Green Labs in Trinity: working towards sustainable science

Trinity PhD students are working together to change outdated and unsustainable lab practices

Science labs are some of the most waste intensive workplaces in the world, and the Trinity labs are certainly not exempt from this. The average science lab uses 10 times more energy per annum than the average office space, and four times more water. This seems counterintuitive: the same scientists that are pressing home the message of climate change are also inherently creating a disproportionate amount of pollution in their day to day workplaces. 

It is estimated that the average Irish person produces 61 kg of plastic waste a year, but the average scientist produces roughly 1000 kg in the same time frame.  For decades it has been assumed that labs and waste go hand in hand, that this waste is justified by the crucial need for scientific learning. This is a misguided idea, and the scientific community must begin to practice what it preaches. 

My Green Lab is an international non-profit organisation that aims to cut down waste in laboratories around the world. They developed the My Green Lab certification programme, which teaches researchers how to make their lab practices more sustainable. They hope that through raising awareness of current unsustainable lab practices, the culture of research will begin to adapt to our changing world. 

Over 400 labs have now been certified with My Green Lab, and the organisation is beginning to attract much needed attention to green lab practices.” 

There are several levels to my Green Lab certification, which depend on the percentage of listed sustainable practices that a lab is carrying out. Areas covered in the programme range from travel emission associated with the lab, such as traveling abroad for conferences, to energy waste from machines and fume hoods left running. Over 400 labs have now been certified with My Green Lab, and the organisation is beginning to attract much needed attention to green lab practices. 

Inspired by the My Green lab movement, the TCD Green Labs group was started this June and has already inspired action in labs across Trinity. 

Trinity College Institute of Neurosciences (TCIN) is the first group of labs on campus to begin working towards a My Green Lab Certification. The effort is being headed up by PhD candidate at TCIN, Camilla Roselli. 

Roselli is in the fourth year of her PhD focusing on the molecular requirements for long-term memory formation. As a self-proclaimed environmentalist, being passionate about climate change, she has already been involved with green efforts on campus. In January she helped to organise the Zero Waste Festival Ireland in the Science Gallery. At the festival, Dr. Úna Fitzgerald, the founder of the first green lab group in Ireland, gave a speech on the My Green Lab programme. Roselli, alongside Virginia Mela, also a PhD candidate in neuroscience, then made an application for a grant from the Trinity Sustainability Fund. They aimed to use the grant to allow TCIN and other labs in Trinity to apply for the My Green Lab programme: “We decided that we didn’t want just to be focused on TCIN, we would try to get the initiative to go around campus.” 

As a result of their efforts, Trinity is now a member of the My Green Lab organisation, opening all labs up to the opportunity to get behind the initiative. Currently, the eight TCIN labs are the first to start working towards certification, but several other labs are set to follow suit. The timing isn’t ideal currently for many labs, as they are making significant changes and efforts to become Covid-safe spaces and adapting to research during the pandemic.

“I think this could also be an opportunity because Covid made us completely rethink how we approach our work.”

Roselli says this hurdle also provides an opportunity for growth and change: “I think this could also be an opportunity because Covid made us completely rethink how we approach our work. I think especially after the break of around three months that we had before starting back in the lab; that was actually a great time for us to think about what we wanted to change, and I think that would be the same in every lab in Trinity.” She says this has provided researchers with a wake-up call to be more open-minded to different ways of practicing science. To help other Trinity labs to kick start their own green lab changes Roselli, alongside Martha Gulman, a PhD candidate in Chemistry, and Michelle Hallahan, the Provost’s Sustainability Advisor, has drafted a set of sustainability guidelines for researchers in Trinity. These will be distributed, along with similar guidelines for students and staff, in the coming weeks. 

In working through the My Green Lab programme, Roselli’s lab, led by Prof Mani Ramaswami, is focusing on several issues including waste reduction and energy conservation. The lab works with drosophila melanogaster, a species of fruit fly. As a result, the main source of plastic waste in their lab is the tiny containers that these flies live in. These vials cannot be recycled due to the fact they contained genetically modified organisms. “You need to sterilise everything. We have to autoclave (steam sterilise) all our waste. And then it still cannot be recycled, because it’s hazardous waste. So for now, our approach would be to try to reduce the number of vials we use in the first place. But safety’s first,” says Roselli. “I’m very committed to green labs. But you don’t want any sort of contamination with organisms.” 

Roselli says that with sustainability in labs, and in general, it’s important not to try and fix everything at once, only to fix nothing at all. “It’s something that you have to do step by step, because something that I realised with sustainability, not just in labs, is that sometimes the problem seems too big. People can decide not to take an approach because the problem is too big, instead of stopping and breaking it into small pieces.” Seemingly tiny steps can have a serious impact on cutting down energy waste in labs. A fume hood left open for an hour uses as much energy as three and a half houses but closed it uses only the energy of only two. Keeping them closed when not working stops fresh air from being exhausted through them unnecessarily and saves valuable energy. “Something we are trying to do is to work specifically on energy consumption. There are different aspects of green labs which I had never thought about, like water and energy. Ending waste is a big problem and we can see that. But there are other parts we don’t actually see all the time.” 

The TCIN labs have made a concerted effort on energy consumption, dedicating people to checking lights are off before leaving the building and reminding researchers to turn off machinery when not in use. The teams are also focusing on reducing the energy consumed by their autoclave sterilisation process. They now only run the machines when it is full of the plastic vials, much like households are encouraged to only run their dishwasher when full. The autoclave heats the water to temperatures around 120 degrees and uses significant amounts of it for heating and cooling, so reducing its usage gives a massive reduction in wasted energy. There are also significant economic benefits to the college of cutting energy and water usage, Roselli points out. 

The importance of a certification like My Green Lab, Roselli says, is that it raises the profile of the issue of environmentally harmful research practices: “We [researchers] are all busy and have all kinds of things to do. So maybe it’s not our first priority to look for this stuff. With this kind of certification, I think it will start the conversation, and we will have to rethink our habits. As soon as I mentioned the problems, every single lab in TCN wanted to join.”

Roselli also points out that of those co-ordinating the My Green Labs programme at TCIN, the majority are PhD students, an important subset of the college community that often gets overlooked. “This project is very much PhD driven. The vast majority of people that agreed to be on the team are PhD students. And we are, as PhD students, sometimes kind of forgotten. We are an important part of Trinity research.”

“One thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes, especially for young researchers or students, we are scared of taking a position. You don’t want to push other people to follow your ideas. But actually when I talked about it to my supervisor and other faculty they were completely on board with the idea and they were very supportive.”

All Trinity labs and departments now, as a part of the My Green Labs nonprofit organisation, can apply for the certification for a small fee. As well as this, students who are interested in learning more about green lab practices for their current and future work can take part in the free My Green Lab ambassador programme. The work by Roselli and fellow PhD students provides a much-needed opportunity to change the priorities of research in Trinity. But they can’t do it alone. Hopefully, their work will act as a catalyst for growth; that in the coming months we will see a stronger and more concerted effort across campus to take Trinity research into the new age of sustainability. 

Lucy Fitzsimmons

Lucy Fitzsimmons is the SciTech co-Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of Chemical Sciences.