Opinion: Dan Fernbank, Energy & Sustainability Manager

Paper cups, plastic bottles, plastic straws – it seems everyone’s talking about them.  High profile coverage from the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘War on Waste!’ and David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet 2’ have done wonders to highlight their environmental impacts, and to encourage practical environmental action on a large scale.

But are these really today’s big environmental issues?

The University has set ambitious targets for continual environmental improvement throughout its operations, aiming by 2021 to cut its carbon emissions by 45%, water consumption by 35%, boost recycling to 60% and continuously improve sustainable travel options to and on our campuses.  Is there a risk that the current focus on single-use plastics/packaging, while worthy, may divert attention and resources away from our much larger goals, or should this be welcomed as an encouraging sign of mass interest in environmental issues?

One of the challenges we often face as environmental professionals is how to engage people with our ambitious targets – it can be hard to understand what you can do as an individual to really contribute to such ambitions, and perhaps easy to argue that your impact alone is inconsequential and therefore irrelevant to the bigger picture.  Should we perhaps focus on more immediate actions that people can relate to and engage with?

Almost inevitably, the answer has to be to strike a balance.  The current focus on single-use plastics/packaging waste has really brought environmental action into the public consciousness on a mass scale, and rarely does a day now pass without some discussion within Sustainability Services around this topic. Taking action to reduce this waste will ultimately help reduce the University’s waste – moving us towards another of our targets to cut overall waste per student/staff member.  The reduction of around 100,000 plastic bottles from our waste stream since September 2018 is phenominal, and we’re pleased to be launching both a paper cup recycling scheme and re-usable cup scheme in the next term.  At the same time, this remains a small fraction of our overall waste and of our carbon emissions, so we will continue to work towards these much bigger targets, while recognising the need and the opportunity to build on the undoubted enthusiasm to address topical environmental issues in support of our longer-term targets.

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