It goes without saying that this year is going to be very different for us students returning to university. With concerns among the general population that students will be responsible for unprecedented spikes in COVID-19 as we move towards the winter months, the stakes couldn't be higher.
The same is true for the fate of the environment.
Pre-pandemic, Newcastle University ranked highly on the People and Planet league table, placing 12th out of 154 universities. In a statement on the website, the university is aware of its progress while recognising the need to keep pushing forward: "We are proud of the progress we have made, over many years of work, in improving sustainability at Newcastle University. However, we know we need to go further."
With growing numbers of activists among younger demographics, universities are places where environmentalism thrives. But have plans to launch new environmental initiatives changed since COVID-19 took the spotlight?
Risking a drastic return to the throwaway culture we were trying so hard to avoid, what should students keep in mind to stay safe & green when they return to campus?
Here are some top tips for students (backed by science) who want to do their bit for the planet and keep safe.
This one may sound obvious, but it's worth mentioning for the amount of waste that disposable blue masks create. Despite a misconception that the medical blue masks are made from paper, they are in fact plastic. Louise Edge, senior anti-plastics advocate at Greenpeace says if everyone in the UK wore a disposable mask each day for a year, a huge “66,000 tonnes of additional plastic waste could be produced." That's equivalent to more than 100x the weight of Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer Statue. In a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University, evidence suggests that wearing an effective mask can reduce the risk of airborne virus transmission by up to 90%. Support small businesses, buy one from a friend, or if you can, use an unwanted piece of clothing make one yourself.
Top tip: If disposable masks are your only option, cut off the strings before you throw them away to reduce the risk of entangling wildlife.
2. Use hand sanitiser
Upon return to campus, every student will be issued with a 'safety pack', consisting of hand sanitiser, a reusable mask and personal thermometer. To reduce plastic waste and save yourself buying multiple bottles, fill-up stations will be available on campus. Research suggests that hand sanitiser with at least 60% alcohol content is most effective at reducing germ growth, helping to prevent the spread of viruses like corona. Although important, sanitiser is not a replacement for washing your hands well at home, so make sure you have your 20 second hand-washing ritual aced to perfection.
3. Walk rather than car share
Used to driving into uni? If you live within walking distance but have always given in to the wheels, ditch the car ride with friends and take the opportunity to start walking. The benefits of cardiovascular exercise are well-documented, so even if walking isn't for you, green activities like cycling are great alternatives to using the car.
Top tip: 'Recyke-y-bike' in Byker offers affordable second hand bikes if you're searching for inspiration in the North East.
4. Find out about virtual events
Whether it's Extinction Rebellion, global school strikes for climate or a multitude of petitions, there's lots of virtual events going on to get involved with. Minimising person to person contact is the best way we know at present to contain the virus, so take a look at what you can do from the comfort of home.
5. Consume less
From fast fashion to food, we live in a world where there is a lot to be tempted by. Despite no evidence to suggest that receiving packaged parcels and takeaway deliveries threaten us from a virus perspective, the health of the environment is a different story. With shocking research by Green Story suggesting that 20% of online returns end up in landfill, it's about time we curbed our clothes craving. Share styles with the people in your bubble, cook food from scratch together and depend less on the companies that draw you in and pollute the planet.
It is true that the environment and COVID-19 are not as far removed as they may first appear, with one providing an opportunity to re-evaluate our attitude towards the other.
Despite talks of fresh starts and an environmental focus, it's not surprising that human interest will always top the list of priorities. But the sooner we see the planet's health as intertwined with our own, the closer we will come to a sustainable future.
Students are likely to face a lot of criticism in the coming months, so let's do what we can to prove, at this pivotal moment, that change is possible.
Featured Image: Pikist