Some people are blessed with new buildings, designed with sustainability in mind, but most of us need to work within our current infrastructure. One really simple thing we’ve done is to the reduce the scale of some of the experiments that we do in the teaching labs. There’s no need for each student to make 5 grams of a product when they’ll only need around 100 mg to achieve the learning outcomes. Reducing the scale of an experiment not only means less waste but it also reduces the financial cost, as you don’t need the same amount of starting materials or solvents.
The same benefits arise for reducing use of water and energy – if you are able to do this you can reduce both the financial and environmental cost. The financial savings can help to make a business case for change. For example, we recently invested in waterless condensers for the teaching labs – there was an upfront cost but the reduced water usage means it won't take long for the university to recover those costs.
In the research labs, change is often driven by the PhD students and postdocs who really want to make a difference. If we can make it easier for people to make those changes, the majority of people are raring to go.
Embedding Green Chemistry in the curriculum
A few years ago at Bath we signed the Green Chemistry Commitment. This is an initiative from Beyond Benign – an organisation co-founded by John Warner, one of the founders of green chemistry – whose aim is to ensure that the principles of green chemistry are embedded in education. This is so important because every chemist graduating in the 21st century needs to have a good grasp of these ideas.
For many years we’ve been offering optional units on sustainable chemistry as part of our degree courses, and in a couple of years’ time this will become core material, so our courses were well aligned with this approach. But the Green Chemistry Commitment isn’t just about recognising the work we’ve already done. It’s about setting out the direction of travel going forwards.
One thing that we and other universities need in other to improve sustainability is reliable and trustworthy data, so that we can strengthen our business cases. If we make a case for updated equipment that reduces energy usage, we need the data to show that it’s a worthwhile investment.
As a trusted body the Royal Society of Chemistry could have an important role to play in collating and certifying data and making it easily accessible. Different institutions are gathering data on different things, so somewhere we can pool our resources will reduce duplication of effort. If one university can show proof of concept for a new process or piece of equipment, that can help others make business cases for the same thing. Having a central source of data with an RSC seal of approval would be really beneficial.
Another reason that data is so important is that without it it’s hard to know which changes will make the most difference and which are safe. For example, a university could decide to reduce the flow rate on all its fume cupboards to save energy, but this is potentially a health and safety issue, so having robust data on things like optimum flow rates is important.
Little steps make a big difference
In any lab there are a lot of small changes that people can make that collectively will make a big difference. Things like plastic recycling, re-using 'single use' items and reducing usage can all have an impact. There’s actually so many things individuals could do that it can feel a little overwhelming, so it’s important not too feel like you have to do everything at once.
If you’re looking to improve the sustainability of your lab or of how you work, consider starting by making one change, and work on that until it gets routine. Get into good habits. For example if you’re working in a synthetic lab make sure you keep your fume hood sash down when it’s not in use.
Every lab is different, so most decisions will be best made at a lab level or even an individual level and will depend on factors such as budget and the chemistry that the particular lab does.
Every positive change will help make a difference, so there’s no need to beat ourselves up if we aren’t doing everything we possibly could. Moreover, if people start to think that improving sustainability will jeopardise their PhD or that next paper, then initiatives will peter out. So there's no problem in starting with small steps - moving in the right direction is the most important thing.