Higher education is fighting an uphill battle with surplus waste and management. The tracking, cataloging, storage, and distribution of physical assets require connectivity between teams of surplus/facilities managers & departmental stakeholders, in addition to outside vendors, charities and other third-party organizations.
Making matters more difficult, the systems to manage purchasing policies and surplus property, especially on campuses with lofty zero-waste to landfill goals, are proving to be extremely difficult to navigate for procurement teams and sustainability officers. This is especially true for institutions using outdated technologies or ERP systems of old that were built to track resources rather than create as much value as possible from remaining products and their constituent parts & materials. Institutional asset management systems were not built for the circular economy.
To navigate these challenges, some universities leverage surplus property and warehousing programs. The University of Minnesota Reuse Program, for example has a website as well as a Facebook page where individuals can post surplus items and assets for sale. They support 250 University buildings by moving and handling unwanted materials, fixtures and supplies. They then redistribute furniture & other equipment, saving $200,000 to U of M departments each year. Colorado State University is another great example — with an Integrated Solid Waste Program and robust facilities management for waste collection and disposal processes.
Yet, even these well-oiled machines cannot handle all surplus (in the case of CSU, they divert 55.1% of solid waste from the landfill). There remains a considerable amount of waste (especially plastics and R&D consumables/non-capital equipment) that is often stored away (or worse — thrown away).
Similarly, institutions without an established surplus program (for instance, private research institutions) attempt to navigate the surplus problem through homegrown reuse exchanges, spreadsheets, online bulletin boards, and other manual methods of reuse.
How to manage surplus
To address these challenges, institutions must strive to move towards a surplus management strategy that uses circular economy principles, where waste streams effectively turn into value streams. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce writes this about waste: “Waste is a resource in the wrong place.”
By looking at reuse programs with this mindset and through the lens of the circular economy, waste can seen as an opportunity to provide a new, useful product for someone in the system.
1. Physical exchange of resources without leakage
First, there needs to be a way to facilitate the buying, selling, renting, and free exchange of surplus assets without leakage. The quantity, price (if applicable), location, and condition of surplus assets must be easily visible, ideally virtually hosted on a marketplace, with notifications to the right parties at the right time in an effort to reduce the likelihood of leakage in the system.
2. Post-transaction documentation
Most existing reuse programs do not keep track of assets after the exchange has taken place. Users gain easy access to the items they have claimed interest in (perhaps from an internal exchange network) only to throw them away/leave them idle in storage. Instead, reuse networks must be intertwined with a sustainability metrics report at the end of each month which documents the monetary value recaptured, the amount of weight diverted from landfill, and the whereabouts of resources that remain. This will help universities better understand the impact of their sustainability efforts, on both procurement costs and environmental waste reduction.
3. Retaining value within systems with rentals
Most universities already possess a majority of the physical assets required within the institution. However, procurement personnel are often double-buying items as there is a lack of understanding and visibility of those existing assets. Resources only fulfill their true value when they are fully utilized, not sitting idle in a storage room. By circulating existing assets within members of an organization through rentals (e.g., the Ikea model using products as a service), you retain and restore value into resources already present within a university’s system.
4. Operationalizing reuse through reward mechanisms and change management
Institutions need to pivot from finding a consumer and instead look to match products in surplus to defined user groups on campus, an interdisciplinary approach to reuse. Incentives or agreements in place to ensure the return or the reuse of products to the system should be rewarded (in the form of monthly giveaways!), as should visibility around the category preferences by location. Users should be able to easily communicate and conduct payment transactions on a single (a user’s profile should be populated with his or her departmental associations),
5. Adaptive to individual needs while building community
Reuse platforms should use a concentric sharing circle strategy highlighted by the Ellen MacArthur foundation (otherwise known as the value circle) where sharing is maintained or prolonged closest to where the system gains the most value. In this case, sharing should occur interdepartmentally, then inter-departmentally, then across community stakeholders before resources are made available to downstream, partners, donation centers or preferred resellers. University surplus management programs lack the community relationships and system alertness to create these cycles using ERP systems.
Shortfalls of existing solutions for surplus property management
The visibility issue
In existing asset sharing platforms within academic institutions, there is no efficient way of sharing assets across multiple buildings, and thus intra-departmental purchasing occurs when perfectly suitable options are available on campus. Chain emails are inefficient and conversations about exchanging resources are difficult to conduct over email. Individual departments are often trying to sort out its own assets, while some assets could be put to good use in other departments.
Lack of asset details
Granular data visibility on surplus material flows, demand and supply is required. In existing university procurement websites, there is often a lack of information regarding surplus asset features such as color, make, and current conditions. The lack of details results in a challenging exchange processes and often leads to unsuccessful or failed exchanges, and ultimately, waste/
Communication and participation challenge
Currently, universities are struggling to make procurement decisions because traditionally siloed departments are unable to connect with one another. Scale-up of existing re-use culture is also difficult, as is change management.