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How to Make University Campuses More Sustainable

From energy-efficient infrastructure to refilling and recycling, there are lots of ways to increase the sustainability of a university campus.

The UK student network, People & Planet, run a university league, listing the UK’s greenest universities. At present (December 2021), the top three universities are:

  1. Manchester Metropolitan University
  2. King’s college London
  3. Nottingham Trent University

Disposal and recycling

Some of the greenest universities in the UK run reward schemes for recycling. Money prizes and treats such cinema tickets and drink tokens are up for grabs in a competition between halls of residence and academic departments to achieve the highest rate of recycling.

“Pop Swap”

Once-a-term on-campus clothes and book exchanges provide opportunities for students, staff, and the local community to swap unwanted clothes and books for ‘new’ pre-loved ones. The Pop Swap scheme reduces the amount of textiles and paper put into the recycling system. Although preferable to the landfill option, recycling processes consume a lot of energy.

Charity donations

Some universities operate a charity donation scheme. Students and staff can leave donations of unwanted clothes and other items at conveniently placed drop-off points around the university campus for volunteers to collect.

Disposal of fat, oil, and grease

Pouring fat, oil, and grease (FOG) down the drain contributes to the huge “fatbergs” that build up in sewage pipes, causing blocked drains, overflowing sewers, damage to roads, and water pollution.

Besides FOG, fatbergs are made up of all kinds of debris, such as cotton buds, rags, wet wipes, nappies, condoms, bandages, sanitary products, rubber gloves, and face masks. As fluid waste passes through sewers, obstructions – rough inner surfaces of pipes, damaged brickwork or concrete, or intrusive tree roots – can cause turbulence in the flow, and as the contents swirl, debris gets trapped and consolidated.

Fat should never be poured down the drain. Instead, it should be left to cool in a dish and then scraped out into the bin. Education, signage, and an ingrained culture of sustainability can help the university community form good habits when it comes to responsible disposal of FOG.


Many UK universities encourage sustainable travel through car-sharing schemes, free bus passes, and incentives to travel by bicycle.

Construction and refurbishment of university buildings present opportunities to add sustainable features such as LED lighting and solar panels. Natural ventilation systems, too, can make a big difference to energy consumption. Compared to mechanical air conditioning systems, they’re cheaper to operate and require less maintenance, contributing to a reduction in carbon emissions.

Encouraging sustainable eating

If cafeterias were to offer a wide and varied vegan menu, the university’s carbon footprint would be significantly reduced.

A few facts about animal farming:

  • The agricultural sector is responsible for an estimated 10% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Almost 80% of the greenhouse gases produced by the farming industry can be attributed to animal rearing.
  • More than 40% of anthropogenic methane emissions are produced by agriculture.
  • Around 85% of UK farmland is used for grazing livestock or producing crops to feed livestock.
  • Around 10,000,000 hectares of forest area, worldwide, are lost every year to alternative land uses, causing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to increase. 

Adopting a vegan diet is the single most effective action an individual can take to help create a sustainable world. A dynamic environmental policy can encourage and support students in their efforts to cut out, or cut down on, animal products.

Reduce single-use plastic

Plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose. Eliminating the demand for single-use plastic is the only way to curb the prolific, exponential manufacture of plastic.

Hydration stations

Conveniently located hydration points on the university campus provide students and staff with opportunities to refill water bottles. Over the past couple of years, many UK universities have been installing mains-fed water dispensers in cafeterias, hallways, libraries, gymnasiums, common rooms, staff rooms, student accommodation, and lecture halls. Reusable bottles are sold in campus shops, along with maps that show where to find hydration points.

Coffee cups

Disposable coffee cups are made from a paper fibre that’s tightly bonded with a polyethylene lining. Although each of these materials is, in theory, recyclable, coffee cups are seldom recycled due to the expense of separating the materials. Following the example of cafés and takeaway outlets around the country, universities are introducing a financial incentive to students and staff for providing their own reusable cups.

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