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All staff should be empowered to challenge unnecessary waste, and to work with colleagues to reduce our need for, and use of, disposable resources. Suppliers should also be actively engaged to assist the University in reducing its waste at source.

There are many simple actions University departments can take to eliminate and reduce waste. On this page we set out some of the proven ways of reducing your waste outputs.

Interested in reducing waste? Read about our 'Single Out' campaign which is focusing on eliminating single-use items from around the University.

Waste Reduction Checklist

We carry out stock checks to identify wastage  enlightened
We periodically identify common sources of waste in the department and identify alternatives  enlightened
We purchase items with a lower waste impact  enlightened
We have made simple changes to policies to cut waste, including cutting down on printing, eliminating lecture or meeting handouts, and replacing disposable cups enlightened
We have changed procedures to cut waste, like switching paper-intensive processes to more efficient digital ones enlightened
We engage with our suppliers to encourage reductions in waste enlightened
We have carried out initiatives to educate staff on reducing waste outputs  enlightened

The checklist above is a simple way of checking whether your department meets the waste reduction 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 recycling criteria to see if your department is a true waste and recycling champion.

Taking stock

While you might think ‘all our purchases are necessary’, there will be some resources we buy that aren’t used before they are disposed of, or where we buy more than is really needed. A simple way to tackle this is by careful stock control. Here are a few examples: 

Managing stationery: The Research Operations Office in Greenwich House have a simple sheet on their stationery cupboard. If an item runs out, staff write their request for a replacement, with orders being placed regularly. Rather than a bulk-order of pens drying out in a cupboard, this ‘on demand’ style of purchasing helps ensure items are only purchased when truly needed. 
Lab purchases: The Department of Medicine has trialled vending machines to dispense laboratory disposables. This has reduced waste by eliminating over-ordering by staff, avoiding the problem of items falling out-of-date due to stock control issues, reduced the amount of cardboard and polystyrene boxes received in deliveries through consolidated replenishment consignments, saved over a tonne of dry ice for keeping items cool in transit, and saved £8,600 due to discounted purchasing costs compared to the University marketplace. 
Chemical stocks: University laboratories are encouraged by the Safety Office to adopt Chemical Inventories, with a preferred system now available for use. This can help monitor usage, as well as identify opportunities for resource sharing between departments. 


Swap and save

One of the most effective ways to reduce your department’s waste is to identify the disposable items that are the most commonly used, and see if there are alternatives that produce less waste. The easiest way to do this is to speak to staff about the items they use most, or alternatively a few quick visual checks of bin contents will help spot the most common items. Once identified, investigate whether there is an alternative item that’s either reusable, or if not then lower in weight, easier to separate into recyclable and non-recyclable components, or made from a recyclable or compostable material. One simple change for a commonly-purchased item can have huge cumulative impacts in cutting waste. 

Case study: In Easter 2019 the CAM (Cambridge Alumni Magazine) was wrapped in 100% compostable potato-starch wrap. The move was requested by a number of alumni and, by switching away from the plastic wrapping previously used, is helping to minimise a source of plastics.
Case study: Churchill College have been working hard to reduce single-use plastic – snacks at the College bar are sold by weight in brown paper bags and disposable cups are no longer provided at water dispensers around the College. The College is also looking at plastic waste associated with events, for instance gifting reusable bottles instead of single-use plastic juice bottles. All this has come out of a methodical process to identify and replace single-use plastics. 

Whole life buying

It's an unfortunate fact that many of the items we dispose of every day are single use. However, there are often alternatives which are refillable, reusable, or rechargeable, or even which can be rented and returned to a supplier at the end of its life. Durability is also a key consideration – the cheapest option to buy might not last as long. 

Case study: In 2018/19, Green Impact teams led a shift to tap water rather than bottled water for meetings and events, with 26 departments making the switch. The Isaac Newton Institute are one such institute. Long-term visitors to the building used to be provided with bottled or canned water. This generated a source of unnecessary waste. Instead, the department sourced reusable, refillable bottles made from recycled plastic, and made these available to visitors for £1. The income from the scheme was donated to Wateraid. 


Simple changes to policies

There are many easy changes to policies or processes that can have huge impacts on reducing waste. Here are some examples:

Tackling printer use

A significant proportion of the University's waste is paper. A simple change to reduce this, adopted by 24 departments around the University in 2018/19, is to ensure that duplex (double-sided) printing is the default option. However there's much more that can be done, as these case studies illustrate:

Print queues: At the IMS-MRL, they introduced a print queue hold release which required staff to use their ID badge in order to print, to reduce the amount of unnecessary and unwanted printing, and excessive use of paper.

New systems to cut printing: In the Faculty of Education, a number of changes were brought in to cut down on paper use and printing in the department. Display screens were installed outside meetings rooms to replace paper timetable sheets. The Faculty’s IT team installed PaperCut NG, software that connects printers with a server rather than directly with computers. According to the IT team “there are a whole host of advantages, but the main one is that you're able to deploy new printers and update drivers more easily, set duplex and mono as standard, and users have to opt in for single sided and colour printing”. Replacing small printers in individuals' offices with larger managed devices, including multi-functional devices (MFDs) ensured both a lower cost per-page and higher-quality prints. For certain groups such as University Teaching Officers who sit on many committees, iPads were issued as an effective way of replacing printed agendas, minutes and papers with electronic versions. 

Reducing handouts and agendas

A switch to electronic lecture handouts and meeting agendas, or an ‘opt in’ for printed handouts, can cut paper use significantly. Printing lecture handouts for every student results in huge wastage, and takes significant energy and staff time to generate. Many departments have moved to electronic handouts being the default option. In 2018/19, six departments took proactive steps to reduce hand-outs for meetings and lectures. 

Case studies: At the Department of Philosophy, all handouts for the twice-termly faculty meetings are uploaded on to Google drive, with the link made available to all staff. The papers for their termly staff and student meetings are sent by email with the majority of attendees viewing the agenda from their laptop.  
At the Department of Psychiatry, committee members are informed in advance that no spare handouts will be provided, prior to their meeting.  

The Department of Psychology makes their meeting handouts and agendas available by emailing them to attendees beforehand. 

Eliminating disposable plastic cups

Many water dispensers or coffee machines are stocked with disposable cups, which in most cases are plastic-lined paper or polystyrene (neither of which are accepted in the dry mixed recycling). Encouraging staff to bring a reusable cup, or providing a stock of washable glasses or cups, is a simple way to cut out this waste stream. If visitors might need access to cups, either encourage them to bring their own as part of event invites, or provide a separate stock for visitors only. In 2018/19, 25 departments around the University committed to eliminating disposable drinking cups. 

Having a process in place for preventing unwanted and unsolicited mail and publications from being delivered

Staff could be periodically asked to review what magazines and post they receive, and cancel subscriptions, move to electronic alternatives, or ‘opt out’ from unwanted junk mail. 

Simple changes to procedures

While some printing can be tackled by changing the behaviour of staff and students, there is some printing which is associated with processes, whether it be something that needs a signature, or to keep things on file. In today's digital age there's hardly any need to stick to old-fashioned paper-based processes, as often there's a digital alternative that can be cheaper, quicker and more secure.

Going digital in OIS: In 2018/19, the Office of Intercollegiate Services instigated a ‘going digital’ project. This involved shifting to electronic communications and digital business processes for the office’s activities, with the aim of reducing paper use for committee meetings and office activities. One of the challenges was finding a paperless method of voting by members. However through clever use of technology, the office managed to almost entirely eliminate the use of paper across all their operations, saving both waste generation, and staff time spent printing. 
Paper-free tenders: The Procurement team within Estates Division have moved to an online system called Constructionline for managing tender processes. The system keeps track of the credentials of suppliers, reducing the volume of paperwork that has to be submitted with each tender. The electronic nature of the system also reduces the need for multiple paper tender submissions. 

Paperless admissions: The Graduate Admissions office uses the CamSIS admissions system, which involves applicants sending in their academic documents in order to meet their offer conditions. Some are sent as hard copies, but some are received electronically, and the system prints these by default. The team found a way to stop the default printing of electronic application documents, saving 400 to 600 pages a week! Magdalene College also went almost entirely paperless for undergraduate admissions. According to Helen, Academic Registrar at the College, previously every application was printed four times but in an effort to improve their environmental impact, the College is now only printing one copy for the file. Each application is around 20 pages, so with 400 applications that is a staggering 24,000 sheets of paper saved through one simple change! 

Encourage suppliers to reduce waste

A large amount of the University’s waste comes from packaging associated with deliveries (for instance cardboard packaging is, by weight, the second most common item disposed of in University bins). The University pays to dispose of all this packaging, so there’s limited incentive for suppliers to minimise the packaging they send us. While many staff will be aware of the issue, it’s rare that suppliers are directly asked to change their practices. A simple request to the supplier is the first step in a change that could potentially make big savings in waste. In 2018/19, only three departments around the University engaged directly with their suppliers to reduce the amount of packaging supplied with their products, or to engage in a 'take back' scheme. If this number increases, the University’s significant buying-power may be able to have a big impact on performance.  

Lab disposables vending machines in the Department of Medicine:

By using vending machines for lab disposables, the Department of Medicine has not only reduced waste by eliminating over-ordering and stock control issues, but also reduced packaging and dry ice received with deliveries, and saved £8,600 in one year due to discounted purchasing costs from the supplier who stock the machine.

Engaging suppliers at Churchill College: The Housekeeping department at this College sourced toiletries for use in their commercial business which come in biodegradable bottles, and are also speaking to suppliers about not having linen delivered in plastic wrapping. As Shelley, a member of staff at the College, says: “without purchasers asking these kind of questions, change isn’t going to happen.” 


Engage staff to reduce waste 

While policy and procedural changes behind the scenes will help to reduce waste, it’s also important to encourage staff and students to think about the waste they produce and how it can be reduced. There's lots of ways to achieve this, and many examples from around the University where this has been done with proven results. You could even monitor the 'before and after' impact of staff engagement initiatives using the University's waste data portal.

Here are a few examples: 

Paper pyramid: Many of us are guilty of a ‘use and forget’ mindset with resources, in particular paper. One way to tackle this mindset is to make the waste more visible. In Greenwich House, a paper pyramid was placed in the building lobby, made up of empty paper boxes. The display showed how much paper staff in the building used every month. The visible display was combined with competitions and tips for reducing printing. The change in printing before and after the campaign was measured, and saw a reduction in paper usage of almost one third! 

Stationery amnesty: A number of departments have run a ‘stationery amnesty’, asking staff to return items that may be hidden away in drawers gathering dust. The Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology ran a successful stationery amnesty, which not only resulted in donations of a whopping 10.5kg of stationery, but also allowed for some friendly competition by keeping track of which team within the department returned the most! 
Plastic free lunch: A number of Green Impact teams have run ‘plastic free’ or ‘zero waste’ lunches. The packaging associated with lunches that staff bring into the office is a big source of unrecyclable waste for the University, so encouraging staff to bring in shareable lunches in reusable or washable containers is a great way to show how this waste can be challenged. Often this food is healthier too, and the event can be a great social occasion! 

Zero waste market: The Environment Networks at Cambridge Assessment and Cambridge University Press have recently set up a regular series of Zero Waste Pop-Up Markets to give their staff the opportunity to shop more sustainably. Over 400 people attended the first event in October 2019, and vendors have included Lush, Prospects Trust, BeeBee Wraps, Full Circle and Cam Home & Garden. Products on offer range from fresh fruit and veg and refillable food staples, to zero-waste personal care items and refillable household cleaning products.  

Litter picks: One great way to get staff involved and enthused about the issue of waste reduction is by holding a litter pick around your site. In 2017, the Faculty of Philosophy walked their site and did a 'picking up the pieces' challenge. What they found in just one hour was astonishing; single use plastics, old plastic ties, a fruit container and much more, strewn across a small area. All were plastics that will not degrade for hundreds of years. Cambridge Assessment and the University Information Services have also organised litter picks, with support from the City Council’s streets and open spaces team. These events are a great way to have an immediate positive impact, while also getting colleagues thinking about the issue of waste.

Next up: Waste reuse guidance

See also: Recycling guidance