With Sustainability in its guiding Mission, UWCSEA has been ramping up its efforts to develop a zero-waste culture, with our student groups working closely with our Operations Department and our food service provider, Sodexo, to change systems and behaviours on both our campuses. Our partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, recognised as thought-leaders in the Circular Economy movement, has given us even greater impetus to use our on-campus systems as educational opportunities. In the words of the UWC movement’s strategy, we want to “Teach the right thing; do the right thing”
We have a long, long way to go to meet this ambition but the big success this term has been the launch of the Cup-for-Life scheme, which replaced the use of disposable cups on our campuses. Despite previous experiments with very generous discounts and express lanes for customers bringing their own cups - and having previously switched to biodegradable (PLA) bioplastics and waxed paper cups in our cafes - serious waste challenges still remained. In very busy environments such as UWCSEA with multiple events on any given day and a growing worldwide culture of having drinks to-go, the demand for convenient take-away services meant that our use of disposable cups for hot and cold drinks had risen to over 1,200 per day across the two campuses. With incineration as the destination for all non-recyclable waste in Singapore, it meant that even our biodegradable options ended up in the atmosphere rather than in the Earth.
A detailed two-year investigation into the cost benefit of investing in a commercial biodigester to enable technical composting of our disposable cups discovered that the financial and logistical challenges meant this was not feasible. While the idea of producing much needed compost from our waste was a highly attractive idea (we already have success with composting huge amounts of our kitchen waste), we decided instead to adopt another Circular Economy strategy. And so we looked to design waste out of our system, rather than try to manage it as an output. Student groups had already shown at large events that cup rental systems could work with correct pricing and enough manpower. Could this success with a re-use rather than disposable model be scaled up for everyday use across two large campuses? Catering for several thousand people every day, all day is much more of a challenge than serving just hundreds over a few hours. Fortunately our Operations Departments and Sodexo were just as ambitious as our student environmental campaigners and worked hard over the summer break on a bold plan.
First a supplier of re-usable cups had to be found - ideally with materials that demonstrated environmental credibility too. Our current choice uses a mix of plant-based and recycled plastics and while it's not going to win any aesthetic design awards is at a price point low enough to encourage widespread adoption. Secondly as we decided to start the new academic year with a sudden switch from disposables we invested a lot of time into publicising the initiative and followed this up with promotion at the campus cafes. In this system customers would effectively be renting a Cup-for-Life that could be exchanged at any time for a clean one at the cafes (removing some of the inconvenience of re-usables) or returned for a 50% refund. Importantly, all drinks prices were now dropped to the discounted level under our previous Difference is a Dollar Scheme that encouraged BYO cups. This offset understandable fears at the cafes that there would be a loss of sales and irate customers.
However, the community response has been very positive so far. With over 1000 sold in this first eight weeks of term, and many more customers now adopting a BYO habit, it seems that this system experiment is working. As expected from some of the more senior staff who remember bottle deposit schemes from their childhood, there is even a flourishing informal economy amongst younger students collecting abandoned cups for their trade-in value. There is probably no better way to learn that there can be value in waste!
There are still some issues to be worked out of course. There are indications that some are slow to adopt the BYO habit and maybe switching to carton drinks available in our canteens. While many cartons are recycled by our student groups, the majority end up in the incineration waste stream. Consequently, targeting replacements for these is one of our next zero-waste challenges while still ensuring healthy choices for our students and commercial viability for our food service provider Sodexo.
However we are also seeing a growth in our community now taking time to enjoy drinks in the 'for here' ceramic cups in the cafes. This, combined with the Cup-for Life scheme and a more fashion-conscious BYO culture amongst our older students, means that in just a few months since August we have prevented 50,000 PLA and paper cups from being diverted to incineration.
Like Singapore, we’ve a long way to go on a journey towards zero-waste. However, this more 'mainstream change' breakthrough, the result of a strong partnership between UWCSEA student groups, our Operations Department and Sodexo, means that we are inspired to continue to plan for further initiatives in years to come.
UWCSEA Dover's sustainability initiatives are showcassed on our Environmental Stewardship in action blog.