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Laboratory Sustainability: Self-Correction in Science’s Fight Against Climate Change


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The modern sword and shield are a pipette and a petri dish. Media and academia often depict a world where science leads us boldly into the future, striking down daunting villains like carbon emissions and ocean pollution. Because of this, the environmental impacts of developing science often get glossed over, hidden behind awe-inspiring article titles and reports of breakthroughs.


Science certainly leads us to solutions to better withstand climate change. But that progress leaves a trail of waste, and it’s important to point out the cracks from which it spills. In preventing more cracks from forming, we must also find out why there are even cracks in the first place.


The dismal reality is this: according to My Green Lab and Uregntem, only 4% of biotech and pharmaceutical companies currently align with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to limit global warming to 1.5°C (My Green Lab & Urgentem 2021). The organizations that conducted a study on this matter found that the largest of these companies are decreasing their carbon emissions, but the majority of this industry remains off-track. This has immense repercussions for the Earth’s health. As it stands, the global biotech and pharmaceutical industry has a carbon footprint larger than the semiconductor industry, the forestry and paper industry, and is equal to nearly half the annual emissions of the United Kingdom (My Green Lab & Urgentem 2021).



My Green Lab and Urgentem’s 2021 projections on the percentage of biotech and pharmaceutical companies aligning with the Paris Climate Agreement’s target by 2030: only 41.56% ((My Green Lab & Urgentem 2021).


If the industry does not fight to improve their sustainability in more effective ways, they will contribute greatly to the already worsening conditions of global warming: a consequence all people on Earth will continue to feel. Should this trend continue, exacerbated effects will heavily affect future generations, disproportionately affected populations, and more.


Therefore, in order to secure the role of science as a leader against climate change, the biotech and pharmaceutical companies will need to renovate their systems and practice greener science. This could mean any number of actions. Some of these include certifying laboratories as green once they are found to be sustainable, providing labels for laboratory products’ environmental impacts, or offering challenges that encourage renovation of energy-consuming freezers. For example, My Green Lab is a large advocate of more resilient laboratory practices. Its mission involves “fundamentally and permanently improving the sustainability of scientific research” through measurable action (My Green Lab, 2022). They offer multiple resources to scientists, vendors, designers, and energy providers that act as guidelines in sustainable science practices.


The many solutions My Green Lab offers to laboratories are beneficial in the fight against climate change. Unfortunately, many science professors or laboratory workers I have spoken with don’t know of its existence. In fact, some were reasonably unimpressed when they heard of the organization. This is because My Green Lab focuses its efforts on an incredibly niche sector of the climate change community, and while it can only be beneficial, My Green Lab and similar organizations offer reactive solutions. They don’t necessarily attack the issue at its source.


Chemistry professor Jim Hutchison at the University of Oregon, when asked about his opinion on My Green Lab and organizations like it, responded with, “I’ve heard of My Green Lab, but haven’t noticed much impact. I wonder, in the scheme of all the things, how big is the footprint of research labs relative to all the much bigger impacts in the world. Is this the place to put all this energy? Certainly, we should do whatever we can, but I always have to ask where can we have the biggest gain for the effort?”


Hutchison points to an important detail in this fight for lab sustainability: My Green Lab’s attempt at mitigation is more of a reactive than proactive solution. It’s nonetheless beneficial, and I still encourage individuals in labs or interested parties to check out My Green Lab. Additionally, you can sign the Million Advocates for Sustainable Science Letter to contribute to a resource that could eventually be used in systemic change (Million Advocates for Sustainable Science, 2022). This said, Professor Hutchison and many other university professors propose an additional approach—one that still encourages green science yet attacks the problem at its source.


Green chemistry, when embedded into universities’ chemistry curriculums, encourages green science practices at the very beginning of STEM students’ careers. This can be as little as using fewer hazardous chemicals, producing less waste or only nontoxic waste, and using renewable resources whenever possible (Armstrong, et al., 2019). Green chemistry curriculums inspire systemic change inherent in the science field rather than trying to seal cracks that result from a lack of green chemistry knowledge.


UC Berkeley conducted a study focusing on the results of their established green chemistry curriculum. Students were surveyed before and after their introductory chemistry courses, wherein green chemistry was a fundamental unit. Not only did their knowledge of green chemistry improve, but when asked what the most valuable thing they gained from the lab was, close to 10% of students from both years responded with green chemistry (Armstrong, et al., 2019).


Integrating green chemistry curriculums in universities is a monumental solution to dampening climate change effects. STEM students who end up in the biotech or pharmaceutical industry would know what to look out for and could offer lab protocols that fight back on contributions to climate change, initiating solutions that My Green Lab otherwise attempts to bandage onto harmful practices.


However, while many universities are well on their way to making this effort, a large amount of these efforts have not come to fruition. Speaking with retired chemistry professor Alan Shusterman at Reed College revealed the difficulties in instating a curriculum as widespread as the one Hutchison and others started. “Reed is a small college so classes and labs are all fairly small,” he says. “Also, faculty have great autonomy in designing their classes, so while I was able to design my labs in a particular way, I wasn't in a position to tell any of my colleagues what to do.”


Despite any amount of passion behind individual efforts, Reed College and other smaller institutions’ structures lack financial capacity that would inspire institutional change and fundamentally safer science practices. Reed College’s small faculty in particular is faced daily with a wide variety of pressing responsibilities that cannot be easily handed off to others like they can at UC Berkeley, according to Shusterman. Reed nowadays has some green sciences practices of their own, but the lab manuals remain untouched and the curriculum doesn’t instill green chemistry across all courses.


Hutchison touches on this issue in his account of what he and others did to establish green chemistry in the University of Oregon’s curriculum. He said the key to success was getting stakeholders involved and approaching the situation with systems thinking—bringing elements together to achieve a similar purpose (Hutchison, 2019). We need to strengthen the interconnections between interested parties to gain momentum, as institutional change cannot be enacted through individual efforts.


“Because opportunity is frequently coupled to perceived urgency, it often helps to reach out to all levels of the institution that might create that sense of urgency,” Shusterman says, having attended one of Hutchinson’s green chemistry workshops. “Creating a larger conversation on campus, one that involves more stakeholders and influencers, is often the best way to get faculty to rethink their day-to-day priorities.”


Reactive solutions like My Green Lab are not inherently ineffective. Nor are proactive solutions like green chemistry curriculums impossible to implement. Tending to the flaws the science field has now and readying future generations for greener practices are both valid ways to dampen the consequences we will all feel from climate change. Going forth, we must call upon different parties. We must spread the word of My Green Lab by reaching out to organizations with similar goals, and find the stakeholders: teaching staff, schools’ environmental health and safety staff, schools’ sustainability coordinators, student activist groups, and more.


Everyone has a stake in the fight against climate change—scientists and laymen alike. Sign the letters, have discussions, and be the momentum in the science community.


Let us lead each other into a more sustainable future.


 

Sources


Armstrong, Laura B., et al. “Developing a Green Chemistry Focused General Chemistry Laboratory Curriculum: What Do Students Understand and Value about Green Chemistry?” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 96, no. 11, 2019, pp. 2410–2419., https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.9b00277.


Hutchison, James E. “Systems Thinking and Green Chemistry: Powerful Levers for Curricular Change and Adoption.” Journal of Chemical Education, vol. 96, no. 12, 2019, pp. 2777–2783., https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.9b00334.


“My Green Lab.” My Green Lab, 2022, https://www.mygreenlab.org/.


“Million Advocates for Sustainable Science.” Million Advocates for Sustainable Science, 2022, https://www.sustainablescienceadvocates.org/#sign-the-letter.


My Green Lab, and Urgentem. “The Carbon Impact of Biotech & Pharma.” Oct. 2021.



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