Monday, 22 October 2018

The Cup for Life Initiative - Progress on our Journey toward Zero-Waste!

Our recent Cup-for Life Initiative which replaced the Difference is a Dollar BYO discount scheme for hot and cold drinks sold on campus has already had a massive impact.

By deciding to use our own cups and mugs we have saved about 50,000 disposable paper and bio-plastic cups from our waste bins at Dover and East in just the first few months of this term. That's nearly half a tonne in weight!

Read more below about how UWCSEA took this step. Thanks to our Operations Department, Sodexo and student campaign groups for making this happen!

Towards Zero-Waste - the evolution of the Cup-for Life Scheme

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 food services provider, Sodexo to change systems and behaviours on our campuses. Our partnership with thought-leaders in the Circular Economy movement, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, has given us even more impetus to use our systems on campus as educational opportunities too. In the words of our 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 new Cup-for-Life scheme that has 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 also already 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 1200 per day across the two campuses. With incineration as the destination for all non-recyclable waste in Singapore, it meant that even this biodegradable material ended up in the atmosphere rather than harmlessly in the Earth.

Working with Sodexo and our suppliers we had put a detailed two-year investigation into investing in a commercial biodigester to enable technical composting of our disposable cups but financial and logistical challenges meant this was unlikely to be feasible for us. 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 design waste out of the system, rather than try to manage it as an output. Student groups had already shown at large events that cup deposit systems could work with correct pricing and enough manpower. Could this success be scaled up for everyday use across 2 large campuses? Catering for several thousand every day, all day, was 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. Customers could buy a Cup-for-Life and exchange at anytime for a clean one or 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. The community response has been very positive so far. With over 1000 sold in this first 8 weeks 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 do get recycled by our student groups, the majority end up in the normal 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 partners Sodexo. However we are seeing too a growth in our community now taking time to enjoy drinks in proper 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 a staggering 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 but this major breakthrough is a result of a strong partnership between UWCSEA student groups, our Operations Department and Sodexo and means that we are confident of continuing our success in years to come.

Teachers: For a more detailed rationale to use with classes and service groups as a great example of partnerships for Sustainable Development and Circular Economy principles in practice please see this document.

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