at campus events, parties, and conferences like cups, utensils, and plates. The University of Nottingham throws away more than 1.5 million plastic drink bottles and disposable coffee cups yearly on campus (The University of Nottingham).
- Cans and glass: Students also produce a lot of waste on campus and in halls through aluminium cans for fizzy drinks, energy drinks, and alcohol. Glass waste typically comes from food and drink, like glass bottles and jars. But also from universities with laboratories that use a lot of beakers, flasks, and test tubes and those with art and design studios where projects may involve glass-based media like blowing and staining.
- Food: Food waste is a significant problem at universities. Consider the number of cafeterias, dining halls, and other food service facilities common on campus, plus the self-catered kitchens in halls and student homes. Several factors contribute to university food waste, including overproduction, over-ordering ingredients, and improper food storage and handling.
- Electronic waste: Universities also produce a lot of electronic waste, for example, from outdated computer equipment, mobile phones and other electronic devices, and batteries. Certain types of universities may also produce hazardous waste from laboratories, medical facilities, and other research facilities. In fact, some universities specialise in a particular subject, for example, catering, in which case, it would be typical to see more significant volumes of a specific type of waste.
As large institutions with significant environmental impacts, universities have an important role in promoting sustainability and reducing waste. By implementing policies to reduce, reuse and recycle, universities can help reduce the amount of waste they generate and reduce their environmental impact.
How can universities mitigate their impact on the environment?
It all starts with education. Universities can educate their staff and students – through courses, programmes, campaigns, and events - on sustainability issues and encourage them to adopt sustainable practices. Listed below are some ways that universities are helping to reduce their impact on the environment.
Waste reduction and recycling
Incorrect disposal of waste can have significant environmental consequences. When waste is not segregated correctly before collection, it can end up in a landfill and will likely include items that could have been recycled. This means valuable resources are wasted, and harmful materials are buried in the ground.
Universities can reduce their waste generation by implementing a zero-waste policy, promoting recycling and composting, and encouraging the use of reusable materials. They can also reduce food waste by implementing programs such as a “too good to go” policy where leftover food from campus canteens is sold at a discounted price, a community fridge, and food donation points.
Being more energy efficient
Universities use large amounts of energy to power their buildings, run laboratories, and operate IT infrastructure. By not being energy efficient, universities contribute to the overall carbon footprint of their communities and exacerbate the environmental impacts of climate change. Additionally, inefficient energy use can increase costs and university financial expenses.
Universities can reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprint by implementing energy-efficient practices and technologies. This can include upgrading buildings with better insulation, installing efficient lighting and HVAC systems, and encouraging staff and students to conserve energy.
Making sustainable choices
Unsustainable transportation and procurement practices made by a university can impact the environment. For example, many students and staff commute to university using personal vehicles or travel internationally, leading to higher carbon emissions. Equally, procuring single-use items and sourcing goods and services like food, furniture, and technology via unsustainable suppliers can impact the environment.
Sustainable transportation options like cycling, walking, and public transportation should be encouraged or incentivised by universities. They can also provide bike parking facilities and electric vehicle charging stations. Universities should also prioritise sustainable procurement practices by choosing environmentally friendly products and services, such as green cleaning products, recycled paper, and locally sourced food.
The green impact scheme
Green Impact is a United Nations award-winning programme designed to support the environmental and socially sustainable practices of universities. It is part of the NUS (National Union of Students) wider sustainability behaviour change programme. Green Impact follows a cyclical process over approximately 12 months, which can be adapted to suit your university's needs, objectives, and culture.
Circular economy thinking
Universities are vital in ensuring students have the skills and knowledge to apply circular thinking in their chosen careers. Created by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the Circular Economy in Education programme provides resources and guidance to universities and higher education institutions on implementing circular economy principles into their operations and curriculum.
Better for the environment
Implementing a reduce, reuse, recycle policy can help universities reduce their environmental impact by conserving natural resources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and decreasing the amount of waste sent to landfills.
Be more cost-effective
Implementing waste reduction and recycling programs can lead to significant cost savings for universities. By reducing waste and diverting it from landfills, universities can save money on waste disposal fees and reduce the need to purchase new materials.
A more positive reputation
By demonstrating a commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility, universities can enhance their reputation and appeal to environmentally conscious students, faculty, and staff.
Implementing waste reduction and recycling programs can provide educational opportunities for students and faculty, allowing them to learn about sustainability and environmental issues. Moreover, it can equip young adults with the right environmentally friendly behaviours before they enter adulthood.