• Question: How do you encorporate sustainability into your work, and how does your work benefit the environment?

    Asked by cosmiccreativity on 9 Jul 2020.
    • Photo: Kim Liu

      Kim Liu answered on 9 Jul 2020: last edited 9 Jul 2020 9:53 am

      This is a great question, and incredibly important. As someone who’s worked mostly with organic chemistry and the molecular biology in relatively wealthy institutes – I believe my colleagues, fellow researchers and myself are some of the worst offenders amongst scientists for environmental sustainability. To be clear – there is no way we are worse than industries such as transport or agriculture in terms of waste and pollution, and we seek to improve the human existence in other ways so I think it’s worth it overall, but I do think this is an issue that needs to be thought about.

      I’d love to see how this compares to other scientific fields, but the amount of single use plastic (syringes, containers, pipettes) we use in a day is astonishing. For safety reasons, it’s much harder to use reusable options like glass, but more importantly – it would just be too slow and too unreliable to have to clean our equipment constantly. In cell culture, contamination is too easy so it’s quite a lot of effort to incorporate reuse. In chemistry, large amounts of often toxic solvents are used for inventing new processes; some is recycled, but lots is just incinerated. I don’t have any numbers off the top of my head, which would be helpful ..

      I reiterate that I think a significant proportion of the environmental cost is necessary for what we want to achieve, but I’d love to see work and consideration on how we can improve. Part of my PhD project I was particularly pleased with involved using bacteria to produce massive libraries of chemical compounds, instead of having to synthesise the compounds using chemical methods which is far more environmentally friendly. The most recent Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to the amazing scientist Frances Arnold who is trying to (amongst many things) make chemical processes achievable by living systems, which don’t require so much toxic solvents/chemicals.

    • Photo: Melanie Krause

      Melanie Krause answered on 9 Jul 2020:

      I love that question :). As scientists we actually produce a LOT of waste (especially plastic) and our machines like centrifuges or -80C freezers require a lot of energy!
      My University (UCL) has actually hired someone who provides information and guidance on how to reduce our environmental damage. In my institute we have a sustainability committee that I am a member of. We try to encourage other people to use glass ware wherever possible rather than single use plastics. We also introduced a coffee cup charge of 15p. In our coffee room we have tea, hot chocolate and coffee available for people to purchase and it used to be the case that everyone would use one of these paper cups and threw them out right afterwards.. unfortunately they are not actually recyclable because they have a thin plastic coating on the inside. Since we share people for the cups everyone has their own porcelain coffee mug. We save over 100 cups that day!
      If you want to read about our efforts, I did an interview with the UCL sustainability guy and a person in my team. 🙂 You can find it here: https://ecrlife.org/sustainable-labs-climate/

      That said.. we are not perfect and still need to do a lot more to be better!

      My work itself does not directly benefit from the environment, but obviously climate change will have a big impact on all of our lives eventually so its important to keep it to the lowest degree of change we possibly can!

    • Photo: Brian Graham

      Brian Graham answered on 9 Jul 2020:

      I work in an industry that used to send lots of waste to landfill. Basically move the contaminated soils from 1 place to another – using trucks so creating a large carbon footprint.
      Over the past 20 or so years the introduction (and escalation) of landfill tax has made it less and less economic to landfill soils – and the removal of landfill tax exemptions also helped.
      This tax chanmge has driven lots of technology and chemistry based solutions for dealing with contaminated soils and groundwater. Put simply it means they are more economic than landfilling.
      This means soils stay in-situ in many cases and are treated to make them safe. Also we now have things like soil hospitals where you can take contaminated soils and they go through a clean up process. You can then get some soil back from these hospitals and replace what you have taken away – its a bit more complex than this but you get the idea.
      This is obviously much more sustainable as we are not landfilling – it would be good to have more of these facilities round the country so we could reduce the truck miles.
      There are now lots of site based techniques we can use to treat soils as well some treat oils and such by breaking them down and making them them more bio-degradable, some lock metals into place and stop them moving into the environment.
      One thing is we do need to make sure the cure is not worse than the problem, so the treatment chemicals need to be assessed properly.
      Overall we have come a long way in 20 years – there is much to do yet, much of this is based round educating the industry so they dont just keep doing the same old bad things

    • Photo: Jozsef Vuts

      Jozsef Vuts answered on 9 Jul 2020:

      My job is develop methods to protect crop plants from pests and diseases. These methods allow the use of less pesticides, which is good for the environment and human health. What we research and develop include 1) attractant traps to detect and monitor the presence of pests, so farmers only need to spray toxins when the pest is actually there, 2) crops with enhanced ability to resist pest attack, 3) push-pull systems which use a combination of attractive and repellent odours to keep the crops free of pests.

    • Photo: Lea R'Bibo

      Lea R'Bibo answered on 9 Jul 2020:

      I’m a sustainability champion in my department, which means I am part of the small team of people that try to make our work as sustainable as possible.

      Examples of incorporation of sustainability include: limiting energy use in the lab with timers and automatic lights or by increasing the temperature of freezers as possible with the conservation of chemicals and samples, reduction of CO2 foot print by pooling orders of material used by the department and ordering preferentially from companies which use small amounts of packaging, pushing for recycling as much as possible safely with the chemicals we use.

      My work doesn’t directly benefit the environment as I work on motor neuron diseases in humans, but it has the potential of making the life of people with these diseases or at risk for these diseases easier and hopefully happier

    • Photo: Alan Winfield

      Alan Winfield answered on 9 Jul 2020:

      As a roboticist I am very concerned that robots should be sustainable. This means several different things: (1) robots should be designed to consume as little energy as possible, (2) they should be constructed with renewable materials that have been sourced ethically, (3) they should be repairable (ideally without requiring return to the manufacturer), and (4) when the robot reaches the end of its life its materials should be easily recycled. Achieving this level of sustainability in robotics is *very* challenging, but should be an important part of the practice of responsible robotics.

    • Photo: Chloe Carter

      Chloe Carter answered on 10 Jul 2020:

      This is a fab question! At the University of Hull sustainability is a big thing, we plan to be carbon neutral by 2027. However this question has really made me think about what I do and how it is sustainable! I try to limit how much paper I use and print out, with my work I use a lot of water but it is on a continuous cycle and one I’ve finished with it I like to water the flower beds rather than tip it down the drain. I look at natural flood management and the effects on the river system, using natural methods like leaky woody dams are more sustainable than building big flood barriers. I hope my work benefits the environment by helping people live with floods whilst not damaging the river system.

    • Photo: Katherine Haxton

      Katherine Haxton answered on 10 Jul 2020:

      I teach a module called ‘sustainable chemistry’ where we look at all the ways chemistry can contribute to solving some of the really big challenges like reducing electronic waste, developing new treatment for diseases, making better plastics, and dealing with pollution. I guess my work benefits the environment by making sure that chemistry undergraduate students see what they could do as a job that will benefit the environment.