By Alex Green, on 29 May 2014
New Scientist recently published an article featuring the work of UCL academics from CASA and the Department of Anthropology entitled ‘Stuff: Goodbye to the Disposable Age’. The article explored a growing movement towards alternative approaches to production and consumption, in particular towards what are termed ‘sharing’ and ‘circular’ economies. This prompted lots of discussion on the Sustainability Team about what these ideas could mean for UCL.
Sharing is caring
Ever used eBay or Airbnb, or taken part in carsharing? The ‘sharing economy’ is about finding ways to connect underutilised or unwanted items, equipment or space with those who need them. In an increasingly connected world, technology is allowing this process to take place locally, nationally and internationally, empowering ordinary people to become providers of goods and services.
The circular economy is about closing and optimising the loop between those items and materials that have reached the end of their useful life, with the processes of creating new items and materials.
Closing the loop
Circular economies aim to provide an alternative to the traditional, linear model of production; a process which takes resources, uses them to create goods or services and then disposes of them, generally through incineration or landfill. In a world of finite and rapidly depleting resources, this approach is at best inefficient, and at worst, arguably extremely reckless.
Optimising and moving beyond recycling
The circular economy is about closing and optimising the loop between those items and materials that have reached the end of their useful life, with the processes of creating new items and materials. This goes beyond the traditional idea of recycling. While recycling focuses on reprocessing of materials in some form, it’s a process that can result in high-quality and energy-intensive materials (like glass) being reprocessed into a much lower form (for instance, bottles being crushed for use as road aggregates).
So while recycling largely deals with the end product of production (waste), the circular approach is about considering the whole process. It recognises the importance of designing goods and services with constituent parts that can either be reused or reprocessed with little loss of quality and energy expenditure, or alternatively be harmlessly reincorporated back into natural systems through processes like composting. A good example of this process can be found in those UCL labs that use take-back schemes for their chemical bottles. Suppliers take back, clean and refill used bottles up to three times, before recycling the glass to make more bottles.
Sharing Chemicals and Equipment
The ethos of the sharing economy has been built into the core of UCL’s Department of Chemistry. Using an online database to keep track of chemicals and equipment, staff and students are able to massively reduce purchasing of duplicate resources and share specialist equipment with other departments and institutions. They approximate that this is also saving them around £90,000 a year.
Reducing waste and purchasing costs with WARPit
UCL WARPit is another platform via which staff can give, share and loan unwanted or underutilised resources and equipment. It makes the process easy, reducing both procurement and waste disposal costs. It has already saved over 20,000 kg of CO2 and over £80,000.
Catering for reuse
Ever noticed the glass bottles that UCL uses to provide water at events and meetings? By using high quality glass bottles, Sodexho, our caterer, is able to refill them with filtered tap water and use them again. And so are the wooden and plastic trays that food is delivered on too. By making sure they’re returned after your events, you can help make sure that these items are reused again and again.
Making good use of what gets left behind
‘Junk in the Trunk’ is an annual UCL programme run by student volunteers that prevents thousands of unwanted items ending up in landfill (almost 5 tons of goods were saved in 2012). Volunteers collect saucepans, cooking utensils, clothes, bedding, books and furniture, and ensure that they’re reused or properly recycled.
What about you?
These are just a few steps that members of UCL are taking to prevent large amounts of unnecessary waste and purchasing. We hope it shows that we all have an opportunity to make positive choices to improve our environmental impact.
Want to find out more about UCL’s approach to waste? Contact Sustainability Manager Tony Overbury.