Analysis: By encouraging sustainability-friendly research together with the promotion of 'Green lab' certification, research laboratories are the focus of a much needed sustainability culture change.

When we think of the impact of industry on climate, we usually visualise large stacks spewing out smoke and chemicals into the air, but we rarely think of universities, and more specifically, research laboratories as contributors to climate change. However, the fact is that research laboratories in third-level institutions are one of the most resource-intensive spaces in any industry.

The United Nations has proposed seventeen sustainable development goals as a call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the quality of life for everyone, everywhere by 2030. With just under ten years left to achieve these goals, it's not looking promising.

Recent extreme weather events experienced all over the world due to climate change have brought home the urgent need for the Higher Education sector to increase their efforts and lead the fight to limit environmental impact, increase sustainability and improve the quality of life of people impacted by the changes.

They must spring into action now with a top-down approach towards reducing the environmental impact of their institutions.

With the increased concern regarding climate change and pollution, laboratories have come under scrutiny for their vast consumption of resources and impact on the environment. Laboratory buildings can consume up to ten times more energy and at least four times more water than office spaces and are estimated to discard more than five billion kilograms of plastic every year.

The change from using glass to single-use plastics (beakers, tissue culture flasks, pipettes, etc.) in research over the last few decades, coupled with China’s decision to no longer accept non-industrial plastic for recycling, has created a global problem for their disposal.

Some organisations have resorted to 'greenwashing’ - i.e. presenting an impression of how environmentally friendly they are - to improve their public image. Is the higher education sector in Ireland practising some aspects of greenwashing? Are they talking the talk or walking the walk?

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From RTÉ 2FM Louise McSharry, as people try to spend their money in a responsible way, businesses have been quick to reflect these needs in products. Laura Egan, Founder of sustainable fashion hub Minti, is talking to us about greenwashing - when these companies promise a responsible product but aren't really as environmentally conscious as they make out.

NUI Galway’s community-based sustainability strategy outlines various measures to ensure an environmentally-friendly campus. By encouraging sustainability-friendly research together with the promotion of ‘Green lab’ certification, research laboratories are the focus of a much needed sustainability culture change.

However, more needs be done in third-level institutions across the country to address waste, educate sustainable practices, fund an adequately resourced sustainability office, develop a climate action strategy and to adopt a top-down approach to drive the changes required.

So what is a ‘green’ laboratory?

A ‘green’ laboratory adopts a structured program by working with researchers, teaching staff, and building managers to implement sustainable practices and technologies in the buildings that house research laboratories.

A dual approach is required to implement successful sustainability actions at both a laboratory level and at a facilities management level. In cooperation, action is taken on areas such as energy, waste reduction and recycling, chemical management, efficient use of equipment, procurement and resource conservation.

Several organisations such as My Green Lab, Irish Green Labs (currently under development), Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), Ciruléire, and others are assisting scientists across Ireland to make a positive change to their work and create a culture of sustainability in the laboratory.

NUI Galway's medical device laboratories in CÚRAM boasts the first Green Lab certified lab in Europe, awarded in 2019 followed by the Lambe Institute on the grounds of UHG, and laboratories in Trinity College Dublin and the University of Limerick.

The Green Lab Certification programme from My Green Lab, the world's leading non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the sustainability of scientific research, has been selected as a key indicator of progress for the UNFCCC High Level Climate Champions’ 2030 Breakthroughs campaign.

In the lead up to the COP26 Climate Change Conference, the Green Lab Certification programme was chosen as a main player in helping pharmaceutical and medical technology companies contribute to achieving the goal of a zero-carbon world by 2050.

Green Lab Certification is the global gold standard for laboratory sustainability best practices and the cornerstone of My Green Lab’s mission to build a global culture of sustainability in science. The program covers 14 topics related to energy, water, waste, chemistry/materials, and engagement, and provides scientists with actionable ways to make real and impactful environmental changes.

To date, My Green Lab has supported nearly 700 labs in a variety of sectors, and engages over 4,600 scientists from 29 different countries. The Breakthrough Outcome for the Pharma Sector states: "95% of laboratories across major pharma and med-tech companies are My Green Lab certified at the green-level by 2030."

Its certification program was selected because it has clear, measurable goals that enable the system changes necessary to turn the 'Race to Zero’ vision into a reality in the scientific industry.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) supporting the My Green Lab message has launched free e-learning courses to help organisations such as universities to reduce their energy use. The SEAI courses include behavioural change techniques that can be used to encourage researchers and their colleagues to change their habits around energy use.

My Green Labs have developed a ‘Green Lab Principles and Practice’ graduate module. It is the first of its kind and has been taken since Jan 2020 by over 50 MSc and PhD students within NUI Galway, Ireland and abroad.

Universities and Higher Education Colleges in Ireland have made positive changes in respect to their impact on climate change. However, more effort is required before 2030 and this programme offers a clear measurable solution to implement sustainable energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly green laboratory practices in the many research laboratories in our universities, colleges and schools.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ