A joint working group on single use plastics, set up by the Centre for Global Eco-innovation, brings together sustainability and retail experts from the university with representatives from Lancaster City Council and local businesses Atkinsons Coffee and Stephensons Dairy.
The latest in a series of initiatives involves replacing milk in plastic containers with milk in glass bottles.
“At the last Working Group meeting we discussed the potential for Stephensons Dairy to supply milk in glass bottles to university staff and students,” said Dr Catherine Baxendale, an Innovation Fellow from the Centre for Global Eco-innovation, which is based at the Lancaster Environment Centre.
This idea was taken up by the Lancaster University Students Union (LUSU), which now uses bottled free range milk from Stephensons Dairy in its kitchens, and is also selling the bottled milk in Central Stores, its retail outlet.
“Our customers are very keen on the idea: they like to take the bottles home and think they make good Instagram pictures,” said Pete Hunt, Retail supervisor at Central Stores. “Since we started we’ve sold over 2000 glass bottles of milk and our sales of milk in plastic litre containers have reduced by a third.”
The shop offers a 10p discount for returned bottles and Pete estimates that roughly half those sold are being returned at the moment. “If the bottles are returned the milk works out cheaper than in the litre plastic containers. The bottles can be washed and used another 50 times, which is less energy intensive than recycling them.”
Steph Stephenson from Stephensons Dairy, said: “The support from both the staff and customers at LUSU Central in making the switch from plastic to glass milk bottles is fabulous. We're really pleased to be part of this eco- initiative. It's great that we can all bring our area of expertise together to make such a huge difference.”
Another focus for the Joint Working Group is coffee cups, both encouraging customers to bring their own reusable cups, and sourcing take away cups that can be recycled: many ‘paper’ cups have plastic in the lining to make them more impermeable to liquid.
University run outlets like Central Stores are selling ‘cups for life’ made of bamboo and pioneered a policy of charging 20p extra for take-away cups instead of giving a discount to people who bring their own cups, as most standard retail outlets do.
“We did that because, according to research, surcharges are supposed to change behaviour more than discounts,” said Naomi Young, a third year Environmental Science student from the Students Union environmental projects team.
Now the Pavilion Café in Williamson Park, which is run by Lancaster City Council, has introduced a similar surcharge scheme and invited the Students Union to visit to see how it is working.
Darren Axe, Development Manager for Environmental Sustainability at Lancaster University and a member of the Joint Working Group, said: “It is fantastic to see the 20p surcharge on disposable cups being replicated at the Pavilion Café. Consistency in the message is important to help achieve the positive change and reduction in waste that we are aiming for.”
Williamson Park has also benefitted from another Joint Working Group initiative, to install water fountains around the district, so people can top up their own refillable water bottles rather than buying mineral water in plastic bottles.
As well as a Williamson Park fountain, the council has installed two others in Morecambe and Carnforth. The university has plans to install six new fountains on campus.
Packaging is another area where both the university and council are trying to reduce waste, with the Pavilion Café introducing compostable containers for take away snacks.
At the university, the Centre for Global Eco-innovation recruited a student intern to audit the use of plastic packaging in retail outlets on campus, both those run by the university and by external retailers.
“The Spar Supermarket on campus has taken this very seriously. It used to sell hot food in polystyrene containers, but they now use compostable ones instead and are charging for plastic cutlery rather than giving it away free,” said Catherine.
At Central Stores, Pete Hunt has introduced a raft of initiatives to cut down on single use plastic packaging including introducing loose fruit and vegetables and dealing with the huge amount of plastic packaging generated by deliveries to the shop.
“I realised that every time we have a goods delivery we ended up with between three and six bin bags of plastic waste,” said Pete. “We went to talk to A1 Superskips in Lancaster and discovered that we can recycle all of this plastic packaging. So now it gets bagged up and sent to A1, who sell it for reuse: none of it goes to landfill any more.
“We are also working with Precious Plastics, a new student group, to put in a plastic bag recycling scheme. We’ve introduced bags for life and put up the cost of disposable bags to 10p from 5p.”
The working group hopes to build on their successes, and now plans to invite academics and students to future meetings to share their expertise and ideas.
Mark Davies, Director for Communities and Environment at Lancaster City Council, said: “Reducing Single Use Plastic is of course a global challenge. In Lancaster we have taken the view that rather than wait the best approach is to start doing what we can do right now. Some great initiatives have already come forward. Working in a collaborative way we learn from each other and also are able to show that sometimes the best way to tackle seemingly massive issues is to take local actions and then build from that”.