The University’s lab spaces are a crucial environment to make sustainability progress due to their abundant energy, water, and material use. Through both the Green Labs program, which focuses on outreach and engagement, and the Smart Labs program, which focuses on enhancing lab safety and efficiency, we are reimagining our lab spaces to create a culture of sustainability.

By UVA 3rd-year student Olivia Regehr

As the effects of anthropogenic climate change around the world are becoming increasingly severe, global sustainability as a strategy plays a crucial role in mitigating these harmful outcomes. In committing to a culture of sustainability, there are actions that must be taken at the global, local and individual levels.

Globally, strategic plans such as those developed at the recent United Nation’s Climate Change Conference (COP26) have the potential to have large-scale impacts in terms of sustainable policies. Similarly, at the local level — the University of Virginia for example — frameworks are set in place to spur as much progress as possible. UVA formed its Office for Sustainability in 2013 with a goal of supporting university-wide collaborative governance, leadership, and implementation of sustainability across Grounds. With the support of the Committee on Sustainability, its three subcommittees and high-level administrative support from the President and Board of Visitors, the office collaborates with staff, students and faculty to reach ambitious targets, develop climate action plans, and support sustainability throughout campus.

 

green labs - olivia blog - lab building on Grounds
View of the substantial infrastructure that is part of a lab building on Grounds.

Last fall, UVA Sustainability released a strategic plan with ambitious targets to achieve in the 2020-2030 timeframe, outlining three specific goals. (See the plan here.)  Under the broader initiative for sustainability at UVA, one of the greatest opportunities for reaching our University-wide goals is laboratory spaces. Research labs are some of the most resource and energy intensive environments across all industries, and, if you work in a lab, you cannot help but notice the amount of waste that accumulates within these spaces. 

According to My Green Lab, lab spaces use ten times more energy and four times more water than office spaces, and they generate an estimated 12 billion pounds of plastic waste each year! Luckily, Green Labs programs are being developed around the world to implement positive change and create a culture of sustainability in labs. These programs aid researchers in rethinking and restructuring their lab spaces, helping them to understand that individuals can have a considerable ripple effect in their communities.

“Our research labs are one of the defining features of UVA’s prominence in higher education, and we’re excited to be working with the researchers across so many scientific disciplines to ensure the labs are as safe and environmentally sustainable as they can be,” said Andrea Trimble, director of the Office for Sustainability. “It’s been great to see the enthusiasm from researchers once we talk with them about the many ways they can reduce energy use, and costs, and make other green improvements.”

 

The Green Labs program at UVA, founded in 2016, is committed to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental impact of the research being performed on Grounds because, even though research labs at UVA take up just 9% of the University’s physical footprint, they are responsible for a 25% of its total energy use. Interestingly enough, a substantial portion of the research taking place at UVA is connected to climate action and building a more sustainable world, so our goal is to support researchers in these efforts to bridge the disconnect between their research and lab culture.

UVA has also recently developed its Smart Labs program, a building enhancement program that specifically targets lab ventilation inefficiencies. Smart Labs engages with stakeholders at various levels, from Environmental Health and Safety, to lab researchers, Facilities Management maintenance personnel, and the Building and Operations team under the Office for Sustainability. Through the implementation of the Smart Labs program, the team plans to enhance lab safety while simultaneously reducing energy use across lab buildings by as much as 35%! This major reduction would result in $5.5 million in annual savings.

Each year, UVA releases an annual report on the progress made at the University in terms of sustainability. The 2020-21 report features a section on the intersection of Green Labs and Smart Labs, which can be found here. The Office for Sustainability anticipates greater energy and carbon savings from the Smart Labs program than from any other existing building category in the University's portfolio. 

The Green Labs program which is focused on the people in the labs is not only a great opportunity for savings, but it is really about how we build trust and engagement, changing the culture of labs to incorporate more sustainable practices. A few central Green Labs programs include the following. 

 

Blood bank lab green labs
The blood bank at UVA Health achieved gold level certification through a comprehensive freezer maintenance program.

1) Green Lab Certification, for labs that achieve certification by taking action in a number of different areas (Cold Storage, Chemicals & Reagents, Materials & Refuse, Electronics & Appliances, Engagement) to reduce their environmental footprint. 

2) The Freezer Challenge, an international challenge from My Green Lab and the Institute for Sustainability Laboratories where participating labs can achieve significant energy savings through improved cold storage management practices (switching -80F freezers to -70F, defrosting, inventorying, etc.).

3) The Shut the Sash Challenge, a University-wide challenge promoting safe and sustainable fume hood management. Participants in the 2021 Shut the Sash Challenge saved an estimated $34,000 in energy costs over a one month period.

 

machan lab shut sash 2021
Machan Lab researchers proudly displaying their well-deserved beaker mugs after winning the 2021 Shut the Sash Challenge!

Integrating the Green Labs and Smart Labs programs at UVA in a holistic approach  is central to achieving our sustainability goals at the University. Smart Labs deals with the technology and infrastructure of lab buildings. Green Labs focuses on outreach. Together, they provide a suite of opportunities that can result in truly comprehensive change. These programs have already made significant strides, and we are thrilled to see these real and significant changes come to life.

As UVA continues to work toward achieving its sustainability action plan over the next decade regarding energy savings on Grounds in accordance with the carbon neutrality and fossil fuel-free goals, it is crucial that the Green Labs and Smart Labs continue to collaborate and push for positive change.

 

Olivia Regehr is a third-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences. Majoring in Environmental Thought and Practice with minors in Global Sustainability and Bioethics. She works as a Green Labs Student Employee with the Office for Sustainability.

Olivia Regehr - green labs

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