Volunteers in a line passing rubbish bags out the door to a large pile

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The Big Sort

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Each year, as students move out of their University accommodation for the summer, a small army of volunteers moves in. Their mission? To reduce, reuse and recycle, and show that one student’s trash might be another’s treasure.

Since 2006, organised efforts to clear unwanted and abandoned items from University properties have been gathering pace. The University’s ongoing commitment to minimise its environmental impact, and particularly the amount of waste being sent to landfill, has required an increasingly complex but efficient process to clear the accommodation ready for the next generation of students.

The Big Sort is a joint venture by the University’s Accommodation, Catering and Events (ACE) team and the Edinburgh University Students’ Association. This June, it saw 140 volunteers spend eight days clearing and sorting at 23 locations across the city. In total, they cleared an estimated 6,237kg of clothes, linen, kitchenware, stationery, books, and assorted household items, left behind by departing students.


Sandra Kinnear, Health, Safety and Sustainability Advisor for ACE, holds a British Empire Medal for her services to the environment and charity. She explains why The Big Sort is necessary: “With our commitment to housing students, we’re always going to have a transient population in our accommodation.

“Therefore, every single year, you’re going to get the same situation – a lot of people moving out very quickly, returning home for a short period over the summer, or returning to their international bases.

“They don’t have anywhere to store their things, they can only carry a limited amount of luggage with them, and they don’t have a lot of money for storage. Unwanted items simply get left behind and donated for reuse.”

Discarded belongings in a hallway.


The Big Sort addresses this by working with charity partners across the capital. The British Heart Foundation take a quantity of clothes and shoes, while Fresh Start take towels and bedding to help those experiencing homelessness. The student-led SHRUB Coop’s Zero Waste Hub has been involved for several years and, more recently, special collections have been made for donation to help those suffering because of the war in Ukraine. Re-Act and Bright Green environmental solutions have also taken donations. Everything else goes to the University’s own Free Shop.

“What we’re really hitting on here is that aim of the circular economy,” Sandra says. “It’s really the idea that everything people buy for university can go for reuse unless it’s broken and then we’ll put it into recycling. There’s very, very little that goes into landfill.”

Widening Participation Officer Ryan Hamilton was one of the 140 staff and student volunteers who contributed to The Big Sort this year: “Many of us weren’t sure what to expect in terms of the volume of items that had been left behind.

“There was so much stuff, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get through everything on the day. There were many other volunteers, and it was great for us all to interact and work together on this mammoth task. We had a really good system of working together – it was this teamwork that allowed us to get through as much as we did!

“The Big Sort is great on several fronts. It reduces the University’s carbon footprint and stops us from sending tonnes of waste to landfill. At a time when the cost of living is so high and students are particularly feeling the pinch, the ability for them to make use of second-hand items that are in great condition is fantastic.”

Free Shop

That opportunity arises at the annual Free Shop, which Edinburgh University Students’ Association runs during Welcome Week each September. As new students come on to campus for the first time, the Free Shop gives them an opportunity to pick up household essentials for their new home, free of charge.

students queuing for the free shop. Standing under trees.

Alma Kalina Rießler, Vice President Community at the Students’ Association, explains: “The Big Sort helps keep as much out of landfill as possible, directing second hand goods to local communities, charities, and other students. Items that go to our Welcome Week Free Shop provide new students with free, essential items as they transition into university life, supporting sustainable re-use and avoiding waste.

“It helps students access the items they need for free and in good condition. This is particularly important now, in light of the cost-of-living crisis.”

Ryan agrees on the importance of that aspect of the initiative: “From the widening participation point of view of my team, it means some of the groups of students we work with, who might not otherwise be able to afford to buy certain items brand new, are able to pick up some essentials free of charge. I’d like to see us encourage more students to leave behind items for the Big Sort rather than simply binning them.”

This year, 985kg of goods have been set aside from The Big Sort and will be available through the Free Shop when it opens its doors at the Pleasance on Friday 15 and Saturday 16 September. More than 500 students benefitted last year, and the Students’ Association expects to see even more demand this time.

“Free Shoppers will find crockery, glassware, utensils, stationery, clothes horses, storage, hangers, umbrellas, games, books and so much more,” Alma says.

“We see a lot of household and larger items but there are always a few more memorable finds in the mix as well. This year we had a surprising amount of Halloween decorations, including a giant inflatable skeleton!

“The Free Shop has always been popular with students. For some it’s about saving money, for others it’s to enable re-use and living sustainably. For most, it’s a bit of both. We can’t wait to see the response to this year’s Free Shop!”

Piles of pots and pans

A Day to Make a Difference

The Big Sort and Free Shop are made possible by the efforts of hundreds of volunteers from across the staff and student community.

“It’s one of our most popular volunteering opportunities,” says Alma. “Our amazing students want to both donate their items and volunteer at the events. They have fun on the day of The Big Sort finding weird and wonderful things, and they can see the impact their sorting has as we stack up the items and see where they are going during the Free Shop.”

Ryan and his Student Recruitment & Admissions staff colleagues used A Day to Make a Difference to volunteer and take part in The Big Sort. A Day to Make a Difference is a University initiative that gives every staff member an extra day of paid annual leave, which they can use to volunteer for a charity, organisation, or other good cause.

“Being able to take a day’s paid leave to take part in voluntary activities is a fantastic opportunity for staff,” Ryan said. “I think the ability to do this as a team is a great bonding exercise and helps to bring everyone together to help out those who need it most.”


Earlier this year, The Big Sort won a 2022/23 Changemaker Award from the University’s Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability. The award recognises staff and students who make a positive impact through socially responsible and sustainable projects and was given jointly to ACE and Edinburgh University Students’ Association.

Sarah Anderson, Senior Community Engagement Manager, nominated The Big Sort: “It’s a project that ticks many boxes – student and staff volunteering, reuse, and the circular economy, benefitting people in need locally and further away, and it reduces the likelihood of the local area being affected by fly-tipping.

“The Ukraine support made it feel particularly important to nominate. The Big Sort couldn’t happen without the commitment of the staff and students involved, who all go above and beyond to help pull it off against the odds.”

People look through kitchen ware

For ACE’s Sandra Kinnear, the Changemaker Award simply shows how much the University can achieve when staff and students pull together: “The big plus for me is that The Big Sort is between the Students’ Association and Accommodation, Catering and Events. We’ve had a partnership for years, so to see us jointly winning such an award just says everything.

“It shows if we really think together, instead of individually, then there are huge amounts of initiatives we could be running that people would get involved in. I think this shows that when you really try, and you take that responsibility to make things happen, you can make change.

“The Big Sort was born with students and it’s for students. That was the ethos of the whole thing and that still exists, along with helping a lot of other people. It’s not just students giving back to students – they are giving back to a lot of people from very deprived areas and backgrounds and to refugees who are coming to our country with very little. That’s the initiative and it has grown to become that in a very positive way.”

Discover more on volunteering and sustainability at Edinburgh