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Caltech Labs Go Green: New Program Facilitates Sustainable Research Practices

Biodegradable gloves. One hundred percent recycled copy paper. Efficient ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers. Two biology laboratory managers at Caltech started small and encouraged other research groups to implement sustainable practices in their labs. Now, the Green Labs program brings their vision to light.

Sarah Torres, manager for the Paul Sternberg lab, and Tasha Cammidge, manager for the David Prober lab, work in a shared office at the Chen Neuroscience Research Building on campus.

"One day Tasha came up to me and said, ‘We should recycle gloves,'" says Torres. Cammidge reached out to a recycling company, but the cost to recycle gloves was prohibitively high, especially at the scale of one or two labs.

"We ended up brainstorming together about how to make our labs more sustainable anyway," says Cammidge, "and Caltech Green Labs was born."

The two began assembling a group of volunteers to investigate ways to reduce waste, reuse equipment, and save energy in their labs. In October of last year, they obtained funding from the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering (BBE) to officially launch the Caltech Green Labs program.

Coordinated by Cammidge and Torres, the group now has several dozen members and provides resources for the Caltech community including the Green Labs Guide and Green Labs website.

"We want people to be sustainable, but we don't want it to be challenging," says Cammidge. "That's why we made the guide. Some things are really simple, like turning your monitor off at the end of the day—basic stuff that doesn't affect your science at all but can really help.

"Some things are a little harder but can make things more efficient and even save money, like setting your freezer to minus 70 degrees Celsius rather than minus 80."

The guide details opportunities to save energy, reduce waste, conserve water, and implement sustainable procurement/purchasing habits for labs. It also reminds community members that committing to sustainable practices can "increase efficiency, reduce costs, increase safety in the lab, and allow innovation—all without compromising research objectives."

Hand in hand with the guide is the Green Labs Certification—a program that makes implementing sustainability simple and straightforward, and rewards labs with a Green Labs Certification plaque to display.

Any student, faculty, or staff member can begin the certification process by assessing their lab's current practices using the Green Labs Certification spreadsheet.

After answering questions about current practices in seven categories—commitment, administration, education, energy/refrigeration, materials, purchasing, and water—the spreadsheet calculates a total number of points to determine whether your lab will be bronze, silver, gold, or platinum certified.

For example, one action item in the certification spreadsheet asks: "Is freezer/refrigerator equipment defrosted on a regular basis?" If the answer is selected as "yes" in the final column, the lab receives one point. To receive the platinum certification, labs must score 30 out of 39 total points.

Labs can use the assessment to identify areas for improvement, retake the assessment after making changes, and submit a completed spreadsheet to [email protected] for official certification.

Caltech Green Labs has been challenging labs to complete the certification before Earth Day on April 22 and is rewarding certified labs with a sweet treat at an invite-only celebration.

Later this month, the Green Labs program is hosting the Green Labs Lightning Talks event featuring three-minute talks by Caltech community members about lab sustainability initiatives.

Cammidge and Torres say their next goals are to work with more labs outside of BBE, collect data on lab sustainability to inform policy changes across the Institute, and continue expanding the Green Labs program in partnership with Caltech's Sustainability Office.

They encourage interested community members to attend an upcoming event or join the group's monthly lunch meetings, held on the second Friday of each month from 12-1:30 p.m. in Chen 240.

Written by Julia Ehlert