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The Big Plastic Count on Campus - what happens next?

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In May 2022 the Big Plastic Count came to the University of Leeds, and we asked students and staff to report the single-use plastic that they found on campus.  Programme Officer Claire Booth tells us more about working on the Plastic Pledge, what the Big Plastic Count showed us, and where we go from here.

The University of Leeds Plastic Free pledge

I took on leadership of the Plastic Pledge programme within the University’s Sustainability Service earlier this year and there is no doubt that leading it represents a significant and complex challenge!

The pledge – to remove single-use plastic from operations by 2023 - was initiated in 2018 by the University and Leeds University Union.  It was made in the context of and in response to David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series. The programme vividly highlighted the impact of plastics on marine life and sparked a huge shift in consumer awareness.

It was one of the first and boldest pledges of any Higher Education organisation, showing our leadership in finding and implementing solutions to address global problems.

Since then, much has changed both globally and within the University, not least the global Covid-19 pandemic. Despite some great work over the last few years, new plastics have been needed in some areas to help keep us all safe, along with the return of some old ones.

As we look forward to the coming academic year hopefully unhindered by Covid-19 restrictions, there’s a need to reconsider where we are with single-use plastics and where we go with the Plastic Pledge beyond 2023. And of course it’s critical that we do this in a way that’s collaborative, transparent and honest.

Our first step in this was to take a fresh look at what single-use plastics were in use across the University, and that’s where the Big Plastic Count on Campus comes in.

What was the Big Plastic Count on Campus?

The Big Plastic Count on Campus was inspired by the national Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic ‘Big Plastic Count’ campaign, which asked households to take part in the UK’s biggest ever investigation into plastic waste.

Between May 16th and 31st, we asked students and staff to record the single-use plastic items they came across on campus and report them through a simple online form.  From previous work we knew that laboratories are particularly challenging to remove single-use plastic from, so Student Sustainability Architect Ashley Victoria developed a dedicated Labs plastics form.

We received responses from schools and services across the University, including the Student Education Service, Dentistry, Medicine, Food Sciences, History, Facilities Directorate, Professional Services and Languages.

What did we find out?

The national Plastic Big Plastic Count campaign found that food packaging was the biggest contributor to single-use plastics in most homes.

We saw similar here on campus.  Catering outlets and offices were where most single-use plastics were identified. A fifth of respondents spotted food packaging, along with items including bin bags, gloves, cups, cleaning products and delivery packaging.

Some sources of plastic waste on campus are outside of our direct control – for example that sold by third party vendors such as the Co-op in LUU and Caffé Nero.

But the survey demonstrated how much effort individuals were putting into reducing this waste, by bringing reusable bags, water bottles and coffee cups and buying in bulk to reduce packaging. Other changes people reported making included shopping in zero waste shops, having milk delivered in glass bottles and stopping using cleaning wipes.

The survey also showed some of the continuing barriers to switching to single-use plastic, including the risk of contamination in labs and the impact of Covid-19 risks.

What next for the Plastic Pledge?

The Big Plastic Count at Leeds was a really valuable snapshot survey. Great progress has been made on the Plastic Pledge, including one million pieces removed in the first year and continued successes in many areas since. However it’s clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant effect, which will impact on our ability to deliver against the pledge.

But we set ourselves bold targets for good reason, and the University and LUU remain absolutely committed to removing avoidable single-use plastics.

We are taking everything we have learnt so far from the Plastic Pledge, as well as our other sustainability commitments such as the University’s Climate Plan, to determine what future targets and plans will be put in place.

We’re updating and improving our single-use plastics management standard, engaging with staff and students, and collaborating with partners in the Leeds Anchors Plastics Network and our supply chain.

The scale of the issue – and the need to act on it - remains huge. But I’m proud to work in an organisation that sets stretching targets on global challenges, and is not afraid to learn and adapt.

What can you do?

Whether you are a staff member or a student at Leeds there are lots of ways for you to support our ambitions on single-use plastic. Here’s just a few to get you started:

  • Bring your own water bottle to refill at the water fountain all across campus.
  • Use a reusable ‘Keep Cup’ for hot drinks, available at all GFaL outlets. You also get money off every time you use it!
  • Bring a packed lunch or choose lunch options with low or no packaging.
  • Get your milk delivered in glass bottles rather than buying plastic.
  • Request plastic free options when ordering items for work, whether that’s catering supplies or lab equipment.
  • If you’re a staff member, join the Sustainability Community on Teams to get ideas to address sustainability challenges.
  • If you can’t find plastic free options, let the company or retailer know so they can change what they offer.

We’re keeping our plastic reporting form open so you can continue to report what you see around the University.  It all helps to build up the bigger picture and focus efforts where they are needed most.

At times we may need to put a little more thought and effort into making plastic free choices. But by all playing our part in this we can help safeguard future livelihoods, protect and restore ecosystems and contribute to much needed global change.

If you've got questions about reducing single-use plastic at work, check the resources on our website or email


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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:

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

Find out more about our impact on the SDGs.