Taking the measure of laboratory sustainability

February 2018
SUSTAINABILITY

Green Centre Green Lab

Photo credit: Garrett Elliott. GreenCentre employee Craig Wheaton

While anyone who owns a refrigerator or freezer pays close attention to what these appliances can do to their electricity bill, people using this same sort of equipment in a laboratory may not share that awareness. In that case the electricity bill often ends up in the hands of an administrator who does not even work in the lab, and since the lab workers do not always see the electricity bill, it is difficult for them to link their area of work with how the organization is using energy.

A new Ontario initiative is attempting to overcome this disconnect in the province’s research facilities, both in academia and industry. The GreenLab Assessment Program, administered by GreenCentre Canada and supported by the Canadian Society for Chemical Technology of the Chemical Institute of Canada, is collecting detailed information about how such sites handle basic resources like electricity, water, or material waste. The findings are already shedding light on straightforward and sometimes all too obvious changes in individual behavior that can make a big difference in a lab’s bottom line and sustainability strategy.

“We’re really looking at it as being an educational tool,” says Preston Chase, Director of Academic Business Development for GreenCentre Canada. “It’s not just one manager filling in a report, it’s really getting at the day-to-day behaviours of the people who are actually using the equipment in the laboratories in Ontario. We’re reaching out to the users of the lab — grad students and post docs in a university setting, or scientists and technicians in an industrial setting.”

He adds that when GreenCentre piloted the strategy with an academic group, the results demonstrated how even changes in procedure could yield tangible improvements. For example, raising awareness of a common inventory of reagents ensures that people do not order supplies that are already on hand, thereby reducing waste and unnecessary expense.

Some universities have already adopted sustainability programs to seek out and address such problems. Perhaps one of the most striking statistics to emerge from these efforts is the tremendous footprint of the humble and ubiquitous fume hood — the University of British Columbia revealed that no less than 10 per cent of the entire campus’ energy usage could be traced back to this one piece of infrastructure. That insight has prompted a “shut the sash” directive in labs where fume hoods abound, a seemingly simple measure that is nevertheless regularly overlooked.

According to Chase, these kinds of numbers also build a strong business case for embracing the sometimes abstract concept of economic and environmental sustainability, because the outcome has a clear, near-term impact. “If you’re using less power, then guess what, your utility bill goes down,” he says.

Modelled after a California-based non-profit body called My Green Lab, the GreenLab Assessment Program is being funded through the Partners in Climate Action grant program, which is part of Ontario’s Climate Change Action Plan. In this initial phase of what could become a regular, ongoing review process, Chase expects about 100 different laboratories acros academia and industry to take part.

“This is the carbon tax at work,” explains Chase. “The Partners in Climate Action program was put into place to pilot different ways of enabling Ontarians to adopt low-carbon choices. We expect our work here to yield not just energy and water savings, but to reduce waste and increase efficiency at laboratories all across Ontario.”