#Take5 #88: Sustainable Student Engagement: Get in the (compost) bin!

This #Take5 blog is brought to you from Julie Nolan, Student Engagement Manager | Student Communications Project Manager. Julie is reflecting on work she has undertaken to align sustainability with student engagement activities within Library and Learning Services at Edge Hill University. How can we inform students of our presence and entice them in, in ways that are not wasteful and pointless?

Plastic Fantastic

Library and Learning Services (LS) at Edge Hill University (EHU) have historically purchased promotional merchandise to give away to students during welcome events, tours, open days and other celebratory activities on campus. Over the years this has included branded stationery, pen drives, pens, pencils, post-it-notes, lanyards, bookmarks and even fluffy-goggle-eyed things you could stick on your desk (no, we aren’t quite sure either!). All these items were predominantly single use, and often made from plastic or other non-recyclable materials.

Student with branded bag - April 2016
Student with branded bag – April 2016
Branded mug – September 2015
Branded mug – September 2015
Branded stationery and bag – February 2019
Branded stationery and bag – February 2019

Pause and Progress

From early 2020 global events meant we were unable to participate in any on campus activities and so began exploring digital alternatives to encourage engagement during this period. With our shift to a digital first approach in every other area of our student support we took the opportunity to pause purchasing any new merchandise.

The ‘pandemic years’ were instrumental in allowing us time and space to reflect on how we approached our student engagement and communications. For a substantial period it was not feasible to print and distribute printed marketing materials, as we had before, and we had to maximise our alternative (digital) routes to reach students. In response our LS social channels became a central welcoming space and online community for students. Not wanting to lose any of the progress and success we achieved during this period we adapted our transition back to a ‘new normal’ by maintaining our best practices, embracing the sustainability benefits that inevitably came with a digital first approach.


In spring 2022 we conducted a final audit of our existing merchandise and allocated supplies across the remaining events for the year. We began researching sustainable alternatives across various suppliers and in June 2022 we sent a call to our colleagues, through LDHEN and LIS-LINK mailing lists, to explore good practices being implemented at other Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) with specific focus on:

  • What other HEIs were ‘giving away’ at their welcome/freshers events?
  • How other HEIs were maintaining a sustainable approach e.g. avoiding single use products / novelty or plastic items?
  • If not physically purchasing merchandise (or actively reducing it) what alternatives were being employed to encourage engagement / promote services and support?
  • How were other HEIs balancing sustainability costs with limited budgets, given reusable / eco-friendly products tended to be more expensive than single use plastic?
  • Were any HEIs approaching welcome / freshers’ events with more innovative ideas to attract students without the lure of a ‘freebie’?


The results from the benchmarking and discussions with colleagues across the sector uncovered the following themes:

  • Sustainable / eco-friendly alternatives and limited budgets: The cost of sustainable alternatives has been slowly reducing over the years, and this move is being accelerated by the more we buy. However, it remains more expensive to invest in eco-friendly products and when faced with an already limited budget this can result in an ethical dilemma. Examples of the types of sustainable products HEIs had purchased and found worked well include 100% recyclable products, such as bags made from sugarcane, or from purposely sustainable companies, like who gives a crap toilet rolls.
  • Food: The alternatives to giving away merchandise, yet maintaining high engagement with students, were mostly food related. Free pizza and sweets seemed most popular and usually yielded a good return on investment.
  • Discounts: Working with your own HEI retailers to provide discounts on products, for example a University branded hoodie, gave students the option to choose something they wanted and helped to reduce unnecessary waste.
  • Rewards: Some HEIs on restrictive budgets had one, or limited, substantial prizes and offered access to them through a prize draw style approach. This allowed budgets to stretch a little further with students engaging in the potential of winning, rather than a guaranteed reward. Some HEIs also approached local and/or fairtrade suppliers to seek donations to create an ethically sourced winning hamper.
  • Stationery: Although stationery is often made from single use plastic many of the discussions took into consideration that some students arrive at university without essentials. This could be a lack of planning but also a potential impact of the cost-of-living crisis. An approach, which may assist those on smaller budgets, one HEI undertook was to conduct a ‘stationery drive’ where they collected all the unused pens from staff offices and storage to give away. This provided something free for students and repurposed products otherwise going to waste.
  • Charity donations: One of the more interesting ideas raised was to give students a say in how you spend your budget, rather than buying ‘things’ for them. Allowing students a vote to donate X amount to a charity of their choice was a way for students to give something back. This could be a charity donation to a national or local organisation and even contribute to an internal hardship fund that would be used to support their fellow students.
  • Student voice: Continuing the theme of giving students a voice, discussions around implementing a vote without a prize (or even a budget) were considered. Students could vote on a topic or express an opinion to attract and encourage engagement. This could be something fun and unrelated to your support offer, or an opportunity to gather some valuable user experience (UX) data.
  • Freebies (or ‘booty’) often considered a student rite of passage: However great the alternative approaches happening across the sector are, there was a clear theme running through many of the discussions around the induction and transition period being a student rite of passage. There is, and it seems will be for a long time yet, and expectation for engagement activities to include freebies and fun!

Growing Greener

The discussions and feedback from colleagues across the sector were reassuring to hear we were all facing similar sustainability and engagement challenges. From this we were able to take into consideration some ideas to develop our own direction for our autumn 2022 welcome and induction activities at EHU.

In September/October 2022 we used the remaining supplies of branded tote bags, pencils and post-it-notes across events and, on the back of our findings, made some additional purchases:

  • Sustainable Sweets: Individually wrapped (compostable cellophane) fruit drops (vegan and gluten free) were provided along with a kitchen compost caddy to collect the wrappers, which were taken home at the end of each event and added to a home compost bin.
  • Eco-Friendly Voting Activity: Three glass jars (recyclable) with bamboo lids (reusable) and biodegradable tokens (made from starch bioplastics, which would completely break down if exposed to elements). The jars were purchased from a local shop and the tokens were sourced from a company nearby in North Wales, thus contributing to a greener footprint and less unnecessary travel emissions.
  • Ethical Rewards: We opted for a UX approach to our poll, inviting students to vote on which ‘prize’ they would most like to win when we ran competitions. These results would influence how we would approach future competitions across Library and Learning Services and students could choose from three options:
    • sustainable UniSkills goodie bag filled with eco-friendly stationery and study essentials
    • food and drink voucher to spend on campus catering facilities
    • eVoucher of their choice, with emphasis of encouragement to purchase from an ethical company

The sustainable goodie bag and food and drink voucher would be sourced locally, with mindfulness on materials and hope they would benefit students struggling with cost-of-living, as well as being an appealing reward. The eVoucher was as close to cash as we could offer as a prize and gave students further choice as to where ‘their money’ would be spent. The eVoucher was, unsurprisingly, the resounding winner with 47% of the votes.

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LS Welcome Stand – September 2022
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Compost Caddy – March 2023

We promoted our eco-friendly approach direct to students during welcome events and as part of their digital induction materials to further raise the profile of our sustainability work. We came to a natural end of our existing supplies in early November 2022 and, wanting to continue implementing improvements for the new intakes arriving in the new year, we set about researching alternative products that would be engaging, useful and sustainable.

Feedback from our autumn events indicated our tote bags were incredibly popular, with students lining up to get their hands on one, so we were keen to replace supplies of these with something more ethically crafted. We were also mindful of the conversations with colleagues around cost-of-living and students not arriving well equipped for study. Therefore we opted to purchase:

  • Book Bags made from 70% recycled cotton from off cuts, waste cotton and towels blended with 30% polyester, which comes from recycled plastic bottles. We opted for a black cloth with white branding printed on it, as we thought this would show less dirt than the cream bags we had purchased in the past. We also felt this colourway was a more gender-neutral design and would appeal to a wider range of students. Finally we included a strapline on all the bags to indicate they were ‘made from recycled materials’ and they also arrived with a green tag to further note they were made from ‘recycled cotton’.
  • Pens made from 100% natural resources and fully compostable at end of life – even the ‘plastic’ parts, which were made from polylactic acid found naturally in corn starch, yucca or sugar cane. In addition to our branding we included a small logo and direction to encourage students to ‘compost me’ at the end of pens life.
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Recycled cotton book bags and compostable pens – January 2023
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Bags, pens, poll jars and tokens – January 2023

We, again, shared our sustainability approach with students as they arrived in January 2023 and reused the voting jars and tokens for a new UX activity, with the chance to win an eVoucher of their choice for taking part. The eVoucher has generally been well received, and certainly allows students greater choice when it comes to their rewards, however we are struggling to redirect purchases away from the convenience of larger corporations.

To date we have issued 10 eVouchers of their choice for various competitions and incentives, with 40% choosing to purchase Amazon vouchers, 30% beauty related vouchers, 20% EHU food and drink vouchers and 10% for a local supermarket. We have recently concluded a high-profile student consultation survey, with a first prize of £200 eVoucher of their choice, so it will be interesting to see how the winner opts to spend their winnings!

The Future

It has been an interesting couple of years re-evaluating our approach to student engagement activities and we hope by undertaking a more mindful and eco-friendlier standpoint we are raising awareness (with students) and setting a good example (with colleagues across the University) for a brighter, more sustainable future without losing the fun and engaging elements these types of activities demand.


Julie Nolan

Julie has been Student Engagement Manager at Edge Hill for the last 6 years, overseeing the operational management of the Student Engagement (UniSkills) team who provide academic skills support for all UG and PGT students across the University. In this role Julie is also responsible for Library and Learning Services’ student engagement activities, events, campaigns and communications including welcome, induction and transitional support and the Services’ digital communication channels. Prior to this role Julie spent 3 years as Learning Spaces Manager with responsibility for the University Library building, facilities and circulation activities and, in the 11 years before that, undertook a range of roles across public library services in the North West, UK. Julie has a BA in English, Media and Communication, MA in Information and Library Management and Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education. Julie is currently seconded to a bespoke project management role leading on a high-level evaluative review of student communications across three large student support services: Library and Learning Services, Student Services and Careers.

ALDinHE is now recruiting to a Sustainability Community of Practice

If you are interested in joining this CoP please email admin@aldinhe.ac.uk

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