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As part of the University’s Green Impact scheme, more experienced teams select a particular environmental topic that they would like to focus on. This year we’ve seen three outstanding Excellence projects dealing with carbon emissions, single-use plastics and antibiotic waste. We’ve been talking to the teams behind the projects to get the inside scoop on how they achieved their award-winning results. 

Tracking carbon emissions at CISL

The Green Impact team at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) have spent the last seven months combining historic and current data to produce a tool to track the department’s carbon emissions.

Whilst the tool is still being refined, it is designed to track scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions which would include the following: emissions that arise from direct emission (e.g. from owned or controlled sources such as gas boilers) and indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity. Scope 3 emissions refer to indirect emissions such as those arising from staff commuting, waste and water treatment, and business travel such as flights. Quantifying Scope 3 emissions is a notoriously difficult and complex task but in producing the tool the team were careful to reach out to others. They used gas and electricity data supplied by the University and travel data from Key Travel and Panther Taxis. The team also used waste data that they gathered as part of their 2018-19 Green Impact Excellence project, wonderfully demonstrating how Green Impact can build year on year.

Engaging with staff and key stakeholders was a huge part of CISL’s Excellence project this year. Late in 2019 they surveyed staff on how they commute to work and in early 2020 they asked staff to complete the WWF Carbon Footprint Calculator and feed the results back to the Green Impact team. The results of these surveys gave the team valuable data but also kick-started conversations which were supported by weekly emails full of tips and tricks for reducing your carbon footprint.

According to Candice Worsteling who has been working on the project, one of the “biggest successes” of the project has been the internal policy changes it's helped bring about. The Green Impact team met with senior management and, as a result, a new flight policy and Environmental Management Strategy will be implemented in the future. For the CISL team, this project has initiated some really strong working relationships which will enable CISL to not only monitor but improve their carbon footprint going forward.

If any Green Impact teams are looking into similar projects, please contact us and we can put you in touch with Candice and the team. However, you don’t have to address the problem at this scale, as Candice says, combined with the circumstances caused by COVID-19, the project “has raised questions about how we may shift the overall delivery of our work and whether we’ll see an increase in virtual engagement and online delivery” – this is something that we would encourage all departments to think about as we negotiate the ‘new normal’.

Tackling single-use plastics at Churchill College

Before Alison even gets started talking about the project, she’s keen to thank key people involved in the project including Shelley Surtees, David Oakley, Rosemary Saunders and Edie Turner and it’s clear from the impact of this project, that it was a team effort. Alison Ming and the Green Impact team at Churchill have been working to reduce single-use plastics around the College site, with a particular focus on the catering and conferencing aspects of the College.

If the team had been able to carry on their actions throughout the year (which was not possible due to the pandemic), they estimate that they would have achieved a 4% reduction in single-use plastics which equates to over 2 tonnes! Alison modestly admits that they were actually “quite proud” of this result…

Catering and conferencing are often major sources of plastic waste, at Churchill they were particularly looking to target single-use bottles, confectionary wrappers, yoghurt pots, coffee cups, takeaway containers, complementary toiletries, bin liners and more. The fantastic catering team were keen to take on the challenge and saw some clear successes quite rapidly. A coffee cup charge led to a 90% drop in the use of plastic-coated paper cups with sales remaining high, but the impact of a weigh and pay counter was slightly more complex. All wrapped confectionary items were removed from the College bar and instead a weigh and pay snacks counter was introduced. Although this dramatically reduced the amount of single-use plastic, it did also result in a 50% reduction in sales of unwrapped snacks.

The biggest change (roughly 50% of Churchill’s estimated total of 2 tonnes), came from removing single-use plastic drinks bottles – a tip worth knowing for other Colleges! 

The conferencing team have been looking into alternatives to some of the single-use plastics used and are currently exploring biodegradable toiletry bottles but still face challenges such as clean laundry coming back from the supplier wrapped in single-use plastic. If any other Colleges have found alternatives or solutions to similar issues, let us know

Combined with the large-scale changes above, the team engaged with students and the wider Churchill community. They ran a litter-pick in College grounds (despite the rain!) and turned any unrecyclable plastic into ecobricks which can be used to build structures such as veg planters and more. The project has been supported at all levels of the College and, whilst some of the changes have had to be reversed to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, we look forward to seeing Churchill continue to lead the way in tackling single-use plastics in Cambridge Colleges.

Exploring antibiotic waste in PDN

The Green Impact team from the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience are no strangers to Excellence awards. Last year their Excellence project focused on the impact of work-related air travel undertaken by members of the department and this year they have challenged themselves with another complex issue – this time one of public health.

Deaths caused by antibiotic resistant infections are on the rise and antibiotic waste (any waste that includes antibiotics in any way) can enter the water system from multiple sources, including labs. Once in the water system it is thought that it may contribute to the development of resistances. Research is still ongoing to understand just how all these factors interplay but leading authorities have advised people not to flush excess antibiotics down the drain. Given the potential risks associated with antibiotic disposal, the team at PDN wanted to not only learn more about the problem but ensure appropriate waste disposal measures were in place in their labs.    

Following a period of research, the Green Impact team found that a 1% solution of fresh Virkon will oxidize and destroy most antibiotics and that autoclaving will destroy most heat labile antibiotics. In practice, this meant that the current approved departmental policy for waste disposal was already dealing with antibiotic waste appropriately. Whilst this was definitely good news, a staff survey conducted by the team found that whilst two-thirds of respondents used antibiotics every day in their research, there was a wide variety of disposal methods being used. The next steps for the Green Team were to ensure that people were aware of what the appropriate waste disposal steps should be and that risk assessments were complied with.

We know that revisiting risk assessments can be everyone’s least-favourite task but thinking carefully about the waste that goes down the sink is so important to ensure you aren’t contributing to an environmental hazard. The PDN Green Team are continuing to raise awareness of their findings with lab managers and colleagues so if your lab is interested in hearing more, please get in touch!