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#2023PlasticFree: The story so far

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The University of Leeds and Leeds University Union #2023PlasticFree pledge was one of the first and boldest pledges to remove single-use plastic from any Higher Education organisation.

It’s been two years since the pledge was made and our commitment is as strong as ever, despite the added complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic this year. Here we provide an update on how we are doing along with some successes we have had so far.

Why is this pledge so important to us at the University and what does it involve?

At Leeds we are taking the lead on tackling global challenges such as single-use plastic, which causes widespread pollution and uses carbon intensive fossil fuels to produce. We are using our research, teaching and influence to find solutions to tackle single-use plastic, as part of our commitment to addressing climate change through our Seven Climate Principles and our commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Louise Ellis, Director of Sustainability said:

I’m excited to see the progress that we have made towards removing single-use plastic by 2023, we have set ourselves a bold and challenging target, and there is still lots for us all to do. In some areas this challenge is greater than others, but it is vital that, working together we do everything we can. As a world-leading University it is vital that we show leadership in finding and implementing solutions to address current global problems.

You can view Lucy's blog to find out more about what single-use plastic is and what we include in our pledge.


Celebrating success

Last November, one year into the pledge, we celebrated removing over one million pieces of single-use plastic from the institution. During the past year the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant change to University operations, including necessary measures to keep our staff and students safe, which has seen an increase in the use of some single-use plastic items. Despite this, we have still made a huge amount of progress towards being single-use plastic free.

Here are just a few of the amazing achievements our community has made so far:

  • The Purchasing Team have included the #2023PlasticFree pledge into the University’s Sustainable Procurement Standard, ensuring that procurement practices focus on removing single-use plastic and encouraging innovation in the supply chain. One example of this is single-use plastic being removed from the University’s Office Depot catalogue. It is estimated this could remove over 8,000 items from use over the next year.
  • Residential Services have made changes to the items they purchase and their operational processes, as well as employing a Student Sustainability Architect to help engage with their students on the importance of the pledge. Read more about their achievements in this case study.

two shelves, one iwht reusable claning bottles and one with soluble tablets in boxes

  • Laura Wilkinson-Hewitt from the Protein Production Facility led the way for making positive changes in laboratories by sourcing alternative materials for commonly used single-use plastic items such as FSC certified paper weighing boats, reusable glass Petri dishes and reusable glass syringes. It's estimated this will save around 4,000 pieces of plastic per year.

glass syringe, petri dishes and paper trays

  • Great Food at Leeds (GFaL) have ensured that any operational changes in response to government guidance on COVID-19 have aligned with the #2023PlasticFree pledge. Read more about GFaL’s progress this year in this case study.

Two branded reusable cups to celebrate the plastic free pledge

  • The University purchased thousands of reusable face coverings in response to COVID-19 and provided them free of charge to staff and students. The Faculty of Biological Sciences (FBS) are also part of a nationwide trial to find a reusable alternative to disposable facemasks within the NHS. FBS are one of 50 organisations trialling the reusable facemasks and proving feedback to manufacturers for ongoing improvement. Read the news article for more details.

a number of reusable masks in different colours with the NHS logo on

  • The School of Civil Engineering have been involved in a worldwide collaboration to track the flow of plastic pollution around the world and highlighted ways for the government and industry to take urgent action to reduce this.
  • The Leeds Anchors Plastics Network, a network of organisations led by the University of Leeds involving Yorkshire Water, the NHS and Leeds City Council, has developed a collaborative project focused on removing plastic litter from the River Aire at Leeds Dock. Yorkshire Integrated Catchment Solutions Programme (iCASP) has produced a report that provides insight and overview of the latest knowledge and research in capturing microplastics in river environments as the first phase of the project. Read the report on the iCASP webpage.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg! We have been blown away by the sheer number of success stories happening right across campus. To find out more about the different ways our staff and students have been making a difference, follow the Sustainability Instagram and Twitter accounts where we’ll be sharing these achievements over the next couple of months.

What’s next?

We have made huge progress since we made the pledge in 2018 and we set ourselves some challenging targets including removing single-use plastic from University catering and offices. Due to the events of 2020 creating many unforeseen challenges, there are some items we still need implement solutions for in these areas and we’re continuing to work on these.

As we enter 2021, we remain confident in continuing to drive significant progress towards achieving our targets. We continue to work collaboratively with our University community to find alternatives to single-use plastic and will be focusing on its use in research and laboratories. We will be learning from the work already done to further understand the challenges faced in these areas and test solutions for key products such as petri dishes, pipette tips and syringes.

As well as this, the soon-to-be-launched #2023PlasticFree Standard will provide additional clarity, support and governance to drive the long-term changes required across all areas.

How can you help?

With all that being said, we cannot fulfil the pledge without you! We need the ideas and input of our staff and students to reach our goal of becoming plastic-free by 2023. To collaborate with us on finding plastic-free solutions or to find out how you can help, please contact:

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.

United Nation Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible consumption and productionUnited Nation Sustainable Development Goal 13: Climate actionUnited Nation Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life below waterUnited Nation Sustainable Development Goal 15: Life on landUnited Nation Sustainable Development Goal 17: Partnerships for the goals