– By Kevin Mercurio, PhD Student, TCD
The hospitable world is going to end, eventually. Yet, there is one species on this planet that has the power to change how soon that will be: humans.
There is no question that we have drastically impacted the climate. To quote Sir David Attenborough’s speech from the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) Opening Ceremony, “Our burning of fossil fuels, our destruction of nature, our approach to industry, construction and learning, are releasing carbon into the atmosphere at an unprecedented pace and scale.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oofxDQQKE7M&t) The amount of carbon in our atmosphere has greatly surged and with it, so have global temperatures, leading to uncharacteristic weather phenomena felt by millions around the globe.
Lowering our collective carbon footprint through harvesting sustainable energy and waste reduction is the scientific endeavour of our lifetime. Through observation and analyses, we have the ability to monitor Earth’s climate and innovate solutions to reduce our capability to destabilise. This in itself is truly inspiring, and has led to the initiation of countless academic, corporate and community projects aimed at creating a better world. These stories from the individual to group-led pursuits are the basis for scientific discovery in this regard.
Trinity College Dublin seems to acknowledge this prescient issue. In fact, hosted in February was Trinity’s 20th Green Week, on the theme of “Repairing Our Broken Food Systems”. Throughout the week, students were encouraged to try out a plant-based diet. In an email sent to all academic staff and students by Professor Yvonne Buckley, Vice President for Biodiversity and Climate Action, “Livestock alone accounts for more than 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 25.8% of Irish emissions (in 2020). A mostly plant-based diet would cut those global and Irish emissions by 70% and 63%, respectively.”
Despite not actively participating in climate research, I often still reflect on my own carbon footprint as a PhD student in the Moyne Institute of Preventive Medicine. I look through rooms of incredible equipment using large amounts of electricity from the grid. I look at biohazard bags containing absurd amounts of single-use plastics. I look in ventilated fume hoods stocked with dark bottles of chemical waste. I have explained to myself and peers that these are consequences of pushing that scientific frontier in the biological sciences. In reality, the bittersweet realisation is that every scientist can decrease the amount of inefficiencies in their research by making small changes that lean toward sustainability, thus actively contributing to the global “green” effort.
Scientific laboratories are resource-intensive spaces. In 2015, in a letter to Nature Correspondence summarizing a study from the University of Exeter estimated that labs use up to 10 times more energy and four times more water than offices spaces (https://www.nature.com/articles/528479c). In addition, labs produce 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, meaning that this mass of non-degradable plastics end up in our landfills.
This got me wondering, with about 314 labs actively conducting research, what is my university doing to implement better sustainable practices in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and what is my role within the scientific community as a whole?
I had the opportunity to speak with several members of the TCD Green Labs initiative. One was Camilla Roselli, a PhD Candidate in Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience (TCIN) and previous chair of TCD Green Labs. Outside of the lab, she is a stark advocate in the “going green” movement and zero-waste lifestyle, in which she has adapted similar practices into the way she conducts research. Together with recent PhD graduate Martha Gulman and TCD Sustainability Advisor Michele Hallahan, Roselli not only kick started the Green Labs initiative but also co-created Trinity’s Green Labs Guide, a comprehensive overview of the consequences for global scientific research and practices that can be implemented to reduce inefficiencies (https://www.tcd.ie/provost/sustainability/assets/guides/green-labs-guide.pdf). A majority of the guide tailored to early career researchers focuses on four main elements: 1) water management, 2) energy, 3) waste and 4) green chemistry.
Water management is certainly not on the list of priorities for postgraduates and postdoctoral fellows at a public research institute. Yet, as stated in the guide, “Labs contain a myriad of water-driven equipment, from condensers, to pumps, to autoclaves. Reducing your lab’s water consumption not only saves the precious resource of fresh water but also reduces the carbon footprint from electricity needed to pump water throughout the water infrastructure.” This could include a simple aerator attachment to faucets that greatly reduce water waste, as well as the proper usage of deionized or ultra-high purity water.
Energy consumption is also a metric usually hidden in the background of research. As stated in the guide, TCD “spent €6.3 million on electricity and gas” in 2018. By simply switching off equipment when not in use, or increasing temperatures of ultra-low freezers by a scientifically tested 10 degrees centigrade, this figure could be greatly reduced. Professor Kingston Mills, Director of Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute (TBSI), stated in the TCD Green Labs February panel discussion, “increasing temperatures of freezers from -80C to -70C saved €20,000 in TBSI.” This has sparked what are known as Freezer Challenges in the Green Labs community, in which TCD Green Labs is aiming to host a smaller version this year.
Oisín Joyce, President of Neuroscience Ireland’s Early Career Research Network (NSI-ECRN) and an ordinary committee member (OCM) of TCD Green Labs, reiterated how important it is for early career researchers to be aware of their energy usage. Simple colour labelling, such as a Traffic Light Sticker system to make clear what equipment should remain on or can be turned off, have been implemented in the TCIN PhD research lab he works in. When asked about the reluctance that researchers have about viable alternatives, Joyce states these, “come from a conception that sustainability comes at a cost to your science, that you’ll actually sacrifice your time, quality or even success in order to make it sustainable, but it’s actually the complete opposite, that there are viable alternatives, there are other labs that you can collaborate with, and these might be very small, but very effective in the long term.”
Waste in research labs is usually the most discussed, and the most apparent. As stated in the guide, “An average Irish person produces 61 kg of plastic annually compared to an average bench scientist who typically produces over 1000 kg of plastic waste each year.” In 2021, the average plastic waste per capita in Ireland has dropped to 54 kg, which is still the highest among EU countries (https://www.businesspost.ie/climate-environment/ireland-produces-most-plastic-waste-per-person-in-eu/). In the biological sciences, so many single-use plastics like pipette tips, culture flasks and centrifuge tubes are used without so much as a blink of the eye. Waste is also in conjunction with green lab chemistry, in which toxic solvents and reagents continue to be used in old procedures and stored within ever accumulating waste jars. An awareness of more modernised protocols could help prevent the accumulation of hazardous waste materials.
Dr. Pauline Schmitt, a postdoctoral fellow in TBSI and the Secretary of TCD Green Labs, has long observed the carelessness of waste disposal. Growing up in the French countryside of Toulouse, she has been involved in community waste management and even participates in voluntary beach cleanups within the Dublin region. Even from early on in her career, Schmitt states, “it seems logical to apply personal life practices to daily life at work”. Waste reduction is one of her most significant goals as a leader in the initiative. Among many projects she hopes to highlight are the implementation of polystyrene recycling systems. When ordering reagents or materials, companies often package and ship products within polystyrene containers that have very little relation to the size of the ordered materials, leading to excessive waste. Schmitt has been working with Rehab Recycle (https://rehab.ie/enterprises/rehab-recycle/) to create a recycling stream for this excessive packaging waste in TBSI. Additionally, TCD Green Labs and Trinity’s Sustainability Office have organised multiple meetings throughout the year with some of Ireland’s largest research suppliers to discuss alternatives to improve current practices, including Fisher Scientific and Merck.
By implementing sustainable practices, this can lead to being certified by the non-profit My Green Lab, which Roselli hopes that TCD Green Labs can push for all 314 labs to strive towards. And with Trinity incorporating a new Vice-Provost in Sustainability, this should only add towards this green trend. Ireland in itself has been an up-and-coming player in green lab practices, having NUI Galway’s Medical Device Laboratory being the first lab certified by My Green Lab in the European Union. Nationally, members are found in counties like Dublin, Galway, Cork and Sligo, and are featured on the recently established Irish Green Labs directory (https://irishgreenlabs.org/member-organisations/), a network growing out of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland’s (SEAI) Working Group for Public Sector Labs with the aim of assisting labs to optimise their energy management systems.
What Roselli, Joyce and Schmitt all believe is causing the biggest hurdles within the local research community is not resources, but structure and habits. Roselli states, “resources are available but there is so much out there that no one has the time”. She advocates that Trinity have paid positions for increasing sustainability on campus and to encourage the implementation of green practices, using the University of Bristol as a prime example of a renowned research-intensive university that achieved full certification by the UK-based LEAF program. Unfortunately, it often falls under the responsibility of trainees to increase visibility in research sustainability, who are already inundated with their projects and extracurriculars.
When asked about habits and the difficulty for change to happen in the Trinity research community, the answer may be as simple as practising mindfulness. Schmitt mentions, “it takes little effort, you just need to be more aware and think about what you are doing”, taking the time to pause and realise where sustainability could fit into your research techniques. Awareness of any protocol changes that can lean toward sustainability without impacting the research is something TCD Green Labs hopes to instil from the very beginning, advocating for workshops on green laboratory practices at the start of a researcher’s career at Trinity.
This sentiment seems to hold true for most movements that are worth striving for, as through changing one’s habits this can produce a chain reaction of changing the habits of those around you. It’s a cultural shift surrounded in tradition that will certainly be difficult to modify, but one will never be alone in this effort. If given the resources, Joyce would hope to implement an educational program on sustainable research practices starting at the undergraduate level. Joyce states that being a part of a community that aims to utilise new strategies would help encourage researchers to, “be your own superhero, be your own advocate, be your own herald for sustainability.”
In all its forms, science should be conducted in a matter that has a minute impact on the very world it tries to understand. Perhaps through highlighting the consequences of conducting scientific research, this green initiative will inspire others and future Trinity researchers to consider green lab practices as normality. We can only hope this realisation comes before it’s too late.