Two years of #2023PlasticFree

As our #2023PlasticFree pledge turns two, Lucy Stuart from the Sustainability Service shares her expertise on what single-use plastic is, what the pledge means, and how progress is going.

University Precinct on a sunny day with the text ‘#2023PlasticFree’ overlaid on top.

What does it mean when we talk about single-use plastic?

This is probably the most common question we get about the #2023PlasticFree pledge. We work with the most common definition, used in EU regulations that states “single-use plastics are items that are designed to be used once by the customer before they are disposed of or recycled.”

This includes items such as disposable cutlery, carrier bags (not bags for life), plastic straws, pipette tips, petri dishes, food packaging, delivery wrapping and drinks bottles.

The easiest way to work out if something is single-use would be to ask: Can this plastic item be used on multiple occasions or will you dispose of it moments after using it?

So the pledge isn’t trying to get rid of all plastic?

No, we know that plastic can be a valuable material and has a wide range of uses, many of which are extremely valuable for activities across the University. If the plastic item is being re-used long-term or disposed of (ideally recycled) properly we are happy for it to remain in operation at the University.

What areas of the University are included in our #2023PlasticFree goal?

All areas of University operations are included in the #2023PlasticFree pledge. The University is a large and complex organisation. From the day-to-day running of the University, research and teaching activities, sports facilities, catering, residences and conferences — there are a lot of areas to look for single-use plastic and a lot of processes to review and change to make sure it is removed from use.

Whilst this is a huge task, we’ve made some great progress so far. In the first year of the pledge, we removed 1 million pieces of plastic from use and in year two there have been policy and process changes to remove the products on a large scale.

We have set some boundaries about what is not included though. This includes personal consumption and healthcare facilities that are linked to the NHS.

New designed recycling bins are now on campus.

Why isn’t personal consumption included?

Personal consumption isn’t included because the pledge commits us to changing University operations rather than changing personal habits. However, by showcasing solutions, we hope these will inspire you to make some personal positive changes where you can.

What about single-use plastics used in healthcare facilities?

We don’t include NHS-related healthcare facilities in the pledge. This is because we have to follow NHS procedures where our students, or our research, is linked to the NHS.

We work closely with the NHS’ Sustainability Team, through the Leeds Anchors Plastics Network, and we continue to work collaboratively on solutions. A recent example includes taking part in a nationwide trial of reusable face masks, in order to find a suitable alternative for NHS colleagues to use instead of disposable face masks.

Using glass petri dishes within the Protein Production Facility has cut down on single-use plastic consumption.

What if there isn’t a suitable alternative?

The pledge isn’t just about swapping single-use plastic products for another material, it’s about changing behaviours and operational processes to remove the need for single-use items. We want to support and influence our staff, students, supply chain and industry partners and work together on finding and developing solutions for this critical issue. This also aligns with our circular approach to resource consumption, reducing the use of natural resources in the first place and ultimately leading to reduced carbon emissions and pollution.

For example, using a reusable water bottle or providing glasses removes the need for single-use plastic water cups next to water fountains. This prevents the manufacture, transportation and waste disposal of a product that will be used for just the length of time it takes to drink the water.

We’re undertaking this on a larger scale too, for example, Cleaning Services have changed their operations to have a central delivery point. This has reduced the amount of packaging in their deliveries and enabled large containers of chemicals to be purchased and decanted into smaller, reusable containers.

In all cases we encourage those making the changes to consider the full impact of the proposed changes beforehand and, where possible, use our research capabilities and combined expertise to review this. What we don’t want to do is make a change that ultimately has a worse social or environmental impact.

By working with our supply chain and industry partners, we can understand the latest developments and innovations in single-use plastic alternatives. We know that solutions are being developed all the time, so we keep up to date with this and are often the first to trial new products and processes before they are rolled out more widely.

What are some key achievements ?

There have been so many achievements from staff and students across the University. The best are where we can see the pledge is truly embedded in decision making, or when a staff member makes a change in their area that has a large effect across the University. In most cases they don’t realise the scale of their solution as they just see it as part of their job.

A great example of this is in the Procurement Team where we have worked with Office Depot to remove any single-use plastic items from the University catalogue, along with stipulating targets in their contract for them to reduce single-use plastic in their packaging.

Another great example is when bar staff in LUU proposed the removal of single-use plastic cups from bars to their management. Although there was an initial financial outlay for the purchase of reusable cups and dishwashers, this was signed off by management to align with the pledge.

How can I get involved in the Plastic Pledge?

We need the ideas and input of all of our staff and students to reach our goal, and there are loads of ways you can do this. Staff members can become Sustainability Architects, students can undertake research in their own discipline or anybody can tell us their ideas.

Contact us on plasticfree@leeds.ac.uk to find ways of collaborating with us or visit our webpage.

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