The universities putting the circular economy into practice

What are universities doing to adhere to sustainable principles – and how can the circular economy help?

Universities are well-aware of the importance of employing sustainable practices. But it’s one thing to recycle and quite another to apply these principles to larger-scale projects. Becoming a part of the circular economy – meaning reusing existing materials and products rather than allowing natural resources to be wasted – has inspired research initiatives attached to various universities but also motivated the universities to change the way they carry out refurbishment projects.

Here are three of the best examples of universities practising what they preach.

Cardiff Business School

Part of the University of Cardiff, Cardiff Business School underwent a significant transformation thanks to the sourcing and installation of circular economy products from UK businesses and social enterprises such as Rype Office, Greenstream Flooring and the Merthyr Tydfil Institute for the Blind.

The team, led by Dr Carolyn Strong, professor of marketing and strategy and chair of the Schools Estates Strategy Committee, aimed to conform to the ‘Four Rs’ – sourcing materials that were remanufactured, refurbished, reclaimed or redistributed.

The spaces refurbished included the dean’s office, 20 staff offices and a common room. One example of reclaimed materials used was the carpet tiles provided by Greenstream Flooring. The company was formed in response to the large number of carpet tiles being wasted or sent to landfills, becoming specialists in supplying and fitting refurbished, used carpet tiles. Not only does this lower the carbon footprint it makes the service accessible to organisations who would not normally be able to afford it.

Meanwhile, Rype Office, remanufacturers of brand-name office furniture, helped the school in several different and innovative ways. For example, remanufactured pedestals, which once belonged to the French bank BNP Paribas, were used for under-desk units and a snack bar from the school’s Aberconway Building was used for tables (one of many examples of wood reclamation). Other tables were sourced from those tipped by Goldman Sachs and Carluccio’s restaurant chain. In the mix were electric desks that once belonged to Amazon and chairs from Groupon and Marks and Spencer offices.

Cardiff also aims to spread the word about sustainability beyond their campus. Their PARC Institute of Manufacturing, Logistics and Inventory has opened The RemakerSpace, a non-profit venture within the university’s innovation campus (SPARK), to promote the transition to a circular economy, through advancing knowledge, providing workshops and training, and engaging the community and businesses about remanufacturing, repair and product life cycle extension.

Specifically, the new venture will enable organisations to fully exploit technologies such as additive manufacturing (3D printing) and innovative solutions for repair, remanufacturing and reuse.

The carpets in the Cardiff Business School were destined for landfill, before they were reclaimed by a specialist firm who supplied them for the sustainable refit.

Swansea University

Thirty-five miles up the road, Swansea University is also making waves in the sustainability sector of south Wales, both in terms of disseminating expertise and demonstrating it in practice.
In January this year, the university was recognised by circular economy advocates The Ellen MacArthur Foundation for several million-pound funded research programmes. These include:

In terms of its own refurbishment activity, in the first instance, the university has committed itself to meet the minimum requirement of sustainable guidelines including the BREEAM Refurbishment and Fit Out (RFO) or RICS SKA rating.

The university is also working with circular economy and resource efficiency experts WRAP Cymru to put sustainability at the heart of their procurement.

Swansea recently set up the furniture and equipment reuse scheme, WARP IT, within the university (this includes external third-sector donations for reuse/repurposing). In recent projects, the university chose remanufactured office furniture for its SPECIFIC building – itself used to house leaders in energy technology research – and for its Y Twyni temporary teaching building, where the fit-out included folding partitions to create flexible spaces, lecture suites, PC labs and quiet zones.

The Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership will turn an old telephone exchange into a modern office, with the help of repurposed materials.

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s (CSIL) – The Entopia Building

Opened by Prince Charles in March, the new Entopia Building aims to be an “exemplar for future sustainable office retrofits around the world”.

The name comes from the ‘En’ of Envision, an electric car battery manufacturer which donated £6m towards the cost of the building, and utopia. The project is led by Eve Waldron Design, a Cambridge-based architectural design consultancy specialising in interiors.

The designers transformed a former telephone exchange from the 1930s to create a new home for CISL, including its international offices and expanding global network. The building will also host The Canopy; an Accelerator and Sustainability Hub which will support innovative start-ups and small businesses.

The £12.8m project aims to achieve multiple sustainable building certifications, including BREEAM (Outstanding), the Passivhaus ‘EnerPHit’ standard and WELL (Gold) certification. In its efforts to achieve these markers, furniture has been sourced second-hand either from the Cambridge University Warp-It system (a free portal facilitating internal reuse which has now helped save the university over a quarter of a million pounds) or from reusing CISL’s existing supply.

Hemp fabric by Camria and recycled plastic fabric by InLoom have been used for reupholstery, while the building’s chairs and barstools are constructed from 100% plant-based hemp and resin.

Meanwhile, Entopia’s kitchens have been fitted with wood from a renewable giant bamboo species renowned for its CO2-absorbing and oxygen-producing capacity. The kitchen worktop tiles are made from 98% recycled materials, approximately 60% of which would normally be landfill. The flooring in the building’s communal areas is linoleum, which captures more climate-harming CO2 than it releases.

“The building sector contributes over 40% of worldwide carbon emissions,” says Eve Waldron, founder of design consultancy, “therefore, our ambitions for supporting a circular economy are necessary and heartfelt. It is difficult to compare both interior materials and furniture based on carbon footprint and other measures of sustainability, but we have strived to reuse as much as possible.”

The building and décor supply chains are based around using new materials and it is estimated that 300 tonnes of office furniture go to landfill every working day in the UK. Can university estates can showcase a different approach?

No more skips!

A number of other universities are incorporating the circular economy into their activities.

In making its campus carbon neutral by 2030, Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands is undergoing a massive €650m development programme, combining the research capability and knowledge of the university’s own scientists and the external experience of a project management office (PMO). One of the campus buildings incorporates reused PET plastic bottles in acoustic panels on the internal walls.

The Dyson School of Engineering and Design at Imperial College London used remanufactured furniture for its 2015 refurbishment of its undergraduate student common rooms. The school had previously trialled recyclable cardboard furniture before identifying the style, durability and cost benefits of remanufactured furniture. Imperial College subsequently purchased remanufactured furniture for its Centre for Environmental Policy.

Meanwhile, for its 5,000m² Menai Science Park, Bangor University integrated remanufactured office furniture from Rype Office.

If reusing old carpet tiles seems like a small contribution, then it should be seen as part of a much bigger picture and approach.

“The data suggest that 30% of the greenhouse gas emissions over the entire life of the building are related to furniture,” says Dr Greg Lavery, managing director of Rype Office, “and that’s because on average every 5 to 10 years the entire contents of a building including the flooring are put into a skip, and new stuff is bought.”

The sheer amount of research universities generate on this topic will add weight and evidence to the reuse movement. Demonstrating the practical applications of this research with in-house examples is a crucial example of how universities can do more with less.


You might also like: Sustainable architecture: build less, retrofit more, say experts

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