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Those of you who have tried to reduce the amount of plastic in your life as part of Plastic Free July will know how tricky it can sometimes be. Plastic really is everywhere.

Now imagine trying to reduce plastic in your department. Where would you start? How much is there? How do you reach out to all of your colleagues? It could be an intimidating task to say the least, but that did not deter two University departments who took on this challenge as part of their participation in Green Impact this year.

CRUK-CI breaking down the polystyrene wall

Polystyrene is one of the most widely used plastics. Its low weight and insulating properties make it ideal for transporting many items needed in University laboratories each day. However, it is very slow to break down naturally, difficult to recycle and can often be found as litter in outdoor environments. While its weight may be low, this means that polystyrene waste takes up a large amount of space in waste collection bins and bays across the University.

It is for this reason that the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute (CRUK) decided to tackle the problem of polystyrene. CRUK processes approximately 16m3 of polystyrene each month. The impact of this could be seen at their ‘polystyrene awareness day’, when the team created a wall from the polystyrene they had collected over just 3 weeks (Figure 1). This eye catching installation got staff talking and the team used the information provided to them to gain an understanding of polystyrene use across the department.

Polystyrene wall

Figure 1 Polystyrene wall at CRUK

CRUK reached out to other departments in the University to create a consortium of departments who will work together to reduce polystyrene and create options for recycling. To date there are 11 sites tackling this issue, and CRUK are keen to have more join. There is strength in numbers and by coming together the consortium and Central Procurement are working together to influence the companies that the University buys from. Each supplier has been contacted and has been made aware of the University’s wish to reduce polystyrene where possible. There are ways that these companies can help the University to reduce polystyrene; they can use sustainable alternatives, they can avoid using unnecessary polystyrene in deliveries (Figure 2) and they can put in place a returns scheme. There is now a demand for companies to change what has been standard practice and as time goes on we will hopefully see a change in how products are delivered.

Figure 2: Box and eight ice packs used to transport a 1ml tube to PDN

Not content to only look at purchasing, CRUK are currently speaking Mick George Ltd, the University’s main waste contractor, about the viability of setting up a single recycling stream for polystyrene. Again, if this collection goes ahead it will be done in conjunction with other University sites.

If your department would like to join CRUK and reduce the volume of polystyrene where you work contact Erica MacKenzie. Together we can make a difference!

Pioneering PDN

The Physiology, Development and Neuroscience (PDN) Green Impact team tackled not one, but 5 types of plastic in their Green Impact project across 2017/18.

In their laboratories PDN looked at ways to reduce and recycle soft plastic packaging, polystyrene, pens, X-ray film and hard lab plastics such as tubes. This work was not without its challenges as recycling requirements changed and lab plastics could no longer be recycled by the University’s waste contractor Mick George. Despite this the team continued, identifying bad practice from suppliers and educating them on best practice, speaking with staff to encourage reuse where possible, collaborating with the team in BioPath stores to compact polystyrene, and working with other sites in the CRUK polystyrene consortium to find a cross-University solution to the polystyrene challenge.

PDN set up two new successful recycling schemes; one for pens and a second for X-Ray film which, although not produced in significant amounts, contains valuable metals such as silver that can be recovered. Education has been a high priority for the team, PDN meetings and training now include content from the Green Impact team and many staff have become involved in reducing unnecessary plastics where they work.

Both PDN and CRUK have shone a spotlight on plastic in their department. They have measured the scale of the problem and have set about, as best as they can, managing this issue by reducing the amount of plastic they take in and recycling what they can. We will keep you updated on their progress.

Stay tuned next month for details of the results from two more Green Impact ‘Excellence’ projects that took place this year!