The green agenda is something that UK universities certainly need to take note of, with research by energy consultancy Inenco showing that institutions can expect to add over 20% onto their energy costs by 2019 if they don’t take action to reduce their non-commodity costs, a combined total bill of £7.42bn. However, environmentally friendly initiatives go much further than just looking at energy efficiency, and universities can consider a host of options from building new facilities to encouraging students to recycle. But in today’s HE landscape, how are universities helping to make the sector greener and what can other institutions learn from their examples?
Meeting sustainability standards
Many universities are looking towards sustainability schemes and standards to help them meet their environmental objectives. As Joe Croft, Head of Environmental and Sustainability at office interior specialists Overbury and Morgan Lovell commented: “The 2012 Social Value Act, which requires public sector procurement to consider the social, environmental and local economic impact, has again pushed the sector to go further. For example, we developed a social, environmental and economic plan template which we use as part of our bids to demonstrate what we intend to do on these issues as part of the project in terms of items such as local materials sourcing and local labour.
“For new builds, planning usually requires a BREEAM (or Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) rating of Very Good or Excellent, however, in my experience many universities want to go further than this. From a refurb perspective, BREEAM Refurbishment and Fit Out (RFO) 2014 and SKA HE are the two most common schemes, designed to better reflect the requirements of higher education interior fit out.”
The University of Nottingham are currently building a brand-new £5.4m Research Acceleration and Demonstration (RAD) facility for sustainable energy research. The facility has been designed to meet two highly regarded sustainability standards and measures: Passivhaus, a leading low-energy design standard, as well as BREEAM Excellent. The aim is for the building to be one of the most energy-efficient research facilities in the UK, as well as helping the country to meet its carbon reduction targets.
Speaking about the project, Andy Nolan, Director of Estates (Sustainability) said: “We have a longstanding commitment to institution-wide social responsibility and the University’s research strategy sets out commitment to global challenges and sustainability. Our estates operations are built on a strong environmental ethos and by adopting progressive environmental strategies in our capital projects, we have embedded sustainability at the heart of our operations.”
Reducing indirect carbon emissions
Manchester Met University was named as the greenest university in the UK in 2017 in People & Planet’s University League, the only annual comprehensive and independent league table of UK universities ranked by environmental and ethical performance.
As part of their focus on sustainability, the University is also committed to reducing its indirect carbon emissions from international student travel. Explaining further, Helena Tinker, Head of Environmental Sustainability said: “A conflict between carbon management and the internationalisation agendas provided impetus to address how Manchester Met can compensate an increase in carbon emissions because of international student recruitment, and hence, travel.
“We have developed a carbon compensation fund called the Environmental Education Fund (EEF) to help tackle this. Each year, the University’s indirect carbon emissions generated through international student travel are calculated, and then a carbon tax applied for each tonne of carbon emitted. The value of the fund is equivalent to the number and length of international journeys taken by the University’s internal student population each year.
“The principal aim of the EEF is to actively engage the student body (and through them, the wider community) to encourage and support them to take action on climate change. The fund is currently used to fund the delivery of a Carbon Literacy for Students (CL4S) training course and a CL4S train the trainer programme across the institution.”
Focusing on renewable energy
At Cranfield University they have recently installed a new field of solar panels next to Cranfield Airport. In total 3,508 photovoltaic (PV) solar panels have been fitted, covering a 5,858 sq m generator surface area. They are expected to generate 5% of their campus’ annual electricity, as well as provide a new renewable-energy research facility for student use. In addition, they should produce one million KWh of power per year, which is approximately the equivalent of the energy consumed by 300 houses.
Commenting on the University’s renewable energy focus, Gareth Ellis, Energy and Environment Manager said: “We have a target to reduce the University’s carbon footprint by 50% from a 2005 baseline by 2020, and so far we have reduced our emissions by 32%.
“Our aims are to reduce carbon and energy costs, and we will also have a resource which our academics and students can use for teaching and research.”
The plastics problem
High-profile documentaries such as the BBC’s recent Blue Planet series have brought the issue of plastics, and in particular the issue of single-use plastics, to the forefront. In the UK, 38.5m plastic bottles are used every day, and only just over half make it to recycling, while more than 16 million are put into landfill, burnt or leak into the environment and oceans each day. MIW Water Cooler Experts have worked with universities across the UK and have seen a rapid rise in demand for the provision of free, filtered drinking water as a result of the plastics problem becoming more widely recognised. Mike Winter, Managing Director, is passionate about putting an end to the reliance on single-use plastic bottles, and said: “Universities need to be seen to be at the forefront of sustainability best practice – they are providing facilities for the younger generation who are demanding that their place of study is environmentally aware and actively demonstrates good recycling provision, food waste reduction and a reduction in plastic pollution.
“In the past, water provision was limited to either traditional drinking fountains, or large bottled water dispensers, complete with disposable plastic cups, which guzzled large amounts of electricity. Now universities are responding to demands for low environmental impact, sustainable solutions to hydrating staff and students, which also reduce plastic waste.”
As part of MIW Water Cooler Expert’s work with the University of Chester, they installed a total of 19 drinking water fountains across campus (below). Since installation, the University has seen a shift towards people refilling bottles over buying single-use bottles, therefore reducing the amount of single-use plastic bottles being sold on campus. Commenting further, Mike said: “With the bottle refill stations being constantly used across campus, the University has saved approximately 500,000 bottles, or five tonnes of plastic, from going to landfill since installation in 2016. This amount of bottles equates to approximately 1.2 Wembley football pitches, if you lay the bottles flat on the floor.”
Getting students involved
The University of Bath has been actively encouraging its student body to play a role in its environmental initiatives.
Their ‘Pack For Good’ campaign has seen 36 tonnes of unwanted food, clothing, crockery and appliances collected at the end of the academic year and donated to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), and each year they also run a recycling competition between accommodation flat groups on campus to see who can recycle the most waste.
Peter Phelps, Energy and Environment Manager, believes that the University has a moral duty to minimise their impact and set a good example as a result of the leading role that they have in society. Discussing how they have engaged students to support their sustainability schemes, Peter said: “Students have to volunteer their flat to live with zero waste for two weeks, and the flat group who recycle the most will win a food hamper.
“Also, another way of dealing positively with unwanted belongings is when students move out at the end of term, we leave crates in their kitchen to encourage them to leave unwanted crockery, cutlery, non-perishable food and other items. We then collect these crates and donate the items to charity, sell better-quality items to new students and give food items to our local food bank. Last year, 5.3 tonnes of cutlery, food, crockery, glassware, plastics and other materials were donated or recycled, instead of being thrown away.”