Lucy talks single-use plastic

Sustainability Programme Officer Lucy Stuart, has been working on the #2023PlasticFree pledge since the University and Leeds University Union made the commitment back in 2018. Lucy shares her expertise on what single-use plastic is and what the pledge actually means.

What does the University mean when it talks about single-use plastic?

This is the most common question I get asked while working on the #2023PlasticFree pledge, or rather somebody presents a random object in front of me and asks me whether it is single-use plastic!

We work to the definition used most commonly across EU regulations that states:

 Single-use plastics are items that are designed to be used once by the customer before they are disposed of or recycled.

This includes items such as disposable cutlery, carrier bags (not bags for life), plastic straws, pipette tips, petri dishes, food packaging, delivery wrapping and drinks bottles. The easiest way to think about it is to ask yourself whether the plastic item could be used on multiple occasions or whether you are disposing of it just moments after using it.

So the #2023PlasticFree pledge is not trying to get rid of ALL plastic?

No, we know that plastic can be a valuable material and has a wide range of uses, many of which are extremely valuable for activities across the University. As long as the plastic item is being re-used long-term or disposed of (ideally recycled) properly we are happy for it to remain in operation at the University.

What areas of the University are included in the #2023PlasticFree pledge?

All areas of University operations are included in the #2023PlasticFree pledge. The University is a large and complex organisation as we have so many different activities going on here. From the day-to-day running of the University to research and teaching activities to sports facilities, catering, residences and conferences – there are a lot of areas to look for single-use plastic and a lot of processes to review and change to make sure it is removed from use.

Although this is a huge task, we’ve made some great progress so far. In the first year of the pledge, we removed one million pieces from use and in year two there have been policy and process changes to remove the products on a large scale. You can see more information about these in the year two plastic news story.

We have set some boundaries about what is not included though. This includes personal consumption and healthcare facilities that are linked to the NHS.

Personal consumption isn’t included; do you mean my lunch which I bring on to campus?

That’s right, personal consumption is not included in the #2023PlasticFree pledge. The pledge commits us to changing University operations rather than telling you what to do in your personal life. However, we hope that by showcasing the solutions that are available, these will inspire you to make some personal positive changes where you can.

People across the organisation often tell me about the changes they’ve made in their personal life, which is really great to hear as well. I work closely with Julie Tong, Head of Retail Catering, on removing single-use plastic from Great Food at Leeds, and she has told me all about the changes she’s made to her children’s packed lunches as a result of working on the #2023PlasticFree pledge at the University.

You said that it doesn’t include healthcare facilities either?

Yes, we also don’t include healthcare facilities that are linked to the NHS, within the pledge. Where our students or research are linked to the NHS, we have to follow their practices to ensure it replicates NHS procedures.

However, we are closely linked to the NHS Sustainability Team, through the Leeds Anchors Plastics Network, and we continue to work together on solutions. For example, we are currently taking part in a nationwide trial of reusable face masks, in order to find a suitable alternative for NHS colleagues to use instead of disposable face masks. You can read more about that in our in our news story.

What if there isn’t a suitable alternative?

The pledge isn’t just about swapping single-use plastic products for another material. It is about changing behaviour and operational processes to remove the need for the single-use item in the first place. We want to support and influence our stakeholders, our staff, students, supply chain and industry partners and work together on finding and developing solutions for this critical issue. This also aligns with our circular approach to resource consumption, reducing the use of natural resources in the first place and ultimately leading to reduced carbon emissions and pollution.

For example, using a reusable water bottle or providing glasses removes the need for single-use plastic water cups next to the water fountains. This therefore prevents the manufacture, transportation and waste disposal of a product that will be used for just the length of time it takes to drink the water.

This can be undertaken on a larger scale too. For example, Cleaning Services have changed their operations to have one central delivery point. This has reduced the amount of packaging in their deliveries and enabled large containers of chemicals to be purchased and decanted into smaller reusable containers.

In all cases we encourage those undertaking the changes to consider the whole impact of the proposed changes beforehand and, where possible, use our research capabilities and combined expertise to scientifically review this. What we don’t want to do is make a change that ultimately has a worse social or environmental impact.

By working with our supply chain and industry partners, we are able to understand the latest developments and innovations in alternatives to single-use plastic. We know that solutions are being developed all of the time, so we keep up to date with this and are often the first to trial new products / processes before they are rolled out more widely.

What are the best achievements you’ve seen?

I’ve seen so many achievements from staff and students across the University. The best are when I can see the pledge is truly embedded into their decision making, or when a staff member makes a change in their area that can have a large effect across the University. In most cases they don’t even realise the true scale of their solution as they just see it as part of their job.

Jess Wise, Procurement Category Officer is a great example of this. Jess worked with our main office supplier, Office Depot, to remove any single-use plastic items from the University catalogue, along with stipulating targets in their contract for them to reduce single-use plastic in their packaging.

Another great example is when the bar staff in LUU, who are predominately students, put a proposal forward to their management to remove single-use plastic cups from the bars. Although there was an initial financial outlay for the purchase of reusable cups and dishwashers, this was signed off by management to align with the pledge.

What inspires you to work on the #2023PlasticFree pledge?

Seeing the impact that others can have. I’ve seen colleagues from across the whole University making changes within their own areas of expertise and it’s incredible. From changing an operational process, undertaking research or finding an alternative solution. One person, one team or even one institution cannot do this on their own but through this pledge we are working with so many people who are being bold enough to try something different and make a lasting positive change.

I also really believe that this pledge has the ability to inspire the next generation. Our students are going to work in industries all over the world. If we can show them that Leeds can make these bold commitments and provide solutions, they will not only expect these in their own disciplines, but they will drive the changes required in research and innovation to solve the global challenge. Our influence can therefore reach far beyond the boundaries of the University campus.

Keep up to date on the latest news

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We use the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to guide our activity. Our work reducing single-use plastic is linked to the following SDGs:

  • Goal 12: Responsible consumption and production
  • Goal 13: Climate action
  • Goal 14: Life below water
  • Goal 15: Life on land
  • Goal 17: Partnerships for the goals

Find out more about our impact on the SDGs.