NEB Podcast Episode #12 –
Interview with Sustainable Science Experts: Panel Discussion from Go Green Symposium
Interviewer: Lydia Morrison, Marketing Communications Writer & Podcast Host, New England Biolabs, Inc.
Interviewees: Allison Paradise, CEO of My Green Lab®; Quentin Gilly, Senior Sustainability Officer, Harvard University; Suzanne Wood, Sustainability & Energy Manager, UMass Medical School; Ali Safavi, President & CEO, Grenova®; Schuyler Stuart, Account Manager, Triumvirate Environmental®
Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Lessons from Lab and Life podcast. I'm your host, Lydia Morrison, and I hope that this episode offers you some new perspective.
Today, we'll be sharing some of the panel discussion from a recent "Go Green" event that we co-hosted with Labconscious. The event was held at the LabCentral facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it focused on bringing together experts in the field of green practices within a laboratory setting, so that they could share their experiences and resources with a broad scientific community.
Our panel discussion focused on cost effective and eco-friendly tips for dealing with life science lab waste.
Our panel members were Schuyler Stuart of Triumvirate Environmental, which focuses on environmental health and safety as well as sustainable business and operations management; Ali Safavi, president and CEO of Grenova and the inventor of the TipNovus machine, which is a piece of bench top equipment that washes and sterilizes pipette tips for reuse rather than recycling; Allison Paradise, founder of My Green Lab, a company devoted to promoting sustainability in science practice; Suzanne Wood, Sustainability and Energy Manager of UMass Medical School; and Quentin Gilly, Senior Sustainability Officer at Harvard University.
Thanks for joining us everyone. Quentin, could you tell us how Harvard has become a leader in the green lab space?
Thank you. So, yeah, Harvard, I like to think that we're a leader in green labs. We have one of the oldest green labs programs, going back maybe 10-15 years now. It really started with fume hoods, shutting fume hood sashes. It wasn't an idea that came necessarily from the students, but from facilities over in our chemistry department.
They said, "Wow, is there anything you can do to sort of drive these students and faculty members to shut their fume hood sashes because we can save a lot of energy?" So, we figured out how much energy we could save, and it was hundreds of thousands of dollars if we could just get fume hoods shut.
So, we started a competition called the "Shut the Sash" competition. It's still running today, and that's sort of the backbone of our program. With that, we basically use our time outside of energy products, we work on waste reduction, reuse, donations, and things like that. We have about 2-2.5 full-time employees working on green labs at the moment, so yeah.
I'm Suzanne Wood, I'm the Sustainability and Energy Manager for UMass Medical School. I oversee the recycling programs for both the medical school and the clinical system of our affiliated hospital on-site, as well as run energy projects; specifically a lot of them are in the labs as well, looking at how to reduce energy consumption in the laboratory.
I'm jealous of Quentin's program. I am an FTE of one for both sustainability and energy programs, but we are an EPA award winner for the partner of the year for recycling, for the institution, and a lot of that waste does come from the laboratories.
Suzanne, can you tell us a little bit about what kind of feedback you've had about the "Waste Wise" program that you're running there?
Sure, so we've been a partner of "Waste Wise" since 2014. It's really an institutional program rather than specifically just for the laboratories; but laboratory waste is a huge component of our waste stream. We've been successful in the "Waste Wise" program, which primarily helps to provide resources for waste reduction, tracking mechanisms, benchmarking with comparable peers. We've been successful a lot because of our waste and recycling programs that we participate in with the laboratories. A lot of our lab waste recycling program is simply just an extension of our single stream recycling program that we have throughout the rest of our campus, we've just expanded the items that are collected to the laboratories.
So, we've done this with very specific signage, to make sure that laboratories are aware of what the acceptable items are in terms of which plastics: rigid plastics, pipette tip boxes. If we're accepting chemical bottles, what types of chemical bottles those may be that are acceptable for our waste.
It was a big partnership to get that program up and running; a collaboration between EH&S, as well as our waste hauler, to do that in a way that everybody was comfortable with what was leaving the facility as recycling.
We've also worked really hard with re-use programs on campus. We have what's called a "Swap Shop", so this is a surplus with a purpose. It's essentially a vacant laboratory that I squat in and get moved every year, where anybody on campus who has items in good condition that are still operable, that they no longer need for whatever reason, can bring to this room. Then, another lab that's either moving in, or needs a new hot water bath because theirs failed, can just come and take it. We ask they sign out so we have some type of tracking mechanism, to see how much we exchange.
But, that's probably the lab's favorite program. You know, we have exchanged, in the three years that it's been open, almost 4,000 lbs of material valued at roughly $80,000. So, there has been a huge cost savings through that program.
Again, all of these metrics are then reported through "Waste Wise" and gives us a sense of year over year of kind of how our program is improving, and what categories, from donation, re-use, recycling, and just general practices; again, from the institution level, but a lot of it does come back down to what the labs are doing, and how the labs are operating, and how they impact our waste stream.
Great. Quentin, can you talk a little bit about the feedback you've received from Harvard's green program?
You know, I think we've done a good job over the years really getting the word out that we exist. Harvard is very decentralized, it's almost like each school is almost a separate university at some times. We have a medical school campus, we have our graduate school campus in Cambridge, we also have the Rowland Institute just down the street here, it's a lot of territory to cover. But, focusing on getting the word out that we exist, that we can be a resource; not only for trying to implement waste programs, but also improving our building efficiency programs.
As far as the waste side, we've worked with Triumvirate, we've had a lot of great progress with them and also our other haulers. Historically, probably over the past 5-10 years, we've developed a lab recycling certification program. So, the idea is we work with EH&S, and we do a walk through the lab and look at the opportunities to recycle and reduce waste. Each laboratory has a designated recycling coordinator. It was a really great program that people were taking on.
Unfortunately, this past year, due to the problems Allison mentioned with the commodities markets with recycling and things going to China, we've had to drastically reduce our recycling efforts. So, right now, in the labs, when it comes to recycling, we're really only recycling cardboard and paper.
So, a lot of feedback from the labs asking us, "How are we going to figure out this situation and improve the recycling programs?" There's a lot of programs out there, take back programs that was mentioned earlier, that I think are really affective. Also, there are some out there that I actually question, comparing their process for recycling, or upcycling, compared to if it was actually put into our waste stream and sent to incineration; because we actually have a waste to energy incineration program.
So, comparing that to some of these take back programs that can be expensive, not all of them, but also: what's the lifecycle look like when it comes to gloves and things like that? So, right now, when it comes to waste, we're sort of in a tough spot.
On the energy side, we're in a pretty good position, I think. We're leading in a couple areas that we're hopefully going to be talking more about in the next couple years.
So recently, China has put in place a ban on the import of recyclable plastics. Allison, could you tell us how this has impacted lab waste recycling?
We work with organizations across North America, so we get to see how it's impacting, basically, all across the country. I would say in California we have a pretty decent infrastructure to still accept number one and number two, but anything beyond that is really not able to be recycled. That's because China was taking all of that plastic, the harder plastics and number fives. We're still collecting it and putting it in a warehouse, and the hope is that we'll be able to ... There'll be some sort of industry that will come about that we can make use of all of that. But, I'm not terribly hopeful for that.
I think it's similar across the country. That number one and number two ... And I'm hoping you're still able to collect that here. No? Oh my. Even, okay ... Well, I'm so sorry.
I think other place, at least I know in Connecticut, they're still taking one and two. There are other places, you're able to take one and two. One and two, at least we've built some infrastructure for in the states. It's the ones that are beyond that: the hard plastics, the fives, the film plastics. We've never really had much for styrofoam, so we can forget about number six.
But, it's had a really big impact and it's helped us rethink, and I think some of the manufacturers rethink their designs and whether they can go back to using something like a number one and two rather than moving towards these different amalgamated plastics. But, I'm going to give it to Schuyler because I really feel like you would have a much better perspective that I would on this. I only see it from the back end, you see it from the front end.
Yeah, thank you. Yeah, so like I said, our facility in Jeannette, Pennsylvania does accept plastics directly into plant two that haven't been contaminated with biologics. We can accept a variety of different plastics, including some of the high density stuff that's out there. So, some of those plastics can be really good inputs for the plastics that we're trying to make.
We blend it with a lot of other material as well, so we have a lot of flexibility on what we can and can't take. But, like I said, we usually do it on a case by case basis. Every client that we take on, we do a full assessment of whatever waste that they're producing, or whatever plastics they want to be recycling, and we can help tailor a solution that's good for you.
We have seen that with the ban that's happened. We have had folks come to us and be like, "Hey, we have a lot of this plastic that we've got to get rid of and we want to recycle it. We don't want it to go to a landfill. Can you help us?" In some cases, not all cases, but in some cases we have been able to help them.
May I ask you a question? So, what is your capacity? So, if we were to say all of us now want to send our plastics to you, do you have capacity to take that on?
Yeah, so really, we have a couple different processing units in each facility. I think where the majority of limiting factors come in is on the R&W side of it; where it's still very much a boutique service because it is one plant, one facility, but the process of decontaminating that regulated medical waste is definitely intensive, it takes a lot of resources and people, and just a lot of manual labor to be able to do that.
On the plastic side of it, it's a little bit more straightforward because you're reducing that whole decontamination process. So, it's just plugging it in and kind of feeding the beast. There's definitely a lot more flexibility on that side of things.
So, we've worked really closer with our waste hauler on this and a lot of the China ban has to do with the level of contamination, not as much what commodities that they're accepting. So, one thing that everybody in the lab can do is, if you have single stream recycling in your facility, obey those guidelines because that's where it becomes really challenging. That's really what shut down a lot of the market in China, was the fact that we were giving them really contaminated streams. They essentially said, "We don't want your trash anymore," right? So the level of contamination, and the ability for your material recovery facilities that your waste hauler uses to sort out that contamination, is in many ways the driver of what's going to be accepted.
So, kind of two comments on that. Obey the single stream guidelines. You know, the state of Massachusetts is working to collaborate a little bit more between haulers so that they develop a consistent list of what's okay, but it also depends on how your waste is sorted. So, you know, our vendor for commercial recycling doesn't use as automated of a process, so they can actually reduce contamination a little bit more with a manual process. So, we're allowed to provide additional items. We haven't seen a ban on pipette tip boxes, some of the other rigid plastics that other facilities have had. So, encourage your facilities group to reach out to their waste haulers to get a good sense of what the acceptable items are, because you may not; your facility, depending on your waste hauler and their ability to process the waste and really drive down contamination at their facility; may be what drives them to what they consider to be acceptable in their waste streams.
That's actually a really good point, and that's come up with us a few times, where we've had folks that they have stuff that won't necessarily be taken because of actual contamination or even potential contamination; where they just won't even go near it. That's where it's actually come to us, and then we verify whether it can go straight into plant two. In some cases, it does need to go through plant one, or maybe an abbreviated version of that.
And even not chemical contamination or biological contamination. The biggest one is plastic bags. So, loose plastics, those can't be recycled in traditional single stream recycling. Any tubing, things like that, that really tangle their machines. Materials that are mixed together, so if you have a cardboard and a paper packaging, if you don't separate those two completely, that leads to contamination. So, beyond just thinking about, "Does this contain chemical waste, does this contain biological waste?", is it hazardous in any way? Think about how these materials have to be sorted.
There's some really cool videos online. If you kind of google E.L. Harvey, he's our waste vendor, they have a video that shows their single stream processing facility and it gives a really good sense of how these materials are actually sorted, and can lend some insight into how the separation needs to happen in order for single stream recycling to continue to be as successful.
What are other challenges that are facing recycling efforts today?
So, one other point that we've been working on with recycling; and if you haven't heard about it, it's coming down the stream; starting in January, there is going to be no plastic bags allowed, period, in any recycling in the state. It's part of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection new regulation. So, we've been working primarily on trying to figure out: how are we going to be able to collect any plastics from, not labs, but from all of our buildings? And, other items for recycling?
So, that's going to be a challenge for everybody I think.
So, this is where "Waste Wise" can be really helpful. They had a forum a month ago or so at the E.L. Harvey Facility, which is the hauler that we use, but they had all different types of companies; including Whole Foods and a lot of them that have the loose packaging for collection. So, again, "Waste Wise" can be a really good resource if you have those kind of weird, off items or need some kind of assistance as to where to bring them. Again, they can't be part of single stream, but they are recyclable and they'll get made in grocery stores, for instance, most of them have bag drop off areas. So, something similar. It would be processed and made into a plastic bag or something of the same type ... I don't know if it's in this country, if it's out of the country, you know, that I don't know.
I guess it comes down to: where do any of our recyclables go and what do they end up being made into? But there are resources available and places that you can recycle those materials, they just do have to be collected separately.
So, just sitting back and listening to everyone's discussion, this is actually ... The way I see this, with China not taking the recycling from labs or lab waste, it's actually likely one of the best things, probably, that's happened; because before we were just on their easy route of like, "Okay, they're taking it, it's their problem. Oh, they're recycling it." Who knew what they were actually doing, right? Or, what percentage of it was being recycled?
So, what's interesting is, because of this problem now there's awareness. We are talking for solutions and this is going to make a difference. This action from China literally is going to help us be way far ahead three to four years from now, and have a solution within our own country and stuff; trying to rely on outside the country in resources or stuff.
Recycling isn't the end all be all for lab waste, so what are some tips you could offer for reducing consumption or reusing resources within a lab setting?
Use the TipNovus.
Yeah, no. The main thing is I think, what I would like to point out is, the first step is being open to new ways to evaluate, validate, new approaches. Don't be stuck with a traditional approach, it's like, "Oh, my asset is so sensitive, there's no way I can take a chance for any contaminations." Yes, that's fully understandable, but what if when you clean something within your own facility, you're not going to have that carryover problem if you do it right, if you use the right equipment.
So, I think the only tip I can give you, or to any of the sciences is, be open. Be open to new technologies, give it a try, and work with them to improve it. That's the only way we're going to have a fully sustainable model, that it's going to be complete in a circle rather than still getting it, handing it over to somebody else so they can deal with the waste, and hopefully they turn it into something. Just, within your own environment you'll be able to provide a sustainable solution that it's working and it's proven.
Yeah, I was just going to say one of the things that we like to do is equipment recovery and consumables recovery. So, if a lab has bought a whole bunch of something and they realize that their research changed and they don't need it anymore, then we will try to match that with a new home. So, we host events called "free cycles," where we sort of collect all these donations from around campus; it could be equipment, it could be consumables; and we'll bring those to one location and it'll be a lab free cycle. So, virtually everything will be focused around labs.
And I just wanted to say recycling is interesting and I've learned more about it this year than I ever thought I would know, but basically it's a commodities market, so things change rapidly; prices go up, demand goes up, demand goes down. That's why I think we've been struggling over the years with, "Now we can recycle this," you know? "Now we have to really rinse out that peanut butter jar," and then the next year they say, "Well, you don't need to rinse it out as much as you did before." So, it's sort of confusing but it tracks back to this commodities market.
I think in the meantime, at least what I've been telling people, is to sort of think a little more upstream while we figure this all out. Like you were saying, maybe this China problem will inspire some to really create new solutions here. Sort of think upstream, think about things like the ACT label where you can reduce the waste and everything on the vendor's side before it even gets to you.
Are there programs in place for sharing cold storage reagents, chemicals, or laboratory equipment?
With regard to recycling chemicals, or reusing chemicals within an institution, UC San Diego has done a phenomenal job with a program called Chemcycle. I would say just check that out. They've integrated their surplus chemical inventory into their procurement system, so that when people go to buy something new, the first thing they see are the reagents and chemicals that are available locally. So, I highly encourage you to check that out because I think it's excellent.
With regard to equipment, that might be difficult to redistribute. I don't know if Seeding Labs will take this, but there's a nonprofit called Seeding Labs. Are you familiar with them? They take equipment and redistribute it to labs in developing countries that can use the equipment, and they're based here or somewhere really close to here. So, they're a phenomenal organization and they might be willing to take some of these pieces of equipment that's harder to redistribute on your own campus or at your own facility.
Lastly, I wanted to discuss the BETR Grant program, which encourages institutions to increase the efficiency of their projects in order to reduce environmental impacts of NIH supported research. Could you comment on topics from today that could be included as actions in grant applications, which would help them differentiate these projects from others?
Yeah, this is actually a program that's been developed out of a friend of Allison and mine out of CU Boulder, Dr. Kathryn Ramirez-Aguilar. She has been fighting a tremendous battle to green grants, green the federal grant process; and they've developed what they call this BETR Grants program where they're trying to put more wording, and more emphasis, on how you're making decisions in the labs, about what you're purchasing, and how you're using the resources that are being provided to you.
Now, I know that there is some language in the NIH grant process saying, like you said, utilizing tax payers' dollars wisely; but, from what I understand, it's currently at the state where if you have two grants, they're not necessarily going to pick to fund one grant over the other because this grant is green and this grant isn't. It's all based on the science.
But I think there can be some things you can put into your grants that can improve your potential of getting funding. One idea is through using shared equipment, which is something that is really an emphasis on the BETR Grants website. If you're going for grant renewal and have identified a new pathway for your research, and you need a new machine or a new instrument, you could say in your grant, "I've discovered that our campus has another group or a core facility that has a lot of the resources I need to get a lot of this done, so we won't necessarily need to purchase this equipment on our own." So, I think, really, that is one of the top things that people could do as far as utilizing sustainability in getting their grant funding.
Yeah, everything Quentin said is spot on. That's exactly where I think the grants are at this point. Shared equipment is the only thing that people are paying attention to. Actually, I think it's a requirement of most NIH funded equipment grants that you have a sharing component after some number of years, otherwise you have to give it back. There's something like that, right? I don't remember what it's called. In any case, there's some requirement to do that.
One thing that we've been working on in collaboration with the BETR grants effort is there are two pathways that we've been taking. So, one is we've developed a certification program, which we didn't talk about yet but I'm going to bring it up. So, we have a green lab certification program that's nationally recognized. We encourage labs that have been certified to our standard to put that into their grant applications. Again, as Quentin said, it's not going to make the difference at the moment between getting the grant or not, but we've been working and advocating pretty strongly for the NIH to recognize our standard, which they actually have on the grant side of things.
We've also been in communication with National Science Foundation, and they also have said, and actually I think this will be a lot easier, that they will be willing to recognize the certification as well. So, we're hopeful that this is something that will make a difference and I think, as with the styrofoam and any of the things that we're talking about, the more people that write in to that box, the more it starts to raise awareness of what you're doing.
So, whether it's that you're certified or that you're sharing equipment, or whether it's that you've implemented a recycling program or you've participated in the freezer challenge, I would encourage you to write whatever into that box; because the more people that put things in that box, the more people have to pay attention to that it exists and that people are doing things. So, even if it might not make a difference right now, put in whatever it is that you're doing.
I think everything that people have been sharing today have been fantastic ideas, so whatever it is, put it in the box, because in the next five years, I really think we're going to see this be part of the grant process; certainly with NSF, they're going to move a lot faster than NIH. But, NIH has indicated that with the potential administration change there might be some appetite for them to actually do something around greening grants that's a bit stronger.
Thanks so much to all our panelists for being here to answer your questions.
I hope that you've learned something about the state of sustainability in life science research today and that you're inspired to learn more. As always, the transcript of this podcast contains lots of helpful links to further resources, so it's a great place to continue educating yourself about how best to improve green practices in your own lab.
I hope that you'll join us for the next episode when we'll focusing on your career, whether that be landing your first job out of graduate school, moving on to a new institution or company, or taking your career in a completely new direction. We'll talk about how to get your LinkedIn profile to reflect you and your experience, as well as how to shine in the interview process. So, be sure to tune in and put your best foot forward on the path to advance your career.
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About your host:
Lydia is a scientist by training and a communicator by nature, and has a knack for asking one too many questions.