What is single-use plastic?

Single-use plastics are items which are designed to be used once by the consumer before they are disposed of or recycled. Such items include disposable cutlery, carrier bags, plastic straws, pipette tips, petri dishes, much food wrapping, drinks bottles and crisp packets.

If you aren’t sure, please get in touch at plasticfree@leeds.ac.uk

What are the main problems with single use plastic?

The problems associated with single use plastics are complex and can occur at different stages of its life cycle. The manufacturing and production of plastic has a negative carbon and environmental impact, however there are often carbon savings that can be made at other stages of the products life cycle due to plastic packaging.

Disposal of plastic has received the most media attention in recent months due to the scale of plastic pollution in our oceans. The majority of plastic polymers can theoretically be recycled but in reality there are a range of factors, including the lack of sorting technologies and economic ability, which means that not all polymers are being recycled, or even disposed of correctly.

Why 2023 and not earlier?

This is a campus-wide commitment, involving all offices, catering outlets, teaching spaces and research facilities. The nature of this activity is on such a large scale that we’ve made a realistic aim to achieve this by 2023. However, the pledge includes an intermediate commitment to remove all single use plastic from catering and offices by 2020.

We believe that a 5-year plan will help us undertake the appropriate measures to map our plastic use and to find suitable and sustainable alternatives. We are also aware that there will be financial implications for using alternatives and we therefore need to be realistic with the speed at which this can be implemented.

Why 2020 for catering and offices, but 2023 for everything else?

We have already made great progress across our catering and office spaces with regard to eliminating single use plastics. We are therefore confident that we can achieve being single use plastic free in these areas earlier than the rest of the campus facilities. See our case studies for examples of these initiatives.

Are the alternatives better?

Alternatives to single use plastics are being developed all the time. We understand that some alternatives may have a bigger, or different, environmental impact. We will therefore consider all elements of the alternatives before promoting their uptake across campus. We will also keep up-to-date on research and innovative developments surrounding plastic alternatives and ensure these feed into the project.

How will you know what plastics are used across the whole University?

One of the first pieces of work within this project is to undertake a mapping exercise regarding plastic use across campus. Once we understand our plastic use across campus, we can start to make progress on removing it. We are currently in the process of asking staff and students for information regarding single use plastics within their activities on campus. This is in the form of a short survey and we urge all participants to fill it in as detailed as possible. To ensure this is a campus-wide approach we need representation from every school, faculty and service.

How can I get involved?

There are many ways you can get involved with the #2023PlasticFree campaign, as both a member of staff or a student:

  • Respond to our plastic mapping survey, providing us with information regarding single use plastic in your school or service
  • Apply for funding from the Living Lab programme to fund a research project relating to single use plastics
  • Be the change you wish to see in the world; champion behavioural change across your colleagues/peers at University
  • If you’re a staff member, you can sign up to be a Staff Architect or to join our Blueprint programme. These will help you to achieve a sustainability plan both within your role and your school or department

Are we getting rid of all plastic or just single use?

We are currently focusing on removing single use plastic from campus due to the damaging environmental impact that it causes. Plastic as a material has a wide range of uses, many of which are extremely valuable for activities on campus. As long as the plastic item is being used long-term and disposed of (recycled) properly we are happy for it to remain in operation on campus.

Can we just move to bio-degradable and bioplastics?

We have already moved to some biodegradable materials across campus, however these also have their own issues associated with them.

Biodegradable can be a misleading term as it suggests that the plastic will break down naturally, whereas in reality the material requires specific conditions that aren’t always available. Compostable materials are less ambiguous as this means that the material will break down under the conditions of an industrial composter. Again, using this material sustainably depends on the end-of-life collection and composting facilities available.

Further research and life cycle analysis is needed into the impact of bio-based conventional plastics and compostable materials. It is likely that the sustainability credentials of bio-based plastics will depend on the specific circumstances in which it is produced, used and then handled at end-of-life.

What are the different types of plastics?

A classification system called the Resin Identification Code, which is the number printed on the bottom of most plastic bottles and food containers, describes the type of plastic resin the product is made from.

Recycling facilities vary across regions, but types 1 and 2 are the main ones that are widely available for recycling.

Are other organisations getting involved?

We are making the #2023PlasticFree pledge alongside LUU; therefore, it has full support across the whole of the University of Leeds campus.

We are currently asking other Higher Educational Institutions and organisations across Yorkshire to join our pledge as well. We hope to create a network of movement across the sector in which we can work collaboratively to share best practice and innovative research relating to single use plastic.

What are we already doing?

We are already doing a huge amount to reduce single use plastics on campus, especially within our catering outlets. Please see the case studies section for examples of work we’ve already undertaken. This page will be regularly updated to reflect any work undertaken on campus.

What if an alternative product costs substantially more than plastic, can the department access funds to assist?

We understand that there may be a financial cost to finding an alternative and we are committed to helping these causes. We are currently working on a process, which should enable funds to be available for this purpose but we cannot guarantee it at the moment.

Many of the products the department buys come in plastic, how can we reduce that?

We are working with the purchasing department to ensure there are stricter specifications surrounding plastic packaging in all tenders going forward. If you are purchasing products separate to the framework, please ensure that our packaging specifications are adhered to by the supplier.

As a student I am very conscious of money. If an alternative will cost more will this additional amount be passed on to the consumer?

It is our aim for no additional costs to be passed to the consumer by implementing this commitment. In many cases, we are hoping for consumer’s costs to be reduced, for example using a keep cup at any of our catering outlets will save you 10% off your hot drink. Likewise, we provide free drinking water across campus for those wanting to refill their reusable water bottle.

As a research-led University, are we supporting any research regarding single use plastic alternatives?

The University is currently supporting 20 research-led projects focusing on single use plastics, covering a range of topics including finding bioplastic alternatives and analysing the waste streams associated with plastic. As part of this commitment, we will be promoting research and innovation opportunities surrounding single-use plastics and we will create funding opportunities via the Living Lab programme in order to support students of all levels. To apply for Living Lab funding, click here.

Have a question not listed here? Drop us an email to plasticfree@leeds.ac.uk and we will get back to you.