Christine Alencar, Green Labs Sustainability Outreach and Engagement Specialist, UVA Office for Sustainability
Pumoli Malapati, Green Labs Student Intern, UVA Office for Sustainability
At the University of Virginia, a competitive research environment is our petri dish for testing friendly lab-to-lab competition aimed at reducing environmental impacts of research. UVA Green Labs hosts three annually recurring programs: The International Laboratory Freezer Challenge each Spring, a Shut the Sash fume hood competition in October, and a comprehensive year-long Certification Program. Through these competitive programs, labs are improving their operations, conserving lab resources, and earning rewards (with bragging rights, for some).
UVA Green Labs Certification is an adaptable program that allows researchers the freedom to introduce changes at their individual pace while tailoring action items to their specific processes. For example, chemistry and biology labs are generally equipped with different tools and materials but these differences do not limit either group in their ability to achieve Gold Certification. Five focus areas, including “Cold Storage”, “Electronics & Appliances”, “Chemicals & Reagents”, “Materials & Refuse”, and “Engagement”, together provide 45 different opportunities to earn points towards Bronze (14 actions), Silver (16 actions), or Gold Certifications (20 actions). In addition to providing flexibility, Green Labs Certification includes institution-specific action items that help raise awareness for the many sustainable resources already present on grounds.
This year, our first full year after launching the program, 14 labs were awarded Certification after completing sustainability action plans. Remarkably, 12 labs aimed high and earned Gold, and two others proudly earned a Silver and Bronze Certification each. All of them were engaged and creative in their pursuit of a holistically greener lab space. The Office for Sustainability is thrilled to tell you a little more about each of them.
With the ability to adjust her thermostat, Sue Donovan in the Special Collections Library will lower the temperature in winter months and increases it in the summertime. She also turns it down for weekends and vacation or holiday periods. It turns out that libraries have laboratories, too! Sue’s space is fully equipped with specialized water purification systems and a snorkel for ventilating fumes as she performs restoration and preservation work on rare books for the Library. After switching from standard nitrile to the Kimberly Clark Right Cycle program, her colleagues followed suit and now all UVA library nitrile gloves are getting recycled.
Lou Hammarskjold’s and David Rekosh’s lab in the Microbiology, Immunology, and Cancer Biology (MIC) Department was the first lab to sign up for our 2018 Pilot Lab Program. As a regular contributor to the Green Labs Working Group, Lab Manager Sarah French, was eager to streamline research through the implementation of new sample organization strategies that also help them save energy.
UVA’s Blood Bank serves a critical year-round, around-the-clock mission in our Health System. However, working in a critical space hasn’t stopped Clinical Lab Specialist Sara Hoffman from wanting to do more. Concerned about the energy footprint of the numerous freezers and refrigerators storing patient samples, Sara’s team has all units checked for preventative maintenance needs by Health System Facilities on a monthly basis. In addition, they were able to safely change the setpoint on their ultralow freezer to a warmer temperature, allowing the unit to run more reliably.
Mete Civelek’s lab in the Center for Public Health Genomics was another of our three Pilot Labs in 2018. They made great strides in their Certification process by assessing actual temperature needs on lab equipment, and after warming the “hold” settings on their thermal cyclers (also called “PCR machines”) from 4°C to 12°C, they looked to their ultralow freezers for additional opportunities. After changing both units from -80°C to -70°C, one unit exhibited a 40% decrease in energy consumption, and the other a 16% decrease.
Every November before Thanksgiving Break, the Dutta lab in Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics performs fully orchestrated lab cleanouts, ensuring that every chemical, every sample, every freezer, and every shelf is organized, accounted for, and in its space. While sounding like a simple enough task, this is perhaps one of the greatest obstacles in lab sustainability: cleaning out old materials. When a lab maintains their materials, they reduce the need to buy more energy, space, and heat-intensive appliances, such as freezers. Additionally, an organized space allows lab members to find what they need safely, quickly, and reliably, reducing time at the bench, or time spent searching through a freezer with the door wide open.
Robin Felder’s Pathology lab has implemented cutting edge cold storage protocols, but the simple process of maintaining a robust inventory system allows team members to access exactly what they need, when they need it. Not only does this improve bench workflow, but reduced door-open time on cold storage units is one of the easiest and fastest ways to immediately reduce stress on unit compressors.
Inventories are a recurring theme in lab management, and freezers aren’t the only spaces that function best with a clear inventory. The Gibson Lab’s (Biology) manager, Anne Janisch, utilizes Quartzy, a free online platform designed specifically for project management in laboratories. Using Quartzy, she tracks chemicals, backup specimens in storage at another University, freezer contents, and reagents.
Labs are incredibly energy intensive spaces, and it’s no surprise seeing the numerous pieces of large equipment filling benches throughout Dr. Dean Harman’s synthetic chemistry laboratory in the Chemistry Department. As another one of our 2018 Pilot Labs, the Harman lab identified several drying ovens used for glassware, as all glass must be completely free of moisture before experimental use. However, the ovens were being left on around the clock to ensure temperature readiness first thing each morning as lab members arrived for work. Applying simple equipment timers allowed the lab to tailor schedules for each of their three drying ovens. Now, ovens shut off late in the evening and turn on in the early morning hours, ensuring that they are ready to go when work starts, while providing much needed unit downtime and energy savings.
Almost every lab produces glove waste. Like others in the Certification Program, Kevin Janes’ Biomedical Engineering lab recycles their nonhazardous nitrile using the Kimberly-Clark Right Cycle Program. In addition, their Lab Manager, Cheryl Borgman, is a consistent and key contributor to the Green Labs Working Group, helping cultivate future initiatives for laboratories to participate in.
You know a lab loves sustainability when they can find ways to bring it into their daily conversations. For biweekly meetings, Rachel Letteri’s Chemical Engineering lab discusses topics like the breakdown of plastics during recycling processes. In addition, they consistently participate in the Freezer Challenge and have won a Shut the Sash competition.
Another clinical lab, Katharine Linkswiler’s Toxicology lab in the Old Medical School building, got creative in their pursuit of sustainability, noticing that outdated water fountains in their space were prohibitive in encouraging students and staff to utilize their own water bottles. Although their water bottle fill station is still practically brand new, it is currently reporting over 1000 plastic bottles saved from the landfill. On top of that, their lab was able to switch from paper to electronic calibration records, saving money, time, and waste.
Lab Manager Meg Miller (Karen McGlathery Lab, Environmental Sciences) has been an advocate of Green Labs from the beginning. Their lab has participated in every Freezer Challenge and every Shut the Sash Competition since 2017, bringing their enrollment to five total competitions! Participating in friendly competitions between labs not only earned her multiple credits towards their lab Certification, but also raised awareness for a multitude of best practices in their lab.
Expanded polystyrene (also called EPS or “Styrofoam”) is a troublesome but abundant material in labs. Many lab materials require cold insulation in EPS for stability and safe shipping. David Parichy’s lab in the Biology department upcycles some of their nuisance EPS coolers through a return-shipping program provided by New England Biolabs. Under the lid of each container is a return shipping label that will send the cooler back to NEB for reuse.
Shayn Peirce-Cottler’s lab in Biomedical Engineering dramatically reduced her lab’s energy load by switching their ultralow freezer setpoint from -80C to -70C. This change took seconds and will reduce stress on her compressor, extending the life of the unit.
Over ten labs have already signed up for this year’s Certification and form submission deadlines will be extended (due date TBA) in response to COVID-19. Ready to create your own lab sustainability plan? Email email@example.com to get started!