U-M launches sustainable labs program

We're well-versed in plastics, paper, and glass recycling, but how about the reuse of toxic chemicals? The average laboratory consumes four to five times more energy and resources than an office or classroom space, making it a ripe target for "clean" washing and cuts in waste expenditures. Chemical reuse is just one of the instances in which the environment and the University of Michigan, which has over 500 research labs, are benefiting from green chemistry principles and practices.

Last summer, U-M launched its Green Laboratory Operation for Sustainability, a certification program for sustainably-run labs. Think of it as LEED certification for the lab space. To date, 11 labs have been certified as "Sustainable Laboratories", and another three are midstream in the certification process, according to Dr. Sudhakar Reddy, sustainable chemistry coordinator for U-M's Office of Campus Sustainability.

"The main reason to start this program is to address several areas like waste minimalization in the labs, pollution prevention, and introducing green chemistry, green purchasing, and green computing, to save on energy and utilities, and also looking to opportunities for chemical re-use and recycling and health and safety in the labs," Reddy explains.

The program is in accordance with U-M's set of sustainability goals to achieve by 2025. Reddy envisions having between 100 to 200 labs certified by 2025.

One newly certified facility, a production lab at U-M hospital, does 50-60,000 Pap smears and other tests every year. It's now recycling about 1,500 pounds of plastic, 200 gallons of Xylene, and 50 gallons of formalin annually. Meanwhile, an immunology lab in the  Taubman Biomedical Science Research Building is looking into substituting less-toxic GelRed  in place of ethidium bromide, a teragen, for DNA sequencing.

"At the end of the experiment, your waste is non-toxic, opposed to ethidium bromide, which is very toxic," Reddy says. "It is very toxic to handle, very toxic to dispose of, and expensive to dispose of."

In another instance of safe waste treatment practices being instituted at the university, "If the lab is using hydrochloric acid, at the end of the experiment hydrochloric acid can be treated with a mild base to make it a neutral waste and that can go down the drain and it would not affect our waste stream or the Huron River."

And the Chemical Reuse Program collects unused and unexpired chemicals, such as acetone, from labs that are closing down and redistributes them. This savings on purchase and disposal costs of nearly 500 pounds of chemicals came to about $20,000 last year, Reddy says.

"We are not sending a rock to the moon, just re-thinking, putting things into perspective, what's best for us," Reddy says.

Yet, these save the planet efforts haven't gone unnoticed around the world. Reddy is fielding calls from other campuses around the country, as well as Asia and Africa, about the program. He will also be discussing U-M's effort at the 16th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering national conference this June in Washington, D.C.

Reddy estimates about 300-400 people working at the certified labs are now employing sustainable practices. "Imagine this number goes to the thousands and tens of thousands, and I think that's what our goal is."

Source: Dr. Sudhakar Reddy, sustainable chemistry coordinator for U-M's Office of Campus Sustainability

Writer: Tanya Muzumdar
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