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Lessons on moving towards zero waste

The University of Edinburgh has re-focused its approach to resource use.

With the Zero Waste Scotland regulations acting as a catalyst for change, waste management company Biffa’s Edinburgh team has been working with staff and students to integrate zero waste and circular economy thinking across the vast university estate.

David Brook, University of Edinburgh’s support services operations manager, explains: “We had a complete rethink about how resources are managed across the university. Our waste policy encourages the movement of materials up the waste hierarchy and, with the right partners in place, we are well on the way to achieving our goals.”

Four main questions drive the university’s resource management programme:

Do we need to buy it? The university hosts a reuse portal enabling furniture, IT equipment and books to be redistributed to those who need it.

Do we need the packaging? The university has been working with its suppliers to cut the amount of packaging and to set up take-back schemes.

Can it be recycled? When a recyclable material reaches the waste stream, Biffa sorts and recycles it to keep it ‘in the loop’.

Can we avoid landfill? Waste materials that cannot be recycled are converted into fuel to generate renewable energy.

Striving to set an example to other large organisations, the university has taken a number of radical approaches to delivering a circular economy, engaging its 46,000 staff and students in 550 buildings across the city. In preparation for the Zero Waste Scotland regulations, the university team removed all the under-desk bins from office and teaching areas and replaced them with shared recycling points and kitchen waste caddies.

Sophie Rippinger, waste contracts officer at University of Edinburgh, says: “We had to work hard to convince people but, with backing from the vice-principal and the impending regulations, we were able to show that [integrating zero waste and the circular economy] was a good idea. Now, two years on, perceptions have totally changed and we have overwhelming support for the new system.”

Meanwhile, meeting the university’s ambitious goals for waste reduction, reuse, recycling and waste meant that Biffa had the opportunity to innovate with its services and, crucially, how a new system could be launched.

Neil Leishman, Biffa’s Edinburgh manager, explains: “Our team worked at the weekends and during the Christmas holidays to minimise disruption. They installed a vast range of external waste containers across the estate: everything from hundreds of litter bins to bulky waste containers, all with tailor-made and branded labels produced by Biffa’s in-house marketing team.”

Fleur Ruckley, university waste and environment manager, says: “We’ve collected data on our waste arisings for a long time, and provided a year’s sample waste data to Biffa to enable planning of the new recycling scheme.

“Now the company supplies data back to the university, with details on every bin, so we can see how our waste is changing over time. With regular and comprehensive data on the materials collected at each location, we can quickly deal with any contamination issues.”

Coffee cups are one of the main culprits for contaminating recycling bins, so the university has developed a waste avoidance strategy. All its catering establishments now sell reusable coffee cups, and people bringing theirs back to the cafe receive a discount.

The university’s awareness-raising website and mobile-friendly A-Z site also carry information on the recyclability of different wastes, and it has also produced a video to raise awareness of the contamination issue.

Ruckley adds: “We have tried on-bin photos of the items that can go in each bin, such as apple cores or drinks cans. We’ve also tried to keep the messaging consistent, including the colour-coding of different types of bins.”

One student is constructing ‘wobblers’, flexible signs that attach to hand towel dispensers and bins to attract people’s attention. Exploring their effectiveness at reducing contamination, the experiment is part of a study into social architecture and the ‘nudge’ theory – using a subtle suggestion to change behaviour is more successful than an incentive or rule.

“We try to stay at the forefront of how resource management is changing in Scotland,” says Rippinger. “In essence, we are working with Biffa to nurture the next generation of professionals who will deliver the Zero Waste Scotland agenda. We encourage student involvement – for example, a number of undergraduate and postgraduates have written their dissertations on the way resources are managed in the university.”

During Innovation Learning Week, Biffa MRF manager Marcin Olczyk invited students to visit its facility in Broxburn so they could see first-hand how the dry mixed recycling is sorted. Since then, Olczyk and Biffa Scotland have hosted more students at the site, and are always happy to explain or demonstrate how systems work.

Biffa MRF manager Marcin Olczyk at Broxburn facility

“Biffa has been absolutely great with that,” adds Rippinger. “It is something we were looking for from our new waste partner: an open-minded approach, an understanding of the way the industry is headed, and being willing to listen to and incorporate new ideas from staff and students.”

The entire premise on which the University of Edinburgh’s sustainable resource management approach is based is one of working together. The university has a strong relationship with Biffa’s Edinburgh team, between departments within the university, and with other institutions through the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges.

Biffa account manager Willie Sinclair has been working to move materials up the waste hierarchy wherever possible. He initiated the university joining up with Yooz and the Midlothian Advice and Resource Centre, both members of Community Resources Network Scotland (CRNS), to reuse materials such as rubber floor tiles and furniture.

Sinclair says: “Following the waste hierarchy is absolutely core to Biffa’s service delivery approach. Teaming up with the community sector means the value of resources can be kept in the local economy.” And Brian Rooney, Biffa sales manager in Scotland, adds: “Teaming up with members of CRNS has helped us to keep more materials in the loop while benefitting local people. We are looking forward to seeing what else we can achieve with these resource-efficient partnerships.”

The university also uses Warp-it to redistribute books, stationery and IT equipment internally, while furniture is redistributed separately.

Having such a strong group of committed academics means the university is now looking to build in future actions. Five departments – Business School, School of Chemistry, School of Geosciences, headed up by the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, and Estates and Buildings – collaborated to produce a report, Circular Economy Thinking in Action, which identified more ways the university could benefit from participating in a more circular economy, including:

  • Innovative approaches, new research ideas and collaboration opportunities
  • Potential financial savings from efficient use of resources
  • Reduction in emissions and landfill
  • Employment opportunities and skills development and
  • Opportunity for the university to differentiate itself and set itself as a forward-thinking, exemplar institution.

As Rooney sums up, “The University of Edinburgh’s goals are a perfect fit with the work we are doing at Biffa in Scotland. It’s an exciting time for everyone involved as traditional patterns of resource use make way for greener, smarter ways of thinking.”   

What happens to the University of Edinburgh’s unavoidable waste?

  • Food waste is collected separately in every cafe and kitchen, and is treated via anaerobic digestion to generate clean, green renewable energy.
  • Source-separated glass, paper and card are recycled into new products.
  • Metals, plastics and dry mixed recycling are sorted at Biffa’s MRF in Broxburn and then recycled into new products.
  • Residual waste is converted into a fuel and used to generate electricity.   

John Gilmour is commercial manager for Biffa in Scotland


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