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Sustainability Resource Guide: Case Studies

Information about sustainability resources, events and activities at Newcastle University: a collaborative guide from NIReS and the University Library

Case Studies

The way in which UK upland hay meadows are managed and restored to conserve botanical diversity has been largely determined by research carried out at Newcastle University. Increased post-war agricultural production has converted most species-rich upland hay meadows to species-poor rye-grass grassland so that today only 1070 ha (hectares) undisturbed hay meadow remains. The Newcastle research has been used by Natural England (an executive non-departmental public body responsible for England’s natural environment) to produce targeted management prescriptions for 2500 ha of farmland in northern England and has informed National Park and AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) management on best practice for successful restoration of hay meadows. The research has ensured the successful restoration of more than half of the remaining upland hay meadows in England.

Questions about which biological and management factors contribute to high plant diversity in upland hay meadows have driven the research at Newcastle University between 1993 and 2008 led by Roger Smith (senior lecturer 1979 to 2013) and with Robert Shiel (lecturer/senior lecturer 1989 – present).

The results have shown that to maintain or increase botanical diversity in these hay meadows:

  1. Autumn grazing is essential but grazing in late spring, especially with sheep must be avoided
  2. The presence of Rhinanthus minor (hay rattle) is essential in order to reduce the abundance of competitive grasses and encourage the herbs
  3. The optimum date for cutting hay is in mid-July
  4. Sowing of seed is essential to introduce new species
  5. Small amounts of mineral fertiliser might be tolerable for restoration unless they are used in combination with large annual applications of manure, but are best avoided on existing species-rich swards

As a result of the policies and management prescriptions arising from Newcastle research, 2500 ha has been placed under grassland management options (as upland hay meadows or restoration toward this) in the Higher Level Stewardship scheme in the Yorkshire Dales and North Pennines National Character Areas, with further areas (exact area unknown) in Cumbria. Decline in hay meadows still occurs due to a variety of causes, but there is recent evidence that previously degraded sites have improved.

References:

Smith R.S , Shiel, R.S., Bardgett, R.D., Millward, D., Corkhill , P., Evans, P., Quirk, H., Hobbs, P.J. & S.T.Kometa (2008) Long-term change in vegetation and soil microbial communities during the phased restoration of traditional meadow grassland. Journal of Applied Ecology 45, 670-679

Bardgett, R. D., Smith, R.S., Shiel, R.S., Peacock, S., Simkin, J.M., Quirk, H., Hobbs, P.J. (2006) Parasitic plants indirectly regulate below-ground properties in grassland ecosystems. Nature, 439, 969-972

Map: c. Newcastle University

Newcastle University research has made significant contributions to international best practice guidelines used to restore coral reefs. Coral reefs are the most biologically diverse eco-systems on earth, directly and indirectly providing an estimated $375 billion per year in ecosystem services. Despite their importance, very little work had been undertaken to assess the strategies used to rehabilitate damaged reefs prior to the Newcastle research. Research findings have subsequently been incorporated into international best practice guidelines which are used by a diverse group of users including reef managers who use them to plan more ecologically robust reefs and maritime insurers who use them to assess insurance claims related to reef damage by grounded ships.

Newcastle Researchers Prof Alasdair Edwards (Senior lecturer, 1990 – 2010; Professor of Coral Reef Ecology, 2010 – present) Dr Susan Clark (Senior Research Assistant, 1998 – 2001) and Dr James Guest (Research Assistant, 2005 – 2008) studied reef rehabilitation in the Maldives and the Philippines actively between 1993 and 2008. This body of work led to a number of influential papers which were incorporated directly into reef restoration guidelines, manuals and advisory papers which are used extensively by practitioners and policy makers.

The key research insight from Newcastle work in the Maldives was that coral communities are resilient when not under anthropogenic stress. Provided that a stable substrate is available they are able to recover quickly (typically within a decade) from disturbance without active restoration interventions such as coral transplantation. Previously reef managers had emphasised transplantation as essential to recovery. Newcastle’s research showed that this was often not cost-effective and sometimes did more harm than good. The research also showed that the current practice of transplanting weed-like fast-growing branching coral species which grew readily to bare artificial substrates within months of deployment were very susceptible to climate change related bleaching events. They showed that if active restoration was adopted, then more attention should be devoted to transplanting slow-growing, slowly recruiting massive coral species that survive bleaching, disease and transplantation significantly better than faster-growing branching species.

Research at Newcastle effectively assessed strategies for coral reef restoration the results of which were worked into a series of international guidelines. The ‘Reef Restoration Concepts & Guidelines’: (Edwards & Gomez 2007) (translated into Indonesian, French and Spanish), rehabilitation manual (Edwards 2010) and advisory paper have led to measurable changes to the practices of NGOs, coastal managers, and the maritime insurance industry. Documented impacts have occurred post 2008 and coral reef conservation practice and policy continue to be informed by the research.

References

Baria, M.V.B., Guest, J.R., Edwards, A.J., Aliño, P.M., Heyward A.J. and Gomez, E.D. (2010) Caging enhances post-settlement survival of juveniles of the scleractinian coral Acropora tenuis. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 394: 149-153.

Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Mumby, P.J., Hooten, A.J., Steneck, R.S., Greenfield, P., Gomez, E., Harvell, D.R., Sale, P.F., Edwards, A.J., Caldeira, K., Knowlton, N. Eakin, C.M., Iglesias-Prieto, R., Muthinga, N., Bradbury, R.H., Dubi, A. and Hatziolos, M.E. (2007). Coral reefs under rapid climate change and ocean acidification. Science 318:1737-1742.

Photo c.Newcastle University

Anaerobic-aerobic sequencing biological wastewater treatment systems (AASB) developed at Newcastle University transformed waste treatment in the personal care product industry by significantly reducing energy use in waste processing. AASB produces high quality effluents, produces biogas, and use up to 68% less energy than traditional approaches. A full-scale AASB treatment plant was built by L’Oreal in 2012 in Suzhou (China), which since start-up has reduced sludge production by 20%, CO2 emissions by 28%, and chemical use by 30%.

Research at Newcastle University was led by Professor David Graham (Ecosystems Engineering) and Dr Jan Dolfing (Senior Research Associate). AASB research and development was primarily performed by Dr P Mehnet (2008-2010), Dr SZ Ahammad (2010-2013) and Dr B Christgen (2012-2013) in collaboration with colleagues at L’Oreal. Further, Professor Tom Curtis (Environmental Engineering) at Newcastle University is translating AASB and other low-energy technologies to domestic wastewater treatment applications with Northumbrian Water Limited (NWL).

Newcastle research showed there was 17.7 to 28.7 kJ of potential energy available per gram of wastewater Chemical Oxygen Demand, 20% greater than previously believed. This work showed that the value of domestic wastes as an energy source had been underestimated, resulting in pilot-scale testing of “next generation” bioelectrochemical anaerobic treatment systems for UK application. Our successful intersection of reduced energy use and increased energy potential from wastewater has led to the development of a new pilot testing facility (in design) with a £524K contribution from NWL as part of Newcastle’s recently awarded EPSRC Frontiers in Engineering grant.

The Suzhou wastewater plant treats approximately 82,000m³ of wastewater per year and employs 400 people. This new treatment system is designed to ultimately save more than 20% energy, 80% chemical use, reduce sludge by 70% and improve the effluent quality by 50%. Since mid-2012, L’Oreal has thus far reduced sludge by 20%, CO2 emissions by 28%, and the use of chemicals by 30%. Based on this success, AASB plants are under development for other factories elsewhere in China, Indonesia and France, and are being considered for all 41 L’Oreal factories around the world. The Suzhou AASB plant was awarded the Industrial Water Stewardship Award at the April 2013 Global Water Summit held in Seville, Spain.

Northumbrian Water Limited (NWL) provides water and sewerage services to 2.7 million people in the northeast of England and water services to 1.8 million people in the southeast of England. NWL’s collaboration with Newcastle University is central to their policy of reducing energy consumption and CO2 emissions by developing a new generation of low-energy wastewater treatment processes.

References:

Ahammad SZ, JL Bereslawski, J Dolfing, C Mota, DW Graham. 2013. Anaerobic-aerobic sequencing bioreactors improve energy efficiency for treatment of personal care product industry wastes. Bioresource Technology. 139:73-79.

Heidrich, E. S., Dolfing, J., Scott, K., Edwards, S. R., Jones, C. and Curtis, T. P., 2012. Production of hydrogen from domestic wastewater in a pilot-scale microbial electrolysis cell. Applied Microbiology & Biotechnology 97:6979-6989.

Wastewater Treatment is a vital but very energy intensive process. Improving the process, and making the most of the energy stored in wastewater, are revolutionising the way our water is processed and valued

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Teaching Case Studies

Case studies are an invaluable way of introducing  students to the complexities of  real life decision making where sustainable solutions require a balance or  compromise between the environment , economics and societal concerns. The Sustainability teaching team in CEAM have developed over 20 stand alone case studies and their value in teaching has been promoted mostly across the Faculty of Engineering as well to other Universities who participated in the Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professors in Engineering Design for Sustainable Development scheme, http://www.raeng.org.uk/education/vps/sustdev/. The development of these case studies was supported initially by the prestigious award from the Royal Academy of Engineering and support has continued through recent awards of Fellowships from the RAE supported by ExxonMobil  and Shell. 

The aim is that these case studies  would be available for use by anyone and full instructions and guidance notes were written for both those delivering the packages and those participating in them. Successful trials of these case studies were carried out by other Universities, e.g. York and Oxford. Many case studies typically involve students participating in group work resulting in oral and written presentations and may involve role playing. This enables them to appreciate the different social, economic and environmental aspects of a variety of issues and to understand the need to work effectively as part of a team. It also teaches them how to manage their time, work to deadlines and keep minutes of meetings. The use of video also helps them to see themselves as others see them and improves their presentation and communication skills. Peer review can also be part of the assessment process.

Workshops include: The use of Biomimicry in the design of new products and services ; A comparison of the media, NGO, company and Government responses to the oil spills of EXXON and BP;  The sustainability of fracking in the UK.  The focus of the former being the advantages to be gained from nature in the design of engineered products and the latter two the need for improved Environmental and Social Governance (ESG) and effective public dialogue.

 Where feasible, mixed discipline groups (for example scientists and various types of engineers), are used. This allows students to understand and appreciate the view points of other people. They are often required to play a role that would be contrary to that they would expect for their degree subject area, in other words play Devil’s Advocate.

 A list of topics and a short overview of each case study is given here. Further details for teaching staff can be obtained from Dr Sue Haile, Senior Lecturer CEAM. sue.haile@ncl.ac.uk 0191 208 72790191 208 7279

If you have case studies relating to sustainability which you could contribute to this collection, we would be delighted to hear from you. Please contact sue.haile@ncl.ac.uk to discuss how you can get involved.

A Case study in Risk Communication
 Dr Sue Haile

  

The Task 
Two Cohort Topics: Fracking and Onshore wind
 Within each cohort split into 4 -5 stakeholder groups, (e.g. company proposing the development, local residents, NGOs, Media, and Government).   

Background Information on Fracking and Wind farms is provided.

 

The Assignment is in two parts. 

Part 1.  Working within their cohort produce one A4 “web” page to be posted on BB. This must be “in role” and you can include photos, diagrams whatever as well as text and it can be as extreme or sensible as they think appropriate.  The important point is that each stakeholder group will need to decide early on what their own key concerns would be and why. Each stakeholder group will have a different focus and attitude.  
Part 2.  Each cohort will assess the webpages of the other groups and then attend a “public meeting” to put forward their point of view. The second cohort will listen to the presentations of all 4 groups from the other cohort and playing the role of members of the public ask them questions, (we will provide ideas for questions).

 

Outcomes/Assessment

Webpage, Group oral report, Written self-reflective group report produced after oral session, Minutes of meetings.

 

Learning outcomes

  • To highlight the issues surrounding technologies for the generation or recovery of energy resources.
  • To enable students to identify the potential concerns of stakeholders.
  • To understand the need for effective risk communication.
  • To promote effective research, group work, report writing, Minute taking and self reflection.
Making products more Sustainable 
Dr Sue Haile

 

The Task
Student groups are given a product’s ingredient list as well as a black and white outline of the packaging. 
They are asked to try and work out what the product is, what is is used for what does each ingredient do?  What is the chemical nature of each ingredient e.g. manmade, “natural”, organic, hazardous etc.?  What is there as a key ingredient, what is there as an active ingredient, bulking agent, stabilizer, preservative, to add perfume, taste etc.  What are the issues with the ingredients? Are they renewable, expensive, rare, toxic, hazardous, biodegradable, GM etc. 
Can they make the same product (or fulfil the same function) with less ingredients?   How would they market and package it? How would it differ from the original in performance, cost, and environmental impact?  

 

Outcomes/Assessment

A 20 minute oral presentation plus Minutes of meetings.  After the presentation the student writes an individual self reflective report. The oral presentation assessment team will include representation from industry.

 

Learning outcomes 

  • To give an appreciation of the need to consider the design stage of a product particularly with reference to raw materials sourcing.
  • To understand aspects of product formulation, packaging and marketing.
  • To promote effective research, group work, report writing, minute taking and self-reflection.
  • To improve communication skills.
Title Pros and Cons of “Cleaner” Technology 
Dr Sue Haile

 

The Task
Students are part of a consortium trying to develop and raise funding for a new project, (there are three different projects, each group will be allocated one). We have real information on each actual project. 

Projects are:

  1. Gasifier (for MSW) in Newcastle
  2. Autoclave (for MSW) in Gateshead
  3. Wheat derived Bioethanol plant in North Yorkshire

 Students evaluate information required to produce an investment report to be used as evidence to attract potential financers and investors. This would essentially be a brochure that sets out the facts and tries to promote the project benefits whilst showing they have also considered all the variables involved.  It should have been produced following a full Risk Assessment of the various factors and issues that could affect the validity and long term viability of the proposal.  Essentially they are starting with a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. They should identify the potential financial benefits, environmental impacts and societal benefits like jobs and review compliance with relevant legislation. As part of the Task they will need to have identified key stakeholders, consider what their concerns would be, come up with lists of information,  facts and figures they would need to given to encourage them to support your venture

                                           

Outcomes/Assessment

A Group oral presentation. This should be given as if presenting to a mixed public audience (role played by rest of students), where a variety of Stakeholders could be represented. They have to show what the project involves, what its benefits would be and demonstrate they have considered all the potential risks.  The other sets of students will be have been briefed to ask questions, (questions and answers provided by module leader). Students need to convince the audience of the validity of their proposal and be ready to address their concerns.  Full background notes on the three technologies as well as advice on Stakeholder communication provided. 

Students should also produce a Group  written Report, Minutes of Meetings and a self-reflective individual report

 

Learning outcomes 

  • Understanding of a “clean” technology.
  • Appreciation of drivers for promotion of renewable fuels, or new waste treatment technologies.
  • Methods and Techniques for assessment and evaluation of Risk – determination of the pros and cons of the scheme.
  • Understanding of Role of Stakeholders and need for effective communication strategies.
  • Appreciation of need for public engagement from very start of project conception.
  • Peer Assessment of presentations.
Eco-design  Assignment  
Dr Sue Haile

 

The Task
Students will work in groups on an eco-design topic. They need to think about designing something that will have reduced environmental impact compared to what exists already in the market. They also need to think about the sustainability aspect, affordability, appeal to the customer and societal need. 

What is the function?  What exists already and what is wrong (and right) about it? What is the design criteria? 

They will need to make some key decisions early on about the product. For example say we asked you to design a chair for use  in  a school-   you would have to decide on the size/weight  of the children who would use it- also remember children play around on their chairs and swing off the back legs so think about strength and safety too.  Having thought of a design they should then use at least two design tools to assess the concept, (lecture notes available for these), for example LCA, Decision Matrix, Ecoefficiency  compass or the Natural Step approach.  Compare and contrast their validity.  Finally write a short paragraph about the product that could be used in advertising to emphasis how sustainable it is and why.  

Products
1.    Something to keep food or drinks warm when working or walking outside
2.    A novel advertising method or item
3.    A piece of garden furniture
4.    Packaging for a type of food or confectionary
5.    Something to grow or display plants  
6.    A means to keep yourself cool on a hot day
7.    A type of wall or wall covering to protect against climate
8.    A child’s or pet’s plaything
 

 

Outcomes/Assessment 

Oral group report and written report plus Minutes, Indicating what the main ideas were that came from the group, what progress was made, what barriers  were encountered and what the next step would be. Also showing how the design tools were used to evaluate the potential products.  

 

Learning outcomes 

  • The ability to research and formulate ideas and concepts relating to clean design, balancing environmental, economic and societal issues. 
  • The application of design tools and evaluation of their potential validity and usefulness. 
  • To promote group work, report writing and minute taking
  • To improve communication skills 
Eco-design  Assignment  
Dr Sue Haile

 

The Task
Students will work in groups on an eco-design topic. They need to think about designing something that will have reduced environmental impact compared to what exists already in the market. They also need to think about the sustainability aspect, affordability, appeal to the customer and societal need. 

What is the function?  What exists already and what is wrong (and right) about it? What is the design criteria? 

They will need to make some key decisions early on about the product. For example say we asked you to design a chair for use  in  a school-   you would have to decide on the size/weight  of the children who would use it- also remember children play around on their chairs and swing off the back legs so think about strength and safety too.  Having thought of a design they should then use at least two design tools to assess the concept, (lecture notes available for these), for example LCA, Decision Matrix, Ecoefficiency  compass or the Natural Step approach.  Compare and contrast their validity.  Finally write a short paragraph about the product that could be used in advertising to emphasis how sustainable it is and why.  

Products
1.    Something to keep food or drinks warm when working or walking outside
2.    A novel advertising method or item
3.    A piece of garden furniture
4.    Packaging for a type of food or confectionary
5.    Something to grow or display plants  
6.    A means to keep yourself cool on a hot day
7.    A type of wall or wall covering to protect against climate
8.    A child’s or pet’s plaything
 

 

Outcomes/Assessment 

Oral group report and written report plus Minutes, Indicating what the main ideas were that came from the group, what progress was made, what barriers  were encountered and what the next step would be. Also showing how the design tools were used to evaluate the potential products.  

 

Learning outcomes 

  • The ability to research and formulate ideas and concepts relating to clean design, balancing environmental, economic and societal issues. 
  • The application of design tools and evaluation of their potential validity and usefulness. 
  • To promote group work, report writing and minute taking
  • To improve communication skills 
Disaster Case Study
Dr Sue Haile

 

The Task
 Each group reports on how an incident was viewed and reported by different key stakeholders and what the consequences were. They should highlight the differences and similarities in attitudes and responses between governments, media, local people, companies and environmental groups across the globe to a catastrophic event. Students should evaluate how well the risks were identified, managed and dealt with and how effective the communication channels were. They should comment on whether lessons have been learnt from the past and what lessons can be learnt for the future. 

 

 Disasters covered:
      Flixborough 1974
      Bhopal 1984
      Buncefield 2005
      West, Texas 2013
      Texas City US 2005
      Jilin City China 2005   

 

The main stakeholder groups students could research include:
  • The company itself
  • Media both local, national and international
  • Government
  • Regulatory authorities (such as HSE,)
  • Environmental Groups (such as Greenpeace, FOE)
  • Other organisations such as IChemE, The European
  • Chemical Industry Council, Royal Academy of Engineering
  • Local stakeholders 
Note the focus may change depending upon the incident 

 

 Outcomes/Assessment

 A Group report.  
This should look at, and where appropriate, include:-
  • What happened and why? Who was to blame? Was the cause unavoidable e.g. “act of God”, earthquake, poor management , sabotage  etc.,
  • Who or what (include amenity and the environment) was affected by the incident? Did they receive recompense, an apology?
  • How well was the incident managed by the perpetrators?
  • What were the impacts on the company both short and long term?
  • Was the reaction of the media and other stakeholders proportionate and fair? If not why not?
  • Have we learnt anything from the mistakes made? Were there any implications of the event in terms of determining government legislation?
  • How much did if affect public perception and reputation of the companies involved?
  • Has any legislation, or other safety measures been introduced as a result?
  • Is there any major difference between reaction and remediation time, is remediation in fact still taking place?
  • What does it say about the companies in terms of how they assessed and managed Risk?

 

Learning outcomes

  • To highlight the differences and similarities in attitudes and responses between governments, media, local people, companies and environmental groups across the globe to each of the events.
  • To appreciate how well the risks were identified, managed and dealt with and how effective the communication channels were.
  • To identify some lessons to be learnt for the future.
  • To promote effective research, group work, report writing, Minute taking and self-reflection.
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