Sheffield Students’ Union goes zero waste

Grantham Scholar Gloria Mensah has been working with Sheffield Students’ Union to help them go zero waste.

Zero waste and the Students’ Union

After months of being engrossed in the politics of Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage technologies, I to do a placement at Sheffield Students’ Union (SU) and channel my energy into something different. After all, these opportunities are what being a Grantham Scholar is all about! So, in 2018 I took on a role as Project Assistant on the ‘zero waste’ project at the Sheffield Students’ Union (SSU). Here I will share the activities I engaged in and my most memorable experiences.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover, Dispose

Waste and recycling is one of the core components of any organisation’s strategy to meet sustainability objectives. Universities and their corresponding student union organisations have a role to play in ensuring that the waste they generate doesn’t have negative environmental impacts.

All universities have a legal obligation to ensure that the waste they generate is disposed of in a responsible manner. Plus they must make sure their processes UK National and European legislation. One of the key features of UK Waste Management policy is Waste Hierarchy’. This hierarchy has 5 steps for handling waste, ranked according environmental impact. These are: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover, Dispose.

As part of measures to meet sustainability objectives, the SU has set itself a vision to retroactively implement zero waste in all its outlets. And they want to ensure all new outlets are zero waste by design by 2034! My role was to analyse the SU’s current policy and performance on waste, recycling, purchasing and outlet development, in order to discover current baselines. I was also to research sector-based practices in order to a plan to aid the SU to reduce its overall waste generation and meet its 16-year ambition.

What does zero waste really mean?

You may ask what going zero waste means for the SU. Does it literally mean no waste generation at all?

First of all, there is no industry standard definition for zero waste. As a result, zero waste could mean different things for different organisations. However, Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) provides a working definition for zero waste to guide businesses and organisations in their own definitions.

ZWIA defines Zero Waste as “a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use”. So in order to achieve zero waste, all efforts to prevent waste generation in the first place should be the primary goal. Additionally, products should be re-designed to incorporate greater resource efficiency. For example, people should be encouraged to re-use items while recycling rates should be increased.

How to measure waste

In order to assess the SU’s current waste performance, we employed a variety of methods. Included were a simple walk-through exercise in the SU to assess the current waste management system in place and a waste yard inspection. We also analysed waste figures. Alongside this we deliberated on the zero waste vision with commercial managers of the SU outlets and collated information using questionnaires from catering managers and informal interviews with key personnel.

From the walk-through exercise we got insights into waste categorisation and the types of materials ending up in the waste bins. We also examined levels of contamination of waste bins, student and staff practices and general challenges of waste management. By analysing waste data, we were also able to observe trends in waste generation and calculate recycling rates. As a result we could set the baselines and identify opportunities for waste reduction and recycling.

Zero waste shop

Our investigations show that the SU aims for continuous improvement in its environmental actions, especially on the subject of reducing waste. Many environmental initiatives have been embarked upon in the last year and are still on-going, yielding positive results. Fro example they’ve opened a zero waste shop. And there’s been the launch of the reusable revolution (discounts on reusable cups and Tupperware in SU outlets). Also they purchased new bins for categorising waste under general waste, mixed recyclables and food waste only. Not to mention community fridges in residences.

Having completed the audit, I was asked to find a definition of ‘zero waste’ for the SU. My definition is: Zero waste is a goal to recycle at least 80% of overall waste generation and compost the remaining 20% by 2034. The only allowance made was for incineration of hazardous waste, which will therefore be excluded from these totals.

What next for the SU on zero waste?

New recycling bins

Our audit provided a means to identify the main challenges faced at the SU for which the action plan was developed.

Some of the challenges identified included: contamination in recycling streams (which suggested a ‘sorting waste’ problem), insufficient waste data collection, problems with monitoring and reporting, inadequate waste handling and recycling, and insufficient training/communication.

Included in the action plan were a set of recommendations to tackle these concerns. For example, strategies to reduce upstream and downstream waste generation. And how to increase recycling and adding options for composting. Also included were strategies to reduce food waste (e.g. flexibility on menus and prices to avoid food wastage).

Additionally, we also developed strategies to ensure that the supply chain and procurement process is more sustainable. Further, we looked at ways to inspire a positive environmental culture through various media to keep the zero waste vision continually in sight and re-shape values.

What I learned from zero waste

Working on the zero waste project provided me with a wealth of experience. And I really enjoyed working with a diverse team. My team working skills and my ability to build strong working relationships were both improved by the experience. Moreover, bringing in knowledge from previous work experience was an opportunity to revisit and sharpen my skills. Now I look forward to seeing the recommendations being put into action!

The next time you think about creating waste, remember the harm you’re causing to the planet. A recent study reveals that 8.5 billion plastics are thrown away each year in the UK. There are over 150 million tonnes of plastic in the world’s oceans. Every year one million birds and over 100,000 sea mammals die from eating and getting tangled in plastic waste. So why not make some simple changes? Have a coffee using your reusable mug at the SU! You will be helping save the only planet upon which we live and breath.


Edited by Claire Moran