There is no doubt that the world needs to become more sustainable. A simple calculation demonstrates that we cannot consume more than we have, and currently, we are far from achieving that. The annual announcement of “Earth Overshoot Day” which marks the date when humans have used up all resources that earth can regenerate within that year, reveals quite clearly that we do have a problem. The earlier we are able to fix this obviously man-made problem, the better. Sustainability affects all levels of society, which means, we all can, and have to contribute to finding solutions.
So what about the University of Helsinki itself? Do we really operate as sustainably as we try to tell others to do? The sobering answer would be “No, not really”!
Practicing what we preach
The University is a diverse environment and operational practicalities vary a lot between faculties and institutes, thereby generating carbon footprints of different sizes ranging from small to extra-large. The challenges we face when shifting towards a sustainable university environment are manifold and require customized policy making considering individual needs. As a life scientist working in a research laboratory, I definitely consider the carbon footprint from life sciences as XXL, the most urgent concern being waste and energy. Life sciences, as a research, generates enormous amounts of waste due to high dependency on single-use plastics. It is estimated that research laboratories worldwide account for nearly 2% of the entire plastic waste production considering that researchers represent a minority of the world’s population. A similarly big issue is the high consumption of electricity for maintenance of laboratory facilities, high-tech equipment, special building ventilation requirements, energy-intensive sample storage, and various other infrastructures. Laboratories operate on an interplay of several factors, most of which are constantly changing due to developing technologies. Finding solutions to the high-energy consumption and reduction in waste will not only be beneficial for the environment and provide a more sustainable way of doing research but will also present opportunities for reduction in the university’s costs.
How can we make our university more sustainable?
Now that we realize that something needs to be done, how do we go about making the transition happen? The good news is that there are already examples of how other universities have solved these problems successfully. Here, I would like to introduce two very inspiring initiatives; one from Europe and the other from the Unites States, from which we could learn and build on. Both initiatives share the common goal of creating a sustainable working environment within institutions of higher education, but differ in their approaches of achieving the goal.
The Green Office Movement
In Europe, “The Green Office Movement (GO)” was founded by a group of students in 2010 at the University of Maastricht, the Netherlands. Soon after, the GO movement established a non-profit social business known as “rootAbility” that helped to further spread the open-source model to other universities. The overall goal of GO is to tackle sustainability problems of the entire university. Ten years following its inception, “The Green Office Movement” has successfully helped set up 40 “Green Offices” and dozens of “Green Initiatives” at universities in various European countries. Typically, universities attempt to address their sustainability problems by establishing a sustainability committee or coordinator and largely fail to do so, as plans often drown in a sea of bureaucracy and do not result in any impact. The key to success for the GO model was the involvement of students as the driving force. At the operational level, Green Office initiatives are funded and approved by University management and are jointly led by students and staff members. The Green Offices’ tasks are to deal with all aspects of sustainability that arise within the university and connects four major pillars, including education, research, community and operations. Under this umbrella, all sorts of sustainability projects can be easily and efficiently coordinated and developed according to the official university sustainability plan, thereby providing a real impact. Additionally, the Green Office Movement actively supports others to establish Green Offices in their own universities that can easily be adapted to local needs. Being part of the Green Office Movement also means being part of a bigger sustainability network that shares ideas and builds on each other’s experiences.
My Green Lab
In the US, “My Green Lab” is a non-profit organization from Los Gatos, California and a pioneer in research laboratory sustainability. Similar to the European GO model, the organization was initiated by a single student who felt the urge to make laboratory work more sustainable and similarly, the key to success has been a model that is run “by scientists for scientists”. Since it was founded in 2013, My Green Lab has launched several national initiatives involving members from small laboratories to bigger labs in higher education institutions. My Green Lab programs mostly focus on improving energy efficiency, introducing green chemistry and developing green laboratory certificates. Additionally, they engage vendors and biotech companies to thrive for green laboratory solutions. The biggest challenge My Green Lab has faced to date is the introduction of behavioral changes in everyday scientist laboratory routines. The main difficulty has been the fear that establishing sustainable laboratory procedures would create more work for staff members. Consequently, a crucial aspect of implementing sustainable research is to involve lab members and group leaders in early steps which suit their everyday working routines. Only then will it be possible to convince researchers to join the green movement.
“The Green Office Movement” and “My Green Lab” are great stories of success from which we can learn and build on. Interestingly, both initiatives were founded and developed by students which clearly speaks for a bottom-up approach in achieving a real transition towards a green university. I hope that these “sustainability initiatives” will also inspire like-minded people in the University of Helsinki to step-up and take the challenge and bring the University to a greener track for the future.
Andrea Dichlberger is postdoctoral researcher and research coordinator at ProLipids – Centre of Excellence in Biomembrane Research, Faculty of Medicine, University of Helsinki.
Further information on websites:
Article in Nature.com; Labs should cut plastic waste too (published 23 December 2015)
Photo by: Andrea Dichlberger