Lifting the lid on challenges and opportunities in higher education sector after COVID-19

The importance of smart procurement, behavioural insights and agile management of waste have only increased thanks to COVID-19. Stuart Hayward-Higham of SUEZ recycling and recovery UK shares the lessons from its latest research.

Among the repercussions from the coronavirus pandemic – from the A-level grades confusion and making campuses ‘COVID-secure’ to lost income from overseas students or summer conferences – there’s another uncertainty that must be managed. What will be the impact on resource consumption and the wastes that will ultimately arise?

Our university colleagues and we at SUEZ are braced for changes. But we recognise opportunities too amid the looming challenges. Building on first-hand experience in the sector, our previous and this recent research and consultation has yielded insights into students’ attitudes and behaviour around waste and recycling, and into the diversity of practice and performance across universities and colleges.

This work has borne further fruit by providing insight into how procurement can be better honed. Our procurement guide to recycling and waste management services is a brief and practical primer for managers seeking to secure the most effective provision for their university or college. Next up, our second attitudinal survey with the National Union of Students (updating pioneering research carried out in 2013) will be published at the end of September and gives brilliant insight to the needs and behaviours of students themselves.

COVID-related complications will affect each stage of the eight-step procurement cycle we map out in the guide(1) – from (stage 1) understanding and defining your needs to (stage 8) supplier relationship management but the fundamentals are a sound basis.

While a majority of university colleagues expect waste levels overall to drop as students spend less time on campus, waste per head is seen and set to rise. The waste streams will contain more and new materials such as face masks, paper towels, sanitiser bottles and other disposable items which will need safe but innovative adaption. Initiatives to replace single-use containers, such as coffee cups, may be stalled or reversed until the virus is under control but this means amending targets and not losing them.

More students than ever want to do the right thing by the environment. In our pre-pandemic survey 85% said they were committed recyclers – a 10-point increase on six years before. The Lifting the Lid Higher report, based on our NUS survey, also shows that the small group of non-recyclers has almost halved to just 6%.

Given how the coronavirus crisis has heightened appreciation of environmental threats and society’s unsustainable habits, we believe there is a will to change that universities can tap.

Communications around waste prevention and recycling can also be improved. A more joined-up information programme can reach the 60% of students who say they can’t remember receiving any recycling advice at their term-time accommodation; on-campus communications were memorable for just 50%. We know habits can support excellent performance.

Students spending more time in halls of residence – and ‘bubbles’ of course-mates and/or housemates – are a more captive audience. This could help in educating freshers (normally deluged by a tide of novelty and new information) in the resource friendly waste management ways and environmental ethos of the institution. Rather than hoping that the new cohort’s recycling behaviour conforms over time, universities can harness this greater environmental awareness, and peer influence, in the cause of waste reduction and value recovery.

Privately managed halls present a particular challenge. Only one in three tenants in our survey makes a particular effort to recycle compared with 61% in university-run halls. Inconvenience is a big factor (only 27% say the recycling set-up is very convenient). However, both on and off campus, students see inconvenience as a major barrier to recycling.

Understanding human behaviour is essential to drive improvement in performance. It is the key to designing waste services and facilities that fit a building or system and the behaviour of users to maximise participation and good habits.

Such behaviour change requires a system approach. Lifting the Lid Higher shows how this works in practice. Our behaviour change programme at Aston University was designed using the ISM model, which analyses behaviour at three levels – Individual, Social and Material. This simple tool can capture the insights of all stakeholders – from facility managers to student reps and staff, waste contract teams to cleaners, catering and security personnel.

At Aston, the programme partners focussed on the students’ union building and its facilities, waste streams and associated student behaviour, from shopping to littering. They then mapped their findings onto the model, identifying ‘quick wins’, setting priorities and agreeing the programme of action.

Due to the pandemic, the tests facing university managers over the coming academic year have just got harder. But there’s still scope for lifting environmental and financial management of waste and recycling to a higher level. A green recovery for universities is possible.

(1) Recycling and waste management services – a brief guide to procurement for universities and colleges. Available on SUEZ UK website:

(2) Lifting the Lid Higher. Publication date 28 September 2020. Visit: