Is COVID giving freshers’ week a chance to go green?

By Nicole Wootton-Cane• Last updated: Jun 26, 2023
Is COVID giving freshers’ week a chance to go green?
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Freshers’ week and sustainability are not two words often put together. In a week (or sometimes two) dominated by what is perhaps best generalised as excessive consumption – partying, leafleting, and mass production of cheap freebies – there has been little room in the freshers conversation for a sustainable and ethical use of resources. 

It’s an issue that has been gaining traction among environmental protest groups, with the likes of Extinction Rebellion protesting at some freshers’ fairs last year. But nothing has looked set to change; societies and companies have become wedded to extremely wasteful and unsustainable recruitment tactics, and breaking a cycle that seems effective, cheap, and not to mention popular – students notoriously love free things –  can be challenging. 

In September 2020, freshers’ week as we understand it can’t happen - the events are too large and attract too many students to be viable in the midst of COVID-19. So is this freshers’ week’s chance to finally go green?

Anna Marshall, Opportunities Officer at Durham University Students’ Union, said she has seen societies and companies being forced to make more “carefully considered” decisions about how they interact with students this year.

“If you think about freshers’ week historically, the whole purpose has always been face-to-face, grabbing people, giving them as much material as you possibly can to fill their student rooms with material to remind them of you so that they’ll hopefully want to join your society.

“I know in Durham the standard thing to do would be to print maybe 1,000 flyers, to expect to recruit maybe 30 members, which is not a great return rate at all. It's very very frustrating and outdated in its model, if you think about every other company trying to reduce its physical interaction.”

She’s right. Freshers’ week has failed to move with the times in terms of digitalisation. Where most societies will now use Facebook groups to organise and have conversations with all their members, freshers’ week sees most revert to the old-fashioned flyer and cheap freebie as a recruitment tactic.

Marshall was also keen to point out the other, more hidden ways, that freshers’ week drives unsustainable consumption. According to a study by the Food Climate Research Network, beer accounts for 80.5 percent of alcohol consumption by volume but only 62 percent of alcohol emissions, whereas spirits account for 3.5 percent of consumption but 6.7 percent of emissions - meaning that spirits’ share of emissions is nearly double its share of consumption. The type of binge drinking that is so common (and often even encouraged) on freshers’ week relies on excessive consumption of these cheap imported spirits that have a much harsher environmental impact than locally brewed beer. 

Costume parties are another grievance for those concerned about freshers’ week’s environmental impact. Marshall said that freshers’ week works to “manipulate” freshers into “buying cheap things purely for fun” because of their status as newcomers trying to fit in, which she described as “a very problematic narrative to still be perpetuating in 2020.”

“White t-shirt parties are a personal grievance of mine, because you’re told that you should just buy a white t-shirt, scribble all over it, and then just bin it the next day.

“I don’t think you would see these kinds of activities in third term, you wouldn't really see third years doing them so much, but because it's your first week you can just get cajoled into a lot of very wasteful activity.

“So that’s my main take on the fresher’s week, I absolutely love the social aspect of it and I love the friend making and I love the energy of the week, but we’ve trapped ourselves in a situation where, at least in recent years, there has been a high dependence on a wasteful use of resources, to substitute actual fun and actual organic interaction.”

This year, societies and Students’ Unions are being forced to move a lot of their freshers’ week activities online, with many students not being present on campus, and those who are needing to obey strict social distancing guidelines. It's a move that will drastically reduce the amount of materials produced for events like freshers’ fair and club nights, and might result in the greenest freshers’ ever.

The shift online doesn’t seem to bother some students. Rachel, an MA Sociology student at the University of Manchester who is involved in the Fossil Free movement, said that a lot of the materials she usually picks up from freshers’ fair are disposable, so she is “happy” to see the move online for a lot of events.

“I think that this year, there will be a lot less waste produced from flyers, free items and food packaging that can be left lying around as a result of freshers fair. 

“Don’t get me wrong, getting free pens always saves some cash (and I’ve always found this great as someone who writes a lot of lecture notes), but given how a lot of the materials produced for the freshers fairs are easily disposable and can create a lot of litter, it makes me happy that there will be shift to online for a fair few events.”

This year, instead of leafleting, societies at Durham are being asked to create a video that encapsulates the spirit of their society in order to attract new members - a process Marshall said she was “really enjoying”.

“Once you escape the trope of a leaflet, it makes a lot more sense to just do it online through videos and rely on good social media, so I’m hoping that in the future there will be this sense that we don’t need print materials so much anymore, so I think that is a really positive step.”

However, Marshall has concerns about other ways the coronavirus pandemic may be affecting environmental policy at universities. As production of disposable materials for freshers’ fair may be falling, in other areas such as university catering, it's rising. 

“I think there is a different host of issues though, because of this move that we’ve seen that I actually think is more long-term damaging, of, we’ve reversed the culture of disposable single-use plastic, it's now a health priority, so students in catered halls for instance, there’s currently a big concern that that’s going to go straight to disposable packaging for every single meal. 

“If we’d suggested this a year ago it would have been absolutely blown out of the water because it is ridiculous, but for the sake of one immediate emergency, they’re sacrificing and enhancing the other emergency.”

Students are being given disposable masks and tests, which are two things Marshall says can’t be compromised, but she’s worried that they are reintroducing a culture of waste that activists have long fought to get rid of.

Coronavirus also saw the pause of several long-standing initiatives at the University, including their volunteer repurposing and recycling scheme that allows students to donate furniture and appliances that would otherwise be binned. Their environmental team were also placed on furlough - a decision that Marshall called “frustrating”.

“All these long-term plans have been completely stopped because of COVID-19, which isn’t in any way sustainable.”

David Loudon, Director of Estates and Facilities at Durham University, said that while staff from their Energy and Sustainability team were placed on furlough, the University continued work on a number of “key projects”, including mapping the biodiversity and species richness on the campus for the first time, developing courses and modules involving environmental sustainability, and delivering a Green Move Out scheme, which enables students to donate unwanted belongings to charity.

“We are working across our whole community to make Durham one of the most environmentally sustainable universities in the UK, including by introducing strong environmental policies and procedures, reducing our carbon emissions and promoting environmental awareness. We also achieved the Gold standard for EcoCampus accreditation in June 2020.”

He also said that Durham’s Colleges will “continue to use reusable crockery” as students return, and that those required to self-isolate will be provided with reusable crockery to be returned to dining halls when it is safe to do so.  

“Where students choose to take food away from the dining hall, we will minimise single use packaging wherever possible.”

However, this is not a problem that is unique to Durham - university catering on campuses across the world will be faced with decisions about costs versus sustainability as the new term starts. 

Virtual freshers’ may directly reduce physical waste on university campuses this autumn, but online does not equal sustainable - another point that Marshall feels universities and Students’ Unions must take into consideration over the coming months. 

“There will be other issues that arise, we can’t see an online world as neutral just because you’re not spending money on a leaflet. 

“Mass mailing lists, for example, consume a huge amount of energy because of the processing units that have to be built. Just because it’s in California and paid for by Google doesn’t mean that there’s not a huge carbon cost, to not only these mass emails that we’re sending out, but also the draining of your laptop energy because of Zoom and (Microsoft) Teams.”

She called these “legitimate problems”, but was also keen to reiterate that we should take some hope from the short-term benefits that virtual freshers’ introduces, that could act as a catalyst for more lasting change. 

Software like Zoom has also shown us that we often don’t need to all be in the same room to get things done. Marshall said she was hopeful that we’d “escaped” the pattern of constant travel that this perpetuated - whether this be freshers’ taking an hour-long trip on a bus, or university executives flying across the world for meetings.

“From an inclusion perspective it's really great that we’ve moved online with so many things that could have been online.”

Students like Rachel also noted the increased inclusivity and accessibility of online events, although she did say that she enjoyed the atmosphere of a physical freshers’ fair.

“Whether or not the virtual presence of the freshers fair continues in future, I do hope that it highlights just how much waste was produced at previous freshers fairs and that this might not be necessary to produce so many materials in the future. 

"I hope that we will be able to keep some physical presence given the opportunities and the people to meet and to encourage social activity. There was always a buzz for the physical event.” 

Looking to the future, Marshall said that she feels the year can be positive, but that students “really need to get their heads around” the fact that returning to university this September is not a return to normal. 

“When you go back to university it’s not going to be anything like any previous year, it’s just not. I’m not saying it's going to be worse, it's just different.

“I’m really hopeful that people will see that actually, cramming 2,000 people into a room for five hours isn’t fun, isn’t necessary, and is a big waste of energy and resources.

“So yeah, I am hopeful for the future that we’ll transition to more quality spending and more long-term appreciation of what we have and what resources we are spending our money on.” 

COVID-19 has worked to expose some of our most wasteful habits in many areas, and university campuses are no exception. How we find solutions to the problems that coronavirus poses will be key, with a lot of the short-term fixes currently in place not viable in the long-term. People like Marshall will be anxious to ensure that sustainability doesn’t get forgotten along the way. 

2020 may result in the greenest freshers’ week ever, but perhaps not the greenest year ever on UK university campuses. If costume parties and cheap freebies are replaced by disposable catering and increased power usage, there is a real danger that we try and fix one problem with another, throwing away years of progress across the sector.

This September, universities and Students’ Unions have no choice but to adapt - the real tell will be if they continue to do so, and if sustainability or short-term cost will be prioritised in a post-pandemic world.

Related tags:
Freshers' week
will freshers happen 2020
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