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Single Out Survey Results

Earlier this year, we reported that an estimated 97% of the University’s waste comes from single-use items. This means a mountain of waste - roughly 1800 tonnes - is generated every year by staff, students, and visitors to our buildings from items which are only ever used once before disposal.

In early 2021, we asked you to contribute to our Single Out Survey to help identify and quantify single-use wastes across the University. Nearly 50 groups of staff from across the University provided estimates of how many single-use items they get through every year in response to the survey. Together, the 150 different single-use items found by the survey amount to over 1 million items being disposed of from our buildings and departments every year. So, what are the biggest hitters?

Plastic is the most common single-use material

Making up 46% of disposables by weight, plastic was unsurprisingly the most common material to be found in the single-use items. The Single Out campaign is deliberately focused on all types of single-use item, as each material has its own environmental impacts in production, use and disposal, so it’s interesting to see that over half of items are not plastic.


Packaging and deliveries result in the most waste

Waste from packaging and deliveries is the top source of single use-waste, followed closely by research-related waste (mainly lab disposables). Together these account for over half of all single-use items.


Items from labs have a big impact

We already knew that lab-related disposables have a big effect on the University’s waste generation, the survey results confirmed this and also helped find out which ones are producing the most waste. By looking at both the number used, and the weight of each item, we found that six of the top 10 single-use items were from labs, with petri dishes, cell culture flasks, pipette tips and bond covertiles the items which add the most to our waste.

The big hitters include some surprises...

Beyond lab disposables, there are still plenty of familiar single-use items which really add to the University’s waste outputs. Splitting these out from the lab-related items, it’s clear that cardboard boxes are way out in front as the biggest waste culprit, followed by printer paper and disposable cups. Other big hitters include magazines/catalogues, plastic wrapping for deliveries, paper towels, and milk bottles.

How can staff get involved?

The ultimate goal of the Single Out campaign is to seek ways to reduce those items which contribute the most to the University’s waste. The results of our survey have helped us to identify and prioritise these items, we can now focus on finding and trialling different solutions. Options could include eliminating certain items altogether, reducing the amount we use, finding alternatives which have a lower impact, approaching suppliers to encourage waste-reducing changes in the design or delivery of items, and/or seeking out alternative recycling options. In March 2021 we ran two workshops, supported by OurCambridge, where we focused on the top items emerging from our survey, and used the input of staff to come up with practical solutions to reducing single-use items which can be adopted at departmental levels, and University-wide. We'll be digesting the results of these workshops and sharing some of the results in due course, but in the meantime just drop us an email if you have an idea for reducing single-use items, would like advice on a particular issue, or would like to get involved.

Written by Peter Lumb, Environmental Coordinator