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Shades of green: logical choices in the lab

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“Shades of Green,” a column on environmental issues related to the UIC campus and community, appears monthly in UIC News.

I don’t see what I’m doing as “green.” I view sustainability initiatives as efficient or just plain logical.

Working at a science lab at UIC for five years showed me how wasteful labs are. Every day the garbage would be full of nitrile gloves, disposable plastic containers, paper towels, paper and chemicals, to name a few.

The chemicals especially piqued my interest for waste minimization.

I began looking at the research process as inputs and outputs.

The output side of the equation is easy to understand; it’s knowledge. It’s all the information that gets published in a journal.

However, the input side is grossly unbalanced, containing materials like the gloves, chemicals and plastics. In addition, large amounts of water and energy are required to conduct experiments crucial for that piece of information.

To understand why all of this is necessary, I asked the lab, “Why are we doing things this way?” More often than not, the answer was, “Because we have always done it this way.”

I didn’t want to believe that was the only option. I needed to know that there are other options available to efficiently conduct research.

After a few years of studying sustainability in businesses, I learned that it’s not about saving the environment, but using our resources as efficiently and logically as possible.

We don’t need to continue doing things because they “have always been done that way.” We can evaluate each process to squeeze out every penny.

I wondered, what would happen if I washed and reused my disposable plastic labware? It saved about $700 a year. If that figure doesn’t seem impressive, think of the alternative: throwing away $700 a year.

By washing and reusing plastic labware, I also diverted hundreds of pounds of plastic from the landfill and reduced the use of petrochemicals and energy used to create virgin plastic.

It’s true that the only immediate effects are cash savings, but I am certain I will eventually see the benefits of waste minimization, especially by recycling hazardous chemicals.

Practicing sustainability leads to an increase of wellness in all facets of life. Reducing wastes reduces the resulting air and water pollution.

Reusing or recycling something that doesn’t have to be buried or incinerated? That’s just plain logical.

Lisa Sanzenbacher is a laboratory sustainability analyst in the Environmental Health and Safety Office. Want to reduce waste in your lab? Contact her at Lsanze1@uic.edu. For more on sustainability at UIC, visit the Office of Sustainability.

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