Lab sustainability: In what ways do voluntary green lab programs make an institutional impact?
In 2013, Emory Univ. pulled together a multidisciplinary team of individuals from the Office of Sustainability Initiatives, Environmental Health and Safety Office, Office of Procurement, Campus Services and research labs to develop the university’s first Green Lab Program. In early 2014, the team kicked off the program to a small pilot group to test the initiatives and provide essential feedback.
A unique team-based approach was used to develop best practices for lab sustainability specific to Emory Univ., and resulted in important learning experiences, community-building tools and strong stakeholder ties that inform and expedite future collaboration between departments with varying interests and areas of expertise. This team-based approach was essential to developing a sustainable lab program that balances opportunities and challenges related to safety regulation, engineering constraints, waste protocols, procurement limitations and sustainability goals. This unique development process was required to balance consensus decision-making and stakeholder engagement, which were thoughtfully constrained to complement the earnestness to pilot and implement.
Based on the four primary categories of Energy and Water Efficiency; Sustainable Procurement; Recycling and Waste Reduction; and Chemicals, 38 voluntary action items were developed and measurable impacts identified. Based on the make-up of the university’s lab buildings, some impacts had to be accepted as immeasurable and not quantifiable; and the program identity’s place on the spectrum of awareness-raising, building knowledge and understanding and achieving change or action that results in measurable impacts is still being considered. In developing the action items and supporting programmatic and operational changes provided by the Green Lab Team, under heavy consideration is the question of whether or not it’s possible for one program to provide meaningful recommendations that apply to a variety of different types of labs, including research labs in medicine, behavioral science, physics, chemistry and public health, as well as undergraduate teaching labs.
Developing action items on a broad spectrum of topics and with varying degrees of difficulty highlights the dilemma of balancing the significance of a sustainable work environment with the importance of the actual work going on inside the space. Sustainable practices must not compromise the integrity of the research and teaching and learning experiences in a lab, and ideally will enhance it. Therefore, the actions and supporting programs the Green Lab Team developed were sensitive to space constraints, workflow and time, while retaining the integrity of the sustainability operations of the university. It’s hoped this thoughtful approach will result in sustainable labs as places where participants are learning through institutionalized practice and demonstration.
The Green Lab Program at Emory Univ. was developed through dedicated time by four departments and numerous individuals; but the implementation of more sustainable behaviors by labs was made possible through the generous donation of funds by a lab supplier. These funds are made available to participating labs in the form of a Green Lab Incentives Fund program. The funds are also being used to provide meaningful recognition to labs for sustainability efforts. This dedicated funding is designed to allow participating labs to free themselves of the constraints of their own operations budgets and to think creatively about operational and behavioral adjustments they would like to make to enhance the activities of the lab in a more sustainable way. However, perhaps because this type of funding isn’t often made available to researchers, the type of creativity the Green Lab Team was expecting has not yet manifested as high numbers of quality project proposals.
Ultimately, the challenges and questions posed above were predicted well enough that the pilot program was designed to provide the feedback and reporting necessary to analyze the program before initiating it to labs across Emory’s enterprise. Currently, the Green Lab Team is debating the method through which it will roll the program out to labs across Emory’s enterprise in 2015. The initial plan to integrate the program into the mandatory self-assessment labs submit annually for environmental health and safety is being debated, and will ultimately become yet another pilot process with lessons learned.
Kelly O’Day Weisinger joined Emory Univ. in 2012 as Sustainability Programs Coordinator, collaborating with Emory Univ. and healthcare leadership in fulfilling Emory’s sustainability vision. She conducts staff outreach and engagement and works with Emory’s university and healthcare departments on projects including waste minimization, energy and water use reduction, sustainable procurement, climate action, lab and office sustainability and curriculum and research.