The university is becoming waste free: on a zero waste expedition with contract manager Marije Elschot

When you think of waste at a university, you might think of a pen you throw away because it no longer works, or an empty coffee cup after your exam. But most of the waste the university produces is behind the scenes: cardboard boxes, polystyrene foam and plastic bubble wrap from logistics, green and pruning waste from the Botanic Gardens, food waste from catering locations and broken or discarded electronic devices. In 2019, 56% of this waste was rescued from the mountain of waste.

There are still some things to be done before the university can be completely waste free in 2030. Luckily, Marije Elschot is there to make this happen. How? Simple. By gathering all the suppliers together in one room, making them collectively responsible for the waste they bring to the university and getting them to look at how to reduce it. Because: "The best way to reduce waste is to prevent it.” Welcome to Marije Elschot’s zero waste expedition; she manages contracts and suppliers at the Facility Service Centre.

Marije Elschot

Waste prevention, how does that work?

You start by finding out where the waste comes from that ends up at the university. Elschot: “I'm not talking about the student who throws away a can of coke, but about the party that delivers the vending machines that dispense the cans.” That party, MAAS, is part of a long list of suppliers with whom the university has contracts. Together they supply just about everything you see around you at the university: from the digital projector in the lecture hall to the bouquet of flowers given to a departing colleague. The Facility Service Centre started the zero waste coalition with fifteen of these suppliers in 2019. Waste processor Renewi sent its zero waste coach Gilbert to supervise the process. The coach kicked off with a clear message: “Everyone in this room is indirectly responsible for some of the university's waste. That means that everyone in this room also has a piece of the solution in their hands.” That set the tone. All of a sudden, the 15 suppliers present and the university had a joint mission. 

Each participant in the coalition identifies which products and packaging are produced during its processes and activities. After that, they consider ways of reducing these materials. Elschot: The most important thing about this coalition is that, as the client, we provide scope for adjusting the current rules of the game.” It then becomes possible to work together more efficiently and more ingeniously. It motivates suppliers to modify their process or business model. And that's desperately needed if we're to make processes circular.”

From the coalition

So far, zero waste coach Gilbert has reasons to be proud. Lyreco, the university's office supplies provider has started a pilot project in the Androclus building for collecting discarded office supplies. Employees can put used pens or broken paper punches in collection bins at various places in the building. Previously, such things often ended up in the residual waste. Now Lyreco collects them to reuse, repair or recycle. The supplier was on a roll and immediately tackled its packaging too. Pens currently no longer come in a cardboard box, but are bound together by an elastic band. Packaging that is still needed is collected and reused as much as possible.

Changing the rules as described above also set something in motion for Bechtle: the supplier of IT resources such as computer mouse devices, keyboards and laptops. Previously, the university had stipulated that articles had to be delivered as soon as they were available. "That meant a mouse might be delivered ahead of the rest and the laptop followed a week later.” When the coalition heard this, they exchanged significant glances. That had to change. The university revised its rules and now Bechtle delivers everything in one box. It saves a lot of packaging and trips with the van.

Shared responsibility

Sometimes critical questions were asked, such as the age-old issue: "Who's going to pay for all this? Elschot, firmly: "We'll pull together on this. It’s now clear that the world has to do things differently. Reducing the waste mountain is a shared responsibility.” She goes quiet for a moment and then adds: "You know, the powerful thing is that the coalition’s impact extends beyond the university. Suppliers are becoming energised too. We hear from some of them that they have now introduced the ideas they learned from us at other customers.”

Elschot herself is also promoting the zero waste idea outside the university. "I've become the waste expert at home. My boyfriend regularly looks questioningly at me before he throws something away.” Jokingly: "You can imagine this is putting me under enormous pressure.” We say goodbye: Elschot has places to go. Even in these times of working from home, she is continuing her mission for a waste-free university. If her infectious energy is anything to go by, it should be successful. Who would have thought talking about waste could be so inspirational?

Other projects to reduce waste initiated by the zero waste coalition:
  • Removal service Convoi works with reusable covers for research equipment and monitors.
  • Vineyard, the caterer in the University Hall, now asks customers for more information when they place an order to avoid wasting food.
  • MAAS, the university’s supplier of vending machines for coffee, soft drinks and sweets, increases the discount on coffee and tea from 5 to 10 cents if you use your own cup.

Read more about this topic in the focus chapter waste.