Equipping universities for sustainability

Universities lead the way in research, but not always when it comes to sustainability. Elena Holmes speaks to the brains behind a new scheme aiming to change all that by reusing laboratory waste as part of a circular economy 

UK universities, while leading the way with academic research, still suffer the same problems as the rest of us when looking for ways to deal with their waste. Research facilities use high-value, specialist laboratory equipment such as mass spectrometers, and fixing this equipment can be costly, with parts being hard to source, while instruments can also fall out of use depending on a lab’s work or when new technology develops. These unused assets are often stored, wasting money on servicing and space, before disposal, where most equipment ends up.

A new business is aiming to change all that by helping universities put their equipment to good use, while making money at the same time. As part of an effort to develop resource-efficient business models (REBMs), REBus, an EU-funded project managed in the UK by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP), funded UniGreenScheme to run a pilot to discover the volume of saleable equipment in universities and develop a business model for its collection, refurbishment and onward sale.

Michael McLeod, UniGreenScheme Founder and Managing Director, outlines its unique approach: “We don’t charge the university for the collection service, and we return a share of the profit, so for the client it’s a win-win.” Moreover, buying used equipment can reduce capital costs of a laboratory by up to 40 per cent, while the contributing universities also avoid disposal costs. Products are kept in use for longer – a crucial part of the circular economy – and waste is diverted from landfill. The universities also regain valuable laboratory space while helping towards environmental targets by reducing supply-chain carbon emissions. So far, the scheme has prevented 36 tonnes of waste, returned over £30,000 to universities, sold over 1,000 scientific instruments and generated £100,000 in revenue.

The scheme’s success is due to simple economics: laboratory equipment used for controlling the temperature of reactions, for example, can be £400 to buy new, whereas UniGreenScheme sells it on for half that price. Breaking down parts – for example, from a mass spectrometer – means old machines can also be fixed for much less than buying a replacement (a new machine can cost £100,000, whereas a reused part can be provided for £300). 

L: University store rooms can often become filled with surplus equipment, including specialist laboratory equipment such as mass spectrometers; R: UniGreenScheme loads a surplus jaw crusher for delivery to is new owner, a ceramics company

And it’s not just laboratories that can benefit from this approach: UniGreenScheme has also resold assets including lecterns, a swimming pool, and, recently, a Boeing 737. “We sold the plane to a hipster-style restaurant”, says McLeod. “We look at a much bigger market, and can send the assets elsewhere.”

This article was taken from Issue 87

But setting up a sustainable business isn’t always plain sailing – or flying, in that instance – with McLeod explaining that negotiations with clients to establish contracts can be complex, and can take months due to the unusual nature of the scheme’s service. The confusing nature of waste legislation can also make sustainability hard to achieve: “Most universities have no involvement in asset resale and get quite unsure about what to do to resell equipment”, says McLeod.

The scheme itself was at first unsure about legislation surrounding the status of the items it was redistributing on behalf of universities. “We were unsure whether we were dealing with ‘waste’ equipment or not”, McLeod says, but the scheme discovered the equipment could be defined as ‘assets for resale’ instead.

Despite these challenges, UniGreenScheme has had a highly successful start. At the start of 2016, the company had two university clients, and has now expanded to 15, with turnover jumping from £1,000 per month to £30,000, requiring more staff and bigger premises. There are plans to offer equipment for lease whilst it is in storage, and the scheme wants to grow its resale and collection services, expanding into other sectors including GP surgeries and research institutions.

For other businesses looking to operate in the circular economy, McLeod is clear that it’s vital to ensure the business model is financially viable for customers and simple to use: “Our business model means less hassle for the customer, which is a main driver that brings them to us. Make sustainability and reuse easy.”