Home to more than 1,200 laboratories, Virginia Tech strives to solve the world’s most complex problems of today and tomorrow by connecting brilliant minds with powerful technology. But at the end of the day, every researcher is facing the same challenge: copious amounts of laboratory waste.

Ellen Garcia, a Ph.D. candidate working with Daniela Cimini in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science, wants that to change that. Since 2015, Garcia has been implementing simple sustainable lab practices throughout the Fralin Life Sciences Institute

These practices, which include always closing the fume hood and raising the temperature on ultra-low temperature freezers, have already made lasting impacts on waste and energy consumption. Now, she wishes to make these practices more commonplace across all of the Virginia Tech campuses.

“Researchers at Virginia Tech have so much power to make substantial change. They can do a lot to drastically decrease their carbon footprint in the lab without affecting the quality of their results or the productivity of their experiments,” said Garcia.

Along with undergraduates in the Department of Industrial Systems Engineering and Virginia Tech Environmental Health and Safety (EHS), Garcia has developed a Green Lab assessment that will quantify lab sustainability efforts and inspire Virginia Tech researchers to make behavioral changes that will go a long way.

The assessment will first gather baseline measurements about their current lab conditions and sustainable efforts. After the assessment is taken, the lab will receive feedback about improvements that can be made. Then, the lab will be able to retake the assessment with the hopes of being a certified Green Lab.

The year-long effort to create the Green Lab assessment was spearheaded by Jared Barton, Connor Padgett, and Yasmine Sikder, three undergraduates from the Department of Industrial Systems Engineering in the Virginia Tech College of Engineering. Their hard work was completed as a senior design project.

“It was really exciting to be part of a project that had the potential to impact the way our school consumes resources,” said Yasmine Siker, a recently graduated industrial systems engineering major. “Finding out just how much our school consumed in terms of water and electricity was shocking, so being able to help reduce that number in any amount was exciting.”

Flipping the switch: Light switches in laboratories are adorned with stickers that remind researchers to turn off the lights when they leave. Photo courtesy of Alex Crookshanks for Virginia Tech.
Flipping the switch: Light switches in laboratories are adorned with stickers that remind researchers to turn off the lights when they leave. Photo courtesy of Alex Crookshanks for Virginia Tech.

The undergraduates sought inspiration from other organizations who have their own Green Lab assessments, such as the University of Virginia, Harvard University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The team recorded how their assessments were designed, how the scoring was conducted, and what questions were asked in order to get a sense of what theirs will look like.

But as they were pulling content from other organizations, the undergraduates noticed that these assessments were largely tailored for life sciences laboratories. With Virginia Tech’s rich engineering focus, the team had to ensure that the assessment could be used by any of the 1,200 lab spaces on campus, which each use entirely different types of equipment, recycling streams, and chemicals.

“Trying to make sure that any and every engineering lab could take this assessment was the biggest challenge,” said Sikder. “There are so many disciplines within the College of Engineering and even more types of lab spaces. We met with a few undergraduate students to have a better understanding of what their spaces looked like and incorporated their feedback into the system.”

The team also had to figure out where the assessment could be accessed and managed. Garcia turned to Rob Lowe, the environmental programs manager with EHS, who will help to host and tailor the assessment, which will be accessible for all labs through EHS’s Safety Management System (SMS).

“EHS is proud to partner with researchers from across the university in implementing this new assessment to help boost the sustainability of our labs,” said Lowe. “The collaborative effort driving the assessment’s genesis is a reflection of the university’s shared commitment to environmental stewardship and safety. EHS already has numerous online touchpoints with research labs and it made a lot of sense to host the assessment in our system.”

Since March, the team has been working to get the questions and design integrated into the system. A large number of labs have expressed interest in beta testing — a crucial process that will allow Garcia and Lowe to get feedback and make improvements before the assessment is made available to all of the Virginia Tech campuses. If all goes according to plan, the beta testing should be completed by the end of the summer.

In the meantime, Garcia has been working with Virginia Tech’s Climate Action Committee to include explicit language about Green Labs in the upcoming renewal of the Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment. The commitment, which was approved in 2009 and revised in 2013, is intended to guide the university toward a greener, more sustainable future through teaching, research, and campus operations.

Garcia hopes to have 80 percent of Virginia Tech labs certified as Green Labs by 2030.

In late 2019, President Tim Sands called for the Commitment’s renewal and revision to ensure the most stringent climate and sustainability standards are implemented as Virginia Tech continues to grow and seeks to be a leader in environmental stewardship.

Revision recommendations from the Climate Action Commitment working group are nearing completion after a highly collaborative process driven by students, Virginia Tech employees from academics, operations, research, and more, and community leaders.

Through efforts like this assessment, there stands a significant opportunity for the university to save money, reduce its carbon footprint, and continue to make lab sustainability part of the university’s ongoing environmental stewardship efforts.

- Written by Kendall Daniels

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