Our programmes and campaigns

Plastic Free Campaign 2019

NUS has launched #Plastic Pollution Free – a campaign to support educational institutions on their path to reduce plastics pollution! 

Before reading on please note it is too simple to say that all plastics are bad. Plastics are a very versatile product that have many essential uses. In medical environments where avoiding contamination, single-use plastics may provide the one cost effective solution and can be safely disposed of. Most notably plastics may be essential to help people with disabilities go about their daily activities. For instance many people with disabilities require a bendy plastics for drinking. As you seek to reduce plastics please may sure you consider the needs of students and staff make them aware through adequate signage that plastic items are available if needed. Do not attempt to police who has access.

The challenge of plastics use is massive – an estimated 322 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year and 8 million tonnes leaks in to our oceans. Plastics is so widely used it is hard to imagine a world without. Plastic pollution is extensive and causing significant damage to the environment and wildlife, and perhaps soon to human health. We must act therefore to curb our usage if we can. 

Concern on plastics is highly evident amongst the student population, NUS research indicates 79% of students support a consumer levy on plastics and 52% support a ban of non-recyclable packaging. 

The Problem with Plastics

•    Only 9% of global plastics gets recycled. 
•    Plastics have been found in the world’s highest mountains and deepest oceans, and in “Britain's most iconic and remote rivers, lakes and reservoirs”
•    As plastics breakdown they do so into smaller and smaller pieces which can cause havoc in natural environments and enter the food chain. The process also releases chemicals which can leach into the environment and impacting wildlife and even human health. 
•    Thousands of seabirds, marine mammals and sea turtles die every year when they ingest or get entangled in plastic pollution – 80% of which comes from the land!
•    Alarmingly, a 2016 World Economic Forum report said that the world was on track to have more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

Action is happening!

However, the good news is that with interest from media organisations, 74 businesses signing up to WRAP’s UK Plastics Pact, and continued NGOs campaigns, there is a wave of activity on plastics. The UK government and devolved governments are beginning to take action on plastics, there are increasing calls for a UK wide deposit scheme and bans on various unnecessary plastics e.g. cotton buds and straws. 

Friends of the Earth have developed a Plastic Pollution Bill and are gathering support from across all parties.

NUS began it’s work on Plastics with our efforts on straws and coffees cups.  Now NUS is taking a broader view to discover if plastic free campuses are possible!

What are NUS doing?

Supporting Friends of Earth’s call for a Plastic Pollution Bill
Friends of the Earth and the Women’s Institute have partnered to develop a Plastic Pollution Bill that calls for the phase out of plastic pollution. It commits this and future governments to stopping the flow of plastic into our waterways and oceans. This includes a long-term target to significantly cut plastic waste and pollution by 2042, and a 2025 target to end non-essential single-use plastics.

Find a summary of the Bill here.

Show your support and Ask the Environment Secretary to act to end plastic pollution.

MPs from across the main parties as well as many other charities and organisations supporting the Bill.

Discovering if Plastic Free Campuses are possible.
We have teamed up with the Greater Manchester Authority, the Manchester Mayor, Friends of the Earth and Manchester’s Educational institutions to explore whether plastics free campuses are possible. Following a round-table chaired by Sam Lowe, (Students’ Union President, The Manchester College), attended by Andy Burnham and senior leaders across Manchester Institutions, in March this year Manchester Institutions signed a pledge to eliminate avoidable single-use plastics.

Supporting Plastic Free Shopping
Encouraged by the leading efforts of University of Sheffield Union who launched a Waste Free Shop, last year NUS took on board three suppliers to support with package free shopping. A number of plastic-free shop sections are cropping up across unions – including Keele University Student’s Union, University of Manchester Student’s Union.

Ready for the new university term this year, the NUS Trading Team and Student Eats are working in partnership to support 6 more unions to set up plastic-free shop sections. Funding has been provided through Student Eats which is part of the Our Bright Future programme, funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.

To find out more about how your union could set up a plastic-free section 

Encouraging reusable Coffee Cups and recycling
2.5bn disposal coffee cups used in the UK each year, and only 1 in 400 being recycled. Why? Most normal recycling plants can’t process the cups, because of the difficulty in removing the waterproof plastic lining inside from the paper outside. 

Go Reusable
There are 2.5bn disposal coffee cups used in the UK each year, and only 1 in 400 being recycled. Why? Most normal recycling plants can’t process the cups, because of the difficulty in removing the waterproof plastic lining inside from the paper outside. This means that if you are placing you’re coffee cups in general recycling streams, they’ll probably all end up in the same place: a landfill. 

As a result NUS is recommending that it’s unions work to increase the use of reusable coffee cups, by placing a levy on single-use cups. NUS has supported pilot schemes across 4 unions & universities to explore the best options to encourage reusable usage. These pilots used a behavourial change tool called – Individual, Social and Material (ISM), developed by Southerton et al's (2011) to indentify key influencing factors.  Please see our best practice learning here.

Your union can start your own coffee cup reuse campaign by:
1.    Make reusable cups available in your organisation shops. Contact the NUS Ethical Supply Chain Coordinator for more details.
2.    Download these free campaign assets.

Please see our best practice learning here.

In the meantime please see these case studies on unions/universities taking action to reduce single-use coffee cups. 

Costa Coffee Cup Recycling
NUS are working with Costa Coffee to implement trial coffee cup recycling infrastructure across 7 institutions. See more on our early research here


500 million straws are used and discarded every day in the United States alone – that’s 175 billion a year filtering into landfills and littering our waterways and oceans.

In 2017 NUS asked our unions and other organisations to pledge to make this #TheLastStraw. You can continue to spread the word by:
•    Request ‘no straw’ when visiting bars and restaurants
•    If you're an SU, keep a stock of reusable or compostable straws behind the bar just in case your customer requests one.  There may be instances where you need to stock plastic straws i.e. some disabled customers may require one, so try and ensure these are recycled responsibly (see related articles below). 
•    See if there are local environmental organisations that you can work in partnership with.  The Students' Union at Bournemouth University is a great example where a team of student volunteers (The Green Taskforce) and VP Education Alex Hancox, will be working with Litter Free Coast & Sea this year to lobby the 18 kiosks and food outlets on Bournemouth beach-front, to ask them to change their single use vending plastics.