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Green Labs: Reducing Chemistry’s Footprint on Campuses (and Beyond)

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By Christiana Briddell, Sr. Communications Manager, ACS GCI; Jennifer MacKellar, Program Manager, ACS GCI; Marta Gmurczyk, Safety Portfolio Manager, ACS

Today’s environmental headlines are replete with sustainability topics from climate change to plastics to sustainable fashion. National and global sustainability priorities are becoming more integrated into corporate and organizational plans. On university campuses, general sustainability initiatives are widespread. Yet, sometimes, one can overlook the most obvious place for greener approaches to take root—the chemistry lab.

If you think about it, almost all of these challenges and trends relate back to chemistry on some level. Everything begins with chemistry and chemistry has a major role to play in driving a more sustainable future. As a professional organization for chemists, the American Chemical Society is interested in highlighting the role of chemists and chemistry in addressing grand sustainability challenges. By using green and sustainable chemistry and engineering principles, practices, metrics and tools, chemists are already having a significant impact. But this is not the only way chemists can improve sustainability outcomes. Safe and sustainable lab practices are also squarely in the realm of control—and are an important avenue for those working and learning in academic labs.

When I took undergraduate chemistry in the late 90’s, there was no talk of lab sustainability and safety was viewed as more of an inconvenience than an important and marketable knowledge base. The concept of “green chemistry” had only recently been conceived, and we certainly never heard of it in the classroom. Today, many colleges and universities have their own green labs program, and like at ACS, safety is listed as a core value of many institutions. While these programs and efforts are gaining traction, there is still a lot of work to do. Laboratories are typically the most resource-intensive places on campus—and one where students can be exposed to real safety hazards.

The good news is that there are many resources available to help students, faculty and staff improve lab sustainability, safety, and incorporate greener chemistry practices. The benefits are many: decreased energy costs, reduced hazardous waste disposal requirements, conservation of water, building a culture of safety and training the next generation to be able to choose greener materials and methods are just a few of them.

It is important to note that while these three topics (sustainability, chemical safety, and green chemistry) are interrelated and complementary, they have distinct implications and mechanisms for implementation.

  1. Sustainable laboratory practices deal with general management of resources such as energy, water and waste, and are often a good place to start.
  2. And of course, a sustainable lab must be a safe lab—since your well-being is key to sustainability.
  3. Green chemistry approaches help you actually do your chemistry in a way that reduces waste, eliminates hazards and includes considerations beyond the lab.

Action Area 1: Conserve, Reduce and Recycle
Laboratories are huge consumers of resources on campus. Activities such as running ventilation, maintaining deep-freezers, and washing loads of glassware contribute to significant energy and water use, while disposing of plastic pipettes and using toxic chemicals and rare metals create significant waste. A review of energy use at Harvard University revealed that labs account for about half of the energy use on campus — but only 20 to 25 percent of the square footage. Fume hoods are reputed to consume 3.5 times per day as much energy as an average house. These examples and others are why the first step to a more sustainable lab is to make sure that you have checked all the sustainability boxes.

Many green lab programs have published checklists on their websites (see resources below). One of these programs I recommend checking out is My Green Lab—an organization dedicated to creating a culture of lab sustainability. Their Green Lab Certification covers all the major areas you can assess and improve. For example, three such areas include:

Save Energy
Finding ways to save energy is crucial. Simple steps can make a big difference, such as:

  • Turning off equipment not in use
  • Using screen savers and outlet timers
  • Replace other types of lights with LED lights
  • Turning off lights when they are not needed
  • Employing best practices for freezer management
  • Using “Shut the Sash” stickers to remind people to close fume hoods to reduce energy use

Save Water
It can be easy to forget that clean water is also a precious resource—but some universities in areas with water shortages and droughts may already be working with restrictions. Practices to save water include:

  • Using low-flow water faucets
  • Wash labware efficiently
  • If using an autoclave to sterilize, make sure it’s run at full capacity

Reduce Waste

  • Recycle all the disposables you can, including gloves, batteries, and ink/toner cartridges
  • Consider using glass pipettes instead of plastic
  • Share resources with other labs when possible
  • Set printers to double-sided
  • Separate hazardous and non-hazardous waste

Action Area 2: Build Safety Awareness
The practice of chemistry from concept through research, development, manufacture, use, and disposal must be done safely so as to minimize adverse impacts on human health and/or the environment. The American Chemical Society (ACS) believes recognition of the obligations to the safety and health of both individuals and the environment is essential for those working with chemicals. ACS provides a wide variety of educational resources to support universities along their safety journey. One way to promote safety awareness is by knowing how to recognize hazards and assess risks from these hazards in your lab. The RAMP organizing principle supports the use of a risk-based approach to safety.


  1. Recognize Hazards by understanding how to read chemical Safety Data Sheets, review safety guidelines, and sign a safety contract.
  2. Assess the Risks of Hazards by thinking about how you could be exposed to the hazard and how.
  3. Minimize the Risks of Hazards through carefully thinking through the chemicals you will be using in your experiment and their safety considerations. Wear appropriate safety equipment.
  4. Prepare for Emergencies by knowing how to handle common accidents such as spills, cuts, burns, exposures and fires. Practice emergency drills and make sure emergency equipment is ready.

Chemists understand that working with chemicals and developing new materials and chemical processes involve some degree of risk. A thoughtful and educated approach to chemical safety must assess the overall life-cycle and risk/benefit analysis for each area of the chemistry enterprise. The process of minimizing risk while optimizing benefits should continue throughout the investigation, development, implementation, use, and appropriate recycling or ultimate disposal of products and byproducts.

Safe chemistry and green chemistry have a lot in common. They both focus on protecting people. RAMP and green chemistry are a winning combination.

Action Area 3: Apply Systems Thinking and Green Chemistry
The idea of preventing pollution rather than remediating pollution became the preferred response to environmental issues by the late 80s. The EPA established the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics in 1988 and the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990 marked a change in policy towards “upstream” solutions as the most effective. Green chemistry grew out of this idea—declaring that chemists could reduce or eliminate hazardous chemicals and wasted resources by applying certain principles into the design of their chemistries.

A systems thinking approach to chemistry encourages chemists to think beyond their immediate reaction to consider the broader implications of their choices of chemicals, chemistries, and processes. Where did your reagents come from? Are they coming from or produced in conflict zones or areas with questionable labor practices? Are they earth abundant and renewable materials? Or are they scare? How much energy is needed to run the reaction? What will happen to your materials and products at the end of their useful life? Can they be readily reused, recycled, or remanufactured? Or will they end up in a landfill? What are the environmental implications of the waste or effluent? Are there persistence or bioaccumulation concerns? All of these questions encourage the chemist to consider the larger system in which their chemistry will occur.

Green chemistry tools and metrics can help chemists to answer these questions and make informed choices, better understand tradeoffs and ultimately practice chemistry in a more sustainable, ethical, and safer way. Today there are tools available to help students think about how to approach labs using the design principles of green chemistry & engineering.

Solvent Selection
Solvents often contribute significantly to the waste in a given reaction, and can be quite hazardous materials. The good news is that there are numerous guides available to help you select more benign solvents. The ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable recommends the Chem21 Solvent Selection Guide that assesses the safety, health and environmental score of 77 solvents.

Another tool to select solvents developed by the ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable is the Solvent Selection Tool. It is an interactive tool that enables you to select solvents based upon a variety of key solvent properties such as physical properties, environmental, safety, and health data, etc. In this way, you can find an alternative solvent that meets your criteria.

Reagent Selection
Another component of chemical transformations are reagents. Chemists are able to use a number of different reagents for a given chemical transformation. The ACS GCIPR Reagent Guides help you select the most appropriate reagent based on its greenness, scalability and utility scores. The guides provide extensive research to illuminate different reagents presented.

Alternatives Assessment
One method used in industry to encourage greener choices is Alternatives Assessment. The objective of an alternatives assessment is to look for inherently safer alternatives to chemicals you are or might be using, thereby protecting and enhancing human health and the environment. It’s not as easy as it sounds because chemicals are not modular, drop-and-replace components. Different chemicals have different functions in a product, interact with the other chemicals involved in specific ways, and have different effects downstream on human and environmental health. That is why a whole science for assessing alternatives is growing around this method.

Simply put though, if you are working with a hazardous material, it would be a good idea to figure out if there is a way to achieve the same function with a more benign chemical. Ideally, chemists would be able to design inherently safer molecules buy understanding the molecular properties of chemicals in order to avoid toxic outcomes.

Life Cycle & Systems Thinking
Learning to think about the entire life cycle of a chemical product is important for many reasons. Without this context, it might be possible as a student to think that chemistry happens when you walk into a lab and ends when you walk out. In reality, all the elements that go into your reaction come from somewhere, and the product and waste coming out ends up somewhere.

For example, if you are using platinum as a catalyst in your reaction, the full environmental impact of your reaction includes considering that platinum comes from mining a precious metal from southern Africa that is expensive and endangered in supply. This reality has driven many researchers to seek ways to use base metals catalytic alternatives like iron. Understanding the life cycle implications of your chemistry will enable you to make better and greener choices in the lab.

There are many other ways of using green chemistry that help your lab become more sustainable. Share your ideas in the comments below!




Green Chemistry