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04.21.2014

Environmental-health labs study their own 'green'-ness

Department looks to cut energy waste and use less toxic chemicals

By Kathy Hall  |  Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences  |  Updated 12:45 PM, 04.21.2014

Posted in: Issues

  • Nick Potter, a scientist with UW's Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, tests the insides of a pair of farm work boots to discern whether pesticides are present. Sarah Fish

The UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences has been at the forefront of the sustainability movement – protecting the environment, prioritizing community members' health, and using environmental-health knowledge to bring about change.

GreenLabs-tube
UW's Environmental Stewardship & Sustainability includes an effort to reduce the solid waste of labs across campus. (Click for full image.)
A Sustainability Studio (ENVIR 480) project focused on the solid waste stream in laboratories across the UW campus, to capitalize on opportunities to reduce .
This spring, the department's focus turns inward as its 20 laboratories assess whether they can make their processes more sustainable without compromising their science.

With a grant from the UW's office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability, the department will adapt the tools and sustainability metrics of the UW Green Labs certification program.

Across the United States, labs require four to six times more energy per square foot than an office, and generate more than 1,100 square miles of non-recycled plastic waste.

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Courtesy of Jennifer Krenz
Jennifer Krenz received her master's in public health from UW in 2010.
picture of Jennifer Krenz

"Green lab practices is a philosophy and process as much as it is a set of specific actions that labs should be trying to implement," said David Kalman, professor and chair of environmental and occupational health sciences in the UW School of Public Health. "Assessing our own situation is a good starting point, but only a starting point. I hope this will be the start of an ongoing cycle of assessment and improvement."

Jennifer Krenz, a research scientist and departmental manager for the Seeds of Change initiative, said later stages will identify where energy consumption can be lowered, bulk purchasing can reduce waste, and safer chemicals can be substituted for more toxic ones. 

The effort faces several challenges, Krenz said. For instance, grant-funded research often restricts scientists from sharing resources across projects. Also, the labs are broadly diverse, from exposure assessment to ecogenetics. Each has specific protocols and standard procedures. Changes in protocol could disrupt research.

Krenz is optimistic that labs across the department, once they start sharing information, can find ways to shift procedures onto a more sustainable path.

“This is an important area for our department to be working in,” she said, “given our other leadership in promoting sustainability.”

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