Chemistry labs are going green: ‘The drive is in the young generations’

People at the Stratingh Institute are working hard to make its laboratories greener. And it has paid off: three chemistry labs were awarded a bronze level this month by the sustainable lab certification programme LEAF. 

‘The carbon footprint of the university is not caused by office space but by labs’, says Thomas Freese, chemistry PhD student and co-ordinator at FSE for the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF). Tonnes of waste consisting of plastic gloves, pipettes, and test tubes are thrown out at the UG each year and large amounts of chemical waste are produced. 

‘You publish articles in a journal called Green Chemistry’, says Freese, ‘however, you got the data in a way that wasn’t that sustainable.’ 

LEAF

This is where the LEAF programme comes in. It started in University College London and is designed to help labs become more sustainable by providing metrics to measure the kilogrammes of CO2 produced and their running costs per year.

It was tested in a two-year pilot scheme involving 230 laboratory groups who on average reported 3,700 British pounds (around 4200 euro) saved and 2.9 tons of CO2 avoided. ‘It’s just handy that right now, pricing goes hand in hand with sustainability’, says Freese.

A lab’s progress is measured by an online portal which tracks their energy usage and emissions each day, while giving guidelines about sustainable practices like increasing fridge temperatures, reducing plastic and chemical waste.

LEAF also gives labs a rank of bronze, silver, or gold based on how sustainable their research practices are. FSE has seen three of its labs go to bronze level since the programme began two months ago.

Timeline

‘We are really proud’, says PhD student Fotini Trigka, a sustainability officer for the latest research lab to reach bronze level. It only took her team a week to satisfy the criteria for bronze level. ‘It goes fast because everyone is interested in this’, she says. ‘We have set the timeline ourselves for our lab to become silver before Christmas.’

‘In January, we will try to get the teaching labs bronze or silver, which will mean that every generation of students that go through those labs will be taught in a green way’, says Freese. He predicts in the next two to three months, fifteen research labs will be on bronze, with the first silver coming soon after.

So when will all FSE labs rank bronze or silver? That’s hard to say, according to Freese, since labs face different levels of difficulty depending on how old they are and what strand of science they practice. Trigka’s lab for example, is new and is fitted with energy saving features like automatic lights and self-closing fume hoods.

Change

It’s not always so easy for labs to change, especially with researchers that are stuck in their ways, says Freese. ‘The drive is for sure in the younger generations.’ The three labs that are now bronze  are all run by young professors, he adds. 

With more and more researchers hearing about labs getting bronze, though, he says, they are wanting to get their own labs there, too.

‘Community is a key part to this’, says Michael Lerch, assistant professor of chemistry. ‘It works so well because there are young people pushing and wanting to change something.’ 

This is the generation of chemists that must fight and find solutions to climate change, says Freese. ‘We are already getting a voice within the university and people are listening and changing things.’

Nederlands

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