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BDI ceramic mugs

Through leading large-scale, data-rich studies, NDPH generates immensely valuable public health insights, but this requires considerable resources including over 750 staff, students and academic visitors based in two separate buildings, high-speed computational power and energy-hungry data servers. Nevertheless, as a department, NDPH and its staff constantly look for new ways to minimise their environmental footprints. In particular, the Facilities Team and the two staff Green Teams have introduced a range of sustainability initiatives, covering everything from catering to lighting; transport to stationery. This article highlights some of their notable achievements so far.

Buildings fit for purpose/ A winning design

NDPH’s staff are based in two buildings on the University of Oxford’s Old Road Campus: the Richard Doll building and the Big Data Institute (BDI/NDPH building - part of the Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery). The BDI/NDPH building was designed from the outset to be as energy-efficient as possible, and was the first University of Oxford building to achieve an ‘Outstanding’ rating by BREEAM (the leading sustainability certification for buildings). A key feature is a subterranean labyrinth which acts as a passive heating and cooling system - found only in a handful of UK buildings. This draws outside air into a maze of underground corridors, then up towards the roof where it is mixed with heat recovered from air leaving the building. This air is then circulated around the building, helping to maintain a steady temperature. Various sensors monitor the building’s temperature, and activate the water heating system of radiators when required. Other measures that save energy include rooftop PVC solar panels, motion-activated low-energy usage LED and fluorescent lights throughout, and a system that recovers heat from the central data servers to use for heating the building.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced most staff to start working from home, the Facilities Team used the BDI’s reduced occupancy to improve its energy efficiency even further. ‘During the first lockdown, we took the opportunity to flush the heating system, to remove debris that had accumulated within the pipes and radiators’ said Andy Darley, Facilities Operations Manager. ‘The system is now working at peak efficiency, which meant we could turn down the boiler by approximately a third, considerably reducing its gas usage.’

Resource-minded

Throughout both buildings NDPH staff constantly look for ways to optimise every resource and reduce waste. Printing is set to double-sided, black and white by default, and is only activated at the printing source (to prevent printing a job by accident). Redundant office furniture is rehomed through the University’s WARPit (Waste Action Reuse Portal) account, toner cartridges from the printers are recycled by a specialist company, and used stationery is recycled through Terracycle’s Writing Instruments Recycling Programme. In the BDI/NDPH building, office bins have been replaced with regular recycle points throughout the building to correctly sort as much material as possible for recycling or disposal.

Waste electronic equipment, such as computers and laptops, from both buildings is collected by Computer Secure IT and WEEE recycling services provided by Computer Disposals Ltd. (credit: Computer Disposals Ltd)Secure IT and WEEE recycling services provided by Computer Disposals Ltd. (credit: Computer Disposals Ltd) Disposals, a specialist IT recycling company. ‘We take stringent measures to completely destroy all data remaining on electronic devices. Once fully sanitised, hardware can then be eligible for re-use’ said Malcolm Jones, Business Development Manager for Computer Disposals. Approximately 70% of the equipment they collect is fully processed and refurbished into second-hand machines, with the rest being used for spare parts or bulked and sent for recycling. ‘Besides reselling equipment, we also support various charitable schemes. For instance, during the COVID-19 lockdowns, we donated laptops to home-schooling children who needed them’ says Malcolm. 

Catering for positive change

Research from NDPH staff has helped to highlight the impact our diets have on the planet, particularly from meat and dairy products. Fittingly, NDPH became the first University of Oxford department to have a 100% vegetarian/vegan café when the Tulip Tree Café in the Richard Doll building went meat-free in March 2020. Highlights from the menu include sweet potato and chickpea tikka flatbread; BBQ bean and halloumi wrap; and goats’ cheese, pesto and roast veg ciabatta. Although meat is still on the menu at the BDI/NDPH building café, approximately 60% of their options are vegetarian, including tagines, curries, frittatas and vegetarian chilli. Both cafés are operated by Compass, a company committed to championing plant-based meals, promoting Fairtrade products, reducing waste and using local suppliers where possible.

Tempeh (left) and noodle salad (right): just two of the plant-based meals on the Tulip Tree cafe menu. (credit: Compass Group)Tempeh (left) and noodle salad (right): just two of the plant-based meals on the Tulip Tree cafe menu. (credit: Compass Group)All sources of waste are kept to an absolute minimum in both the cafés. Twice a week, unsold but still edible non-hot food items (such as sandwiches and cakes) are collected by Olio, who redistribute surplus food on a mobile app. All other food waste is collected and sent for anaerobic digestion, to create energy and soil fertiliser. Following a suggestion from the Green Teams, single-use plastic cutlery and non-recyclable takeaway containers were removed a few years ago. Now, diners-in enjoy proper metal cutlery and china plates, whilst takeout options are served in fully-recyclable containers with wooden cutlery. In 2019, the BDI Green Team also convinced the management team to make the bold move of eradicating single-use coffee cups in the building, and to issue all staff with their own branded reusable mug.

Involving all staff

Both buildings have a Green Team, open to staff at every level, from PhD students to professors. ‘We are really keen to get all staff involved, because people are our greatest asset – they are a brilliant source of ideas’ said Graham Bagley, who leads the BDI Green Team. Staff are encouraged to adopt sustainable habits through ‘Green Tips’ in the staff newsletter, communications on the buildings’ display screens, and a sustainability area on the staff intranet, including a portal for staff to submit their own ideas. The Green Teams also promote university-wide sustainability campaigns, such as Sustainable Photographer of the Year.

Many NDPH staff travel to work by bike and enthusiastically support the UK’s annual springtime Bike Week, which involves rewarding those who arrive by two wheels during the campaign with a free breakfast at the café. ‘I started cycling to work partly to save money but also as a way to get a bit of exercise before sitting at a desk all day long. I really enjoy the feeling of freedom cycling gives, especially at the end of the day. It also feels good to know I'm not contributing to the clogging up of Oxford's roads!’ said Sophia Wilkinson, a Communications and Public Engagement Officer based in the BDI/NDPH building.

Future plans

As staff start to return to the office, the Green Teams hope this will kickstart a new wave of ideas, so that they can actively contribute to a ‘greener recovery’ from COVID-19. A key aim is to help increase biodiversity on the Old Road Campus. ‘Our members are particularly keen to have some beehives and a herb garden, where we can grow edible produce to either give away to staff or use in the building’s café’ says Graham. Other ideas include a regular ‘Green Social’: an open forum to host visiting speakers, discuss sustainability-related documentaries and learn about local community projects.

As Graham concludes: ‘Being environmentally friendly requires effort. Sometimes, it can result in decisions that mean some aspects of working and social life will change, often to something that is less convenient. We are lucky to have a group of people committed to our green initiatives, and who are positive about the changes we need to make. I am optimistic about returning to work in the coming months. There will always be changes we can make, but knowing that we have the support of our colleagues makes planning and innovating so much easier.’