Science creates many things, from lifesaving therapeutics to thrilling new technologies for daily life. Unfortunately, research also generates vast amounts of waste. The number of single use plastics required to perform day to day studies, from growing cells in dishes to making solutions, is astronomical. Worse, physical waste production is only one facet of consumption in research; it also expands to energy and space use, heating and cooling, water, and, of course, dollars. On the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) campus in 2017, for example, it was calculated that major scientific research buildings make up an estimated 22% of total campus square footage but account for approximately 43% of total campus building energy usage. However, strides are being made to increase the sustainability of research across the nation and beyond through efforts of nonprofits such as the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL) and My Green Lab. At CU Boulder, the Infrastructure and Sustainability Department implements energy efficiency measures and technology across campus laboratory buildings. At the laboratory occupant level, the CU Boulder Green Labs initiative, headed by Kathryn Ramirez Aguilar, strives to make scientific research more efficient, sustainable, and environmentally friendly through efforts that engage scientists to take action for efficiency and sustainability.
Green Labs’ vision is to maximize the positive impact of research while eliminating the negative impacts resulting from substantial resource use and waste generation. This can take many shapes and forms, Ramirez says. She goes on to say that it all starts with education and awareness. Green Labs offers many educational materials for both scientists and the lay person on a variety of topics from what can and cannot be recycled in labs to best practices when working in chemical fume hoods. After education, the next step is getting scientists active and involved in the process. Once those doing the research are committed, the rest follows.
Recently, Green Labs has made big steps in shrinking CU’s research footprint through obtaining the initial funding to implement the BioCore shared instrumentation program. A major sink in research is the expensive and energy intensive equipment needed to perform, analyze, and record many different assays. Often labs will purchase these items without knowing if other labs on campus have that same equipment that they can use or borrow. BioCore’s aim is to reduce the number of unnecessary duplicate instruments by hosting a shared equipment space that caters to multiple labs. Greater use of shared equipment means reduced need for new machines, reduced utilities to support that equipment, decreased need for lab infrastructure to support the equipment, and reduced need for more laboratory space. By reducing the number of redundant machines, lab space, energy, and dollars are saved.
Currently, Ramirez chairs the I2SL University Alliance Group that is working to connect efficiency and sustainability to the funding of research through the Bringing Efficiency to Research Grants initiative. This program provides reasons, ideas, and encouragement for the implementation of novel methods for connecting science funding to sustainable practices. “Making connections to research funding is the number one way to increase the sustainability of science”, says Ramirez. It not only encourages scientists and research institutions to consider best practices and efficient use of resources when conducting research but also builds a stronger grant proposal to funding bodies by demonstrating that they are getting the most research for their buck. This improved sponsor spending will also aid in increasing the number of grants funded within sponsor budgets, thereby reducing competition, and increasing the amount of science being done.
Continued work by CU Green Labs in the coming years is focusing on improving existing groundwork: greater space utilization, more shared equipment, improving efficiency in research, and of course education and connection with those conducting the research. Improving the sustainability of research is a win-win for all involved. It benefits the researcher by reducing the funding needed to conduct their research. It benefits the grant organization by increasing the number of grants they can allot. It benefits the taxpayer by increasing the amount of science and positive impact of research their tax dollars fund. Perhaps most importantly, it benefits the environment by reducing the physical and energy waste that conducting research produces. However, there is still a long way to go to better the research community and its commitment to environmental action. Scientists need to think about sustainability from the very inception of their project. The best way to reduce waste is not by recycling used plastics but by not using the item in the first place. This requires a very basic shift in mindset of researchers, funding agencies, and policy makers. Education and involvement can help to drive this change.
To further this end, Green Labs hosts many different seminars and workshops to improve ecological conscience in labs. There are numerous ways to be involved, such as the Eco-leader Advancement Program. This a course that any student or lab member could register for on Canvas, get recognition for, and put on their resume. It teaches the basics of sustainability in research and eco-leadership in the lab. The goal of the program is to instill green practices in the latest generation of scientists and spread them to the lab. In addition, any researcher, student, staff, or faculty working in a lab, can be a Lab Eco-Leader for their lab. For those wanting to do more, CU Green Labs also offers the Team Lead role. Team Leads coordinate sustainability efforts in the building where their lab is located and work with Team Leads from different lab buildings to improve sustainable research practices and create a green think tank.
CU Green Labs is a leader in the nation in bringing sustainability to research. Many universities and industries have taken example from Boulder and started their own green labs initiatives. That is all due to the committed scientists here at CU who care about their impact on the planet and the work they do. There isn’t much that only one lab can do to affect global change, but when many labs and many universities start noticing and taking part is when real change can take place. If you want to get involved in CU Green Labs and help your lab be more environmentally sound or if you have ideas that Green Labs could help with or implement, please contact CU Green Labs at firstname.lastname@example.org to voice your ideas!
By Skip Maas