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The university sustainability puzzle: the missing piece  

Craig Campion, director of IT asset disposal services at Stone Group

Awareness and education around climate change is continually improving. Events like COP26 have raised key issues and led organisations and individuals to consider how they can change their everyday practices to reduce their negative impact on the environment. This is especially true for many higher education institutions across the country. A greater focus on sustainability initiatives is forming a vital part of their CSR, and also becoming an increasingly important factor for prospective students when choosing where to study.

People & Planet, the largest student network in the UK campaigning for social and environmental justice, releases an annual university league, ranking UK universities according to environmental and ethical performance. The league measures universities across 13 different categories – one of which is waste and recycling, which accounts for 8% of each university’s total score. Yet, despite recycling being one of the most commonly associated practices with sustainability, it’s an area where many universities are failing to act. The score given to each university for waste and recycling is made up waste composted or anaerobically digested (50% of the weighting). The other half is based on waste mass per head, which equates to the total waste generated, including wastes that are classified as recycling. 73% of universities in the 2021 ranking scored less than 40% in this category.

The e-waste challenge

While electronic waste (e-waste) is just one of the many ‘waste streams’ that universities have to consider, this is an area where they can make a big impact by introducing a few simple changes that are easy to implement, manage, and maintain.

It’s estimated that, by simply recycling small electrical items, the UK could save 2.8 million tonnes in CO2 emissions – the equivalent of taking 1.3 million cars off the road. By recycling broken or redundant IT equipment rather than hoarding it or throwing it away, universities have the potential to greatly reduce their own carbon footprints, and prevent the toxic substances released by e-waste causing further harm to the environment, wildlife, crops, and human health.

By simply arranging for old IT equipment to be collected from your premises by an accredited IT asset disposal (ITAD) provider, your ageing kit will be refurbished to give it a second life, or it will be broken down and recycled. It’s important to look for a WEEE-accredited partner that securely wipes your devices of all data and can guarantee no waste is sent to landfill through the process. Some IT resellers claim to offer a recycling service but outsource the responsibility to a third party with little knowledge of whether the items are in fact responsibly recycled, or whether they’re simply dumped in landfill. Paying for an ITAD service can be a tell-tale sign that your provider is using a third party.

Efficient use of resources

This was something that Durham University experienced first-hand. Prior to working with Stone, the university was using various suppliers to manage its ITAD requirements and being charged to use their services. Stone has worked with Durham University for a several years to deliver and support its Lenovo IT estate, providing two fully Lenovo-trained Stone engineers to manage installations, upgrades and repairs where required to reduce the burden on the university’s IT team. Stone now also handles Durham’s ITAD requirements, arranging collection of end-of-life IT equipment free of charge and providing cash rebates for the equipment that could be recycled and reused. By removing the cost of the previous ITAD services and receiving rebates in return for their old equipment, Durham can funnel money back into the university and is now using it to pay for one of the on-site Stone engineers.

Tackling HE’s e-waste challenge

With HE more reliant on IT for the effective delivery of education than ever before, and green initiatives only becoming more important, it’s crucial for universities to put measures in place to tackle the devastating impact their e-waste can have on the environment. There are now national frameworks in place, such as the North Western University Purchasing Consortium (NWUPC), to help universities and other public sector organisations in the UK to responsibly manage their redundant IT hardware assets.

Not only is a more sustainable approach to IT estate management beneficial for the planet, but for HE institutions themselves, enabling more effective use of finances and resources as well as boosting vital sustainability credentials to attract new students. Against a backdrop of mounting cost and time pressures, frameworks such as the NWUPC allow universities to find compliant, trusted partners to deliver these solutions and make impactful changes.

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