Cleaner Chemistry?

One of the best things about chemistry at my university is that we have a shiny new teaching lab. [WARNING: there may be shameless plugging ahead].  The building that houses the lab is rated excellent under BREEAM, and comes with all kinds of neat stuff like solar tubes to heat hot water, rain water collection for a grey water system and (slightly more puzzling), a green wall consisting of various plants growing at 90 degrees to the normal force of gravity.

I am often laughed at on Open/Visit days when taking tour groups round.  Why do they laugh at me?  Because I’m telling them about the ‘green’ chemistry lab and they believe that green (=environmentally friendly) is a contradiction when paired with chemistry.  Chemistry is, to some, the root of many environmental evils, while at the same time being the root of many solutions to environmental problems.  That’s another debate entirely.  The other day I had cause to consider the chemistry that takes place with in the laboratory.  It is a fantastic laboratory to work and teach in – spacious, furnished with state of the art equipment, and all high tech with projection facilities and a great sound system (not strictly relevant to the chemistry, I know).    It is an undergraduate laboratory so sees in the region of 4 chemistry classes per week, along side pharmacy and forensic science classes.  By design it is in heavy use.

Heavy use means that there are a lot of consumable items required, from solvents to gloves, and from chemicals to disposable lab ware.  The question then becomes: how can we run an undergraduate teaching laboratory in a manner that befits the environmental certification of the building that houses it?

I have no obvious answers to this question.  For economic reasons, reactions are done on a small scale (small enough for more expensive reagents to be used if required,  small enough to cope with larger class sizes but still large enough for students to be a little careless and still obtain products).  We can construct well thought out experimental procedures that minimise waste but don’t compromise on the quality of the laboratory experience – it just takes a little thought.  We can substitute solvents or reagents with significant environmental impact if appropriate, or find ways of running experiments with reduced quantities.  Some might question the necessity of all of this, but if I spend time outside of work reducing the quantity of packaging I bring into my house, taking care to recycle what I can, and making my house more energy efficient, why shouldn’t I want to apply that to work as well?  Most of these steps save money as well as reduce the overall impact of the laboratory.

How do we reduce consumption of items such as disposable gloves without compromising on health and safety?  How do we reduce consumption of other disposable items such as glass pasteur pipettes, plastic pipette tips and sample vials without compromising on quality, or giving the impression of being overly budget concious?  We can tackle some of these head on by ensuring that disposable items are used appropriately and in some cases not treated as disposable.  For example – during a 3 hour lab class, how many pasteur pipettes are really needed to dispense  deuterated chloroform from the solvent bottle?  Answer: 1 if sufficient care is taken.  Why can’t sample vials be washed and reused if they are only used to store samples long enough for inspection when the laboratory report is marked?  And we do a lot of this already, but sometimes I feel we ought to be doing a little more.

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