UK universities are stepping up efforts to be environmentally friendly, with measures ranging from beef and plastic bans to coaxing students into beekeeping on site, a PA news agency investigation has found.
Scores of institutions have committed to tackling their carbon footprint by reducing meat consumption, switching to reusable straws, crockery and cutlery, and turning lights and screens off.
Other schemes included recycling used coffee grounds into sustainable biofuels, removing products containing palm oil, and planting native bulbs to attract birds and insects to university grounds.
Universities have pledged to go carbon neutral in a handful of cases, with details obtained under freedom of information laws showing the array of schemes being established at campuses across the country.
University leaders said the higher education sector “recognises the importance” of these issues to staff and students and is committed to making progress, while student groups praised universities for taking action – partly due to pressure from undergraduates.
Environmental issues have been under greater spotlight among younger people following the protest actions of Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who has joined the likes of naturalist Sir David Attenborough, former US president Barack Obama and UK pop band The 1975 in calls for action.
The PA’s investigation, which drew responses from 144 UK universities and colleges, found that many have taken action on plastics.
While most have not opted to ban single-use plastic bottles, nearly one in three (42 institutions) are considering some sort of restriction.
Levies on these items – or subsidies for those who bring reusable cups – are becoming popular, with 58% saying they have introduced such as measure.
A handful have introduced bans on meat products – particularly beef, the production of which concerns environmentalists due to animal methane output, water consumption and effluent waste.
Vegetarian and vegan events are becoming commonplace, with around half of universities and colleges saying they are running such schemes or have done so previously.
Around a fifth (21%) of universities have concrete plans to become carbon neutral or achieve net zero, while many more are looking at the issue or want to put plans in place.
A greater number of universities said they had increased the number of water fountains on campus in recent years than not – with 59 having introduced new hydration points compared with 51 who had not.
PA’s investigation also found some more unusual environmental measures.
At least four universities – the School of African and Oriental Studies, Glasgow School of Art, Cranfield University and the Royal Academy of Music – are pursuing beekeeping or honey-harvesting schemes.
The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Glasgow Caledonian University are among those promoting tree-planting.
A spokesman for Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said: “Universities take climate change very seriously and recognise the importance of this issue to students and staff alike.
“Through their research, UK universities are leading the way in tackling global environmental challenges.
“As well as moving away from the use of fossil fuels, universities are working hard to tackle their own carbon footprints: investing in energy-saving technologies, finding sustainable supply chains and focusing on greater energy efficiency, including greener and more sustainable buildings.”
National Union of Students president Zamzam Ibrahim said: “It is great to see our universities are at a tipping point and there is no doubt that this has been in part thanks to student pressure.
“NUS has campaigned for years to make our institutions just and sustainable from our divestment campaigns to our recycling campaigns.
“We saw the student movement make history again with the announcement that over half of UK universities have committed to divest from fossil fuel companies.”