Engaging laboratories in the University of Washington's Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences to establish a model for environmental sustainability

Total Amount Awarded: $58,221

Final report poster or presentation: View the PDF

The Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS) is part of University of Washington’s (UW) School of Public Health. Practices within DEOHS have not been formally assessed with regard to environmental sustainability. With expertise in environmental health, occupational safety, and climate change, DEOHS has the capability and responsibility to provide leadership in this area and serve as an exemplary model for sustainability, paving the way for other laboratories, academic programs, and environmental health and safety groups. Departmental laboratories are one area in which substantial positive impacts could be acheived. DEOHS has 20 laboratories used for research, education, and analytical services. 

Although there are many existing programs that promote sustainability and green laboratory practices, there is little quantitative data to validate that green practices are actually improving environmental sustainability metrics.  Laboratory chemicals used in protocols and standard operating procedures are often selected without considering factors such as chemical toxicity, biodegradability, and energy use. Quantification of the cumulative environmental and human health impacts of chemicals by using life-cycle assessments and other means is necessary for researchers to make informed decisions. Laboratories are especially resource-intensive, using about four times as much energy as an office space of the same size. There are also large quantities of plastics used, which are often thrown out instead of recycled. Efforts to conserve energy and reduce waste need to be promoted and evaluated to provide quantitative support they are effective.    

The UW Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability office launched a Green Labs Certification program in the spring of 2013. However, there are certain sections of the application on which laboratories generally do not score high. There is a need to better understand barriers to scoring high on the UW Green Labs Certification application, and more granular data is needed on current practices to evaluate the impact of green strategies.   

The goals of this study are to facilitate adoption of the tools and sustainability metrics of the UW Green Labs Certification program by DEOHS laboratories, use an iterative process to expand use of the UW Green Labs Certification program, and develop better acceptance guidelines for low-scoring parts of the application. This project will allow us to identify where implementing green strategies will have the greatest impact and provide a process to quantify effects. We will highlight best practices for the UW campus, provide recommendations on how to implement green strategies, and serve as an example for other academic departments.             

Relevance to UW Sustainability Goals:

As experts in the field of environmental health and occupational safety, DEOHS researchers can and should lead by example when conducting professional activities in a manner consistent with the principle of sustainability. We will identify areas for improvement and pilot-test green strategies to meet project goals. While the specific green strategies that we will evaluate depend on findings from baseline assessments and focus group meetings, a priori we aim to identify and pilot-test strategies that reduce hazardous chemical use, energy use, and non-chemical waste. Preliminary conversations with UW Campus Engineering & Operations, EH&S, and DEOHS faculty and laboratory staff indicate the following as potential strategies:

  • Lower nighttime temperatures in areas where department laboratories and offices are housed to reduce greenhouse gasses generated by heating
  • Make recommendations for energy efficient laboratory equipment that can be purchased to replace old equipment and demonstrate that costs can be recovered over the lifetime of equipment
  • Compare programs with centralized facilities for chemical storage and procurement to decentralized systems where individual laboratories purchase their own chemicals from vendors, evaluating chemical waste and greenhouse gas emissions from transportation of chemicals
  • Assess the components of kits (e.g. DNA extraction kits, reagent kits) that are promoted as “green” by vendors 
  • Investigate the use of recycled plastics and biodegradable polymers in laboratories where there are concerns over chemicals and biologically active material binding to certain types of materials

In addition, we will compare the cumulative environmental impacts of a chemical used in DEOHS laboratories and a potential “green” substitute, which will provide us with a complete picture from which we can make informed recommendations.

Timeline:

Aim 1: Baseline assessment, February-May 2014

  • Green labs certification applications, February-March 2014
  • Interviews, February-May 2014
  • Analyze purchasing records, March-May 2014
  • Chemical and equipment inventories, March-May 2014
  • Waste stream audits, March-May 2014
  • Monitor energy and water use, March-May 2014

Aim 2: Compile green strategies, February-May 2014

Aim 3: Focus group meetings, May-June 2014

Aim 4: Pilot-testing, June-November 2014

            Evaluations, September 2014-January 2015

Aim 5: Chemical life-cycle assessments, May-December 2014

Aim 6: Refine assessment and evaluation tools, November 2014-January 2015

Aim 7: Webinar development, June 2014-January 2015

Aim 8: DEOHS sustainability framework development, May 2014-January 2015

Primary Faculty:
Christopher 
Simpson
Primary Staff:
Jennifer 
Krenz
Primary Student:
TBD 
TBD

This project was funded during the 2013-2014 academic year.