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While almost all recycling occurs outside of the University itself by specialist waste contractors and processors, there are still things that University institutions and their staff can do to ensure that waste is appropriately prepared and separated for recycling, the right collection infrastructure is in place, and staff are supported to sort waste correctly.

Audits have shown that as much as 46% of the contents of the University’s trade waste bins were placed in the incorrect bins by staff and students. Performance varies significantly across the University, but we have a good idea of what actions support good recycling practices, and many examples of institutions significantly improving their performance. For instance:

  • The University Library, through a review of waste collections, education of staff, and a refresh of bins signage, reduced the proportion of waste sent to (non-recyclable) general waste bins from 75% to 22%
  • The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, through a project to educate and engage staff as well as audit waste outputs and identify problem waste streams, reduced contamination of the mixed recycling waste stream from 19% to just 2%.
  • In the Institute for Manufacturing, a project to replace and consolidate internal bins with new standardised bins and signage coincided with a 7% increase in the proportion of waste being placed in recycling bins

How to improve your department's recycling rates - a checklist

Our waste bins follow the seven best practice principles 

We ensure staff are aware of recycling procedures enlightened
We identify and act on issues such as contamination and overflow of bins enlightened
We provide food waste collections wherever feasible enlightened

We provide recycling routes for alternative waste steams including, as a minimum, batteries, printer ink/toner, and e-waste


We review our waste performance regularly


The checklist above is a simple way of checking whether your department meets the recycling criteria. You can click each criterion for more information and case studies of how others have achieved these. See also our waste reuse criteria and waste reduction criteria to see if your department is a true waste and recycling champion.

Seven simple principles for encouraging recycling

1. Clearly labelled

All bins should be labelled with up-to-date signage so that users are well informed. Ideally have a label on the bin showing what goes in it. If space is short, opt for one large, clear label with the waste stream name (e.g. Dry Mixed Recycling), and a ‘what goes in this bin’ label displayed nearby. Don't over-label an area so that it becomes confusing. 

2. Consolidated

Reduce the number of bins overall, cutting out individual bins for each staff member or workstation. Individual bins encourage thoughtless disposal, but also require lining by paper or plastic, increasing waste generation and contamination, and take longer for cleaners to empty. 

3. Accessible

Recycling bins should outnumber general waste bins, so that recycling is favoured. Communal ‘bin stations’ with one of each main stream (e.g. recycling, general and food) are preferable to single separate bins, as they allow staff to make the right choice at the point of disposal. 

4. Convenient

Opt for ‘bin stations’ in well-frequented areas or near waste generating activities, such as kitchens, canteens and print rooms. If a common waste stream is found in that area (for instance paper towels in a kitchen, crisp packets near a vending machine, or paper near a printer), consider a specific notice on disposal. 

5. Sufficiently large

Avoid overflow by ensuring recycling bins are as large as general waste. Food waste bins in particular should be right-sized to prevent unsightly overflow. 

6. Consistent

Keep recycling bins consistent in their colour and style throughout your building so they are easily identifiable. If not every bin matches style or colour, ensure labelling is clear.  

7. Lined with the correct lining

Where linings are used for bins, a clear plastic bag should be used for recyclable waste, and black for general waste. As well as supporting cleaners and waste contractors to identify wastes in transit, this acts as a subtle hint to staff and students.


Click here for an infographic showing how these seven rules look in practice.

Raising awareness of recycling procedures and issues

While clear, simple, and up-to-date signage will help, they can become ‘wallpaper’ over time. For new staff and students, a simple recycling tutorial as part of the induction is invaluable. If you give out an induction pack to new department members, this could include a page or two on environmental matters, outlining what goes in the recycling bins and where the bins are located. If you have introductory lectures for students, include information on bin locations and recycling protocol. We’ve got some handouts and slides on our resources page you can copy to adapt for your department! For existing staff the circulation of periodic reminders is an easy win, while competitions and audits (see below) can make a big impact.

Case study: The Centre for Mathematical Sciences are one of a number of buildings who have run ‘waste-sorting competitions’, harnessing competitiveness by asking staff to sort waste materials into a set of bins during a waste-sorting competition. Use boxes to represent bins, gather a range of (clean!) materials and see how quickly people can sort the items correctly.  
Case study: Putting on a film screening is a great way to put departmental practices in a global context and remind people why their actions matter. There are lots of fantastic waste-related films to see. Greenwich House opted to put on a lunchtime screening of ‘The Story Of Stuff’ for staff. 
Case study: Hearing from your own waste contractor is a great way for staff to understand what happens to their waste. Clare College are one part of the University to have done this. At the request of the College’s Environment Committee, a representative from Amey Cespa was asked to come and speak to staff. Many turned up to learn about why we need to be recycling, as well as the importance of reducing the amount of waste that we produce in total.

Identifying, and acting on, common waste issues

When staff see an overflowing bin or a bin full of the wrong wastes, they are less likely to recycle correctly. Keeping tabs on these issues and offering timely reminders is a great way to make the correct recycling behaviours the default. Part of this is engaging with cleaning and facilities staff/contractors to ensure that they are aware of separation and disposal procedures, and are empowered to report back on issues they spot.  

Case study: Earth Sciences are one department who employ their own cleaners. The department approached the Environment and Energy Section to run a training session for cleaners, to highlight recycling and waste issues at the University and discuss the vital role that cleaners have in ensuring waste is recycled correctly, while also providing a forum to identify and feed back on problem areas within the building and how infrastructure could be improved. 

Providing food waste collections

A key cause of contamination of recycling and general waste bins is food waste. While food waste can go into general waste bins, this is more expensive than food waste disposal, while presence of a food bin also helps minimise the risk of contamination of dry mixed recyclable streams - even small amounts of food waste can result in a whole bin of dry mixed recycling being rejected! Food waste collections may not be feasible in every part of your building, but they should ideally be provided in areas where food is produced in significant amounts, such as cafés, break rooms or kitchens. External food waste bins can be requested from  

Providing recycling routes for alternative waste steams

Batteries, e-waste and toners must be kept out of mixed recycling streams for legal and safety reasons. Meanwhile there are lots of optional single-stream recycling collections like pens and crisp packets which can provide a positive means of boosting recycling rates and engaging with staff on the issue of recycling. See the Waste A-Z for more details and suggestions of what to recycle and how.

Reviewing your waste performance

Keeping track of your waste performance over time can help to identify strengths and weaknesses in your waste production and segregation, as well as benchmark yourself against similar departments. It's now possible to view your building or site’s waste performance thanks to the user-friendly web portal which provides information on waste disposal dating back to 2017 for all sites served by the University's main waste contract. By understanding the amount of waste your department generates, and how much of it is recycled on a monthly basis, you can gain insights into how you can improve your performance over time!

Tip: Why not download our poster to display to colleagues how much your building is recycling?

Case study: The University Library are one institute who review their waste data on a monthly basis, allowing the identification of trends and helping to keep track of performance over time. 
Case study: While waste data is one way to monitor performance, The Faculty of Philosophy are one team who carried out ‘spot checks’ of waste with a simple but comprehensive bin audit. Mis-categorised waste was taken out of bins, weighed and the results sent to all members of staff. As well as highlighting common problem-wastes where staff were unsure of disposal practices, this helps keep recycling forefront in the mind of staff when they next go to dispose of waste! 

See also: Waste reuse guidance

See also: Waste reduction guidance