UC Berkeley research labs face barriers to achieving greater sustainability

UC Berkeley labs Cal's Zero Waste goals
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With lab spaces taking up 25% of campus buildings, mitigating the negative environmental impacts of research in labs is a necessary step to achieving some of campus’s long-term sustainability goals.

Research labs often have a greater toll on the environment than regular campus buildings, according to Kira Stoll, UC Berkeley’s chief sustainability and carbon solutions officer, and efforts to reduce this environmental footprint can be costly. While campus groups are working to decrease the negative environmental impact of research, some of the potential solutions have not yet been discovered, according to campus experts.

Different labs, different waste streams

The campus and UC system established initiatives that aim to decrease the campus’s environmental footprint, including Zero Waste by 2020 and the Carbon Neutrality Initiative.

In April, the campus announced a commitment to eliminate the use of nonessential single-use plastics by 2030. The campaign to adopt such a policy was led by student activist organization CalPIRG.

Since the commitment was announced recently, those involved are still in the planning phases, according to CalPIRG campus chapter chair Nicole Haynes. By 2023, UC Berkeley will have a zero waste plan detailing lab-specific ways of assessing and reducing the facilities’ use of nonessential single-use plastics.

All labs on campus are unique in the types of research they conduct and the resulting waste streams of their research, which adds another layer of complexity to the issue of sustainability.

“There’s a lot of differences between labs. Obviously, biological labs have different requirements than chemical labs, than physical labs and engineering labs,” said John Coates, director of the campus Energy and Biosciences Institute. “In terms of ensuring both safety as well as sustainability, you have to take it on a case-by-case base.”

Many labs require large amounts of single-use plastic for safety or efficiency purposes.

Despite this, some organizations are proposing alternatives to these plastics.

“We are looking to promote more glassware and seeing if people are interested in moving to glass,” said campus environmental health and safety specialist David Scrimger. “It’s not just here at Berkeley, but a lot of people nationally are looking at how to basically do that.”

There are some scenarios, however, in which labs cannot switch from plastic to glassware because doing so would pose safety hazards, according to Coates. Additionally, the increased logistical difficulty of using glass could add to the cost of research.

Coates found in a cost-benefit analysis that it would be five times cheaper to use plastic items than to pay someone else to clean glassware.

The campus 2030 commitment acknowledges that there are currently no available viable solutions to reducing the plastic waste in some labs. Haynes referred to labs as one of the commitment’s “challenge areas.”

For some labs, however, other forms of waste are of greater concern than plastic is. The Berkeley Energy and Sustainable Technologies, or BEST, Lab — where research focuses include computational design, sustainability and soft robotics — deals with large amounts of e-waste. The lab keeps a shelf of old prototyping material hardware for potential reuse, but it is often difficult to repurpose these materials once they have been cut or shaped in a particular way, according to Alan Zhang, a graduate student in the BEST Lab.

The “path to zero-carbon operations”: The Carbon Neutrality Initiative

The Carbon Neutrality Initiative, with a UC-wide goal of neutrality by 2025, aims to reduce the campus’s carbon footprint as a whole. This commitment, however, does not give specific criteria to labs in its guidelines.

“Our practice to date has been to work with overall campus carbon goals instead of sector related goals, so we are able to take advantage of cost-effective reduction opportunities when available,” Stoll said in an email. “In the future, we may consider more specific goals, if that will improve our overall path to zero-carbon operations.”

Lab-related spaces account for about 25% of the campus’s building square footage, and they can demand twice as much energy per square foot compared to offices or administrative spaces, according to Stoll. She added that the labs’ high energy demands make efficiency measures and renewable energy important for reaching carbon neutrality.

Current UC-wide measures require any new buildings to meet the silver certification through Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, according to UCOP spokesperson Stett Holbrook. LEED is a widely used rating system that helps determine the relative sustainability of buildings based on criteria, such as energy usage and water efficiency.

The campus currently has 20 LEED-certified building projects, including two buildings with LEED platinum, the highest ranking.

“One of the key opportunities is for leading research universities to push both equipment manufacturers and building designers to make the most efficient – LEED Platinum — buildings more widely available,” said campus energy professor Daniel Kammen in an email. “This happens through efforts to both set higher standards, to ‘vote with their dollars’ and purchase the more efficient technologies.”

In order to determine their carbon footprints, laboratory buildings can use a carbon calculator. Kammen helped design the CoolClimate calculator, which most UC campuses have used to determine their carbon footprints, according to Kammen. This can help begin the process of reaching carbon neutrality.

How campus organizations are helping

Programs such as UC Berkeley’s Green Labs also seek to help address the environmental footprint of campus labs. Green Labs offers a certification program for campus labs based on criteria such as waste reduction, energy efficiency and education.

Green Labs began in 2012 and currently serves mostly as an information-sharing organization. About 20 campus labs have received Green Labs certification, and the organization collaborates with about 40 labs total. All UC schools are supposed to have a green labs program, according to Scrimger, who manages the campus program.

Scrimger said vendors play a role in lab sustainability efforts. Haynes added that the campus can initiate “upstream solutions” to sustainability issues by influencing suppliers. She hopes that UC Berkeley, as a large buyer, can encourage manufacturing companies to alter their plastic packaging or products to be more sustainable.

“We do partner with a lot of the vendors, and they kind of hear what’s happening at Berkeley,” Scrimger said. “Then, they basically take that information and go, you know, back to their headquarters and their managers and tell them, ‘Hey, this is what UC Berkeley’s saying or doing.’ ”

Green Labs works to connect these groups of people together to facilitate the dissemination of information, and every semester, it holds a meeting with these partners.

The organization is also working on developing a partnership with the Office of Sustainability to help give the lab certification program more direction.

“The campus is currently producing a Green Labs Action plan that will address some near-term smaller scale strategies for reducing the environmental impacts of the labs,” Stoll said in the email. “The plan will address areas related to energy and water efficiency, supply chain, waste, and engagement.”

In the past, The Green Initiative Fund, or TGIF, which is a campus fund that supports efforts to increase sustainability, has funded Green Labs’ projects. Green Labs allocated some of these funds to individual labs for specific purposes, particularly equipment replacement.

The fund does not currently offer specific grants for research laboratories, but individual labs and researchers interested in decreasing the environmental footprints of their projects can also apply for funding through TGIF, according to TGIF coordinator Teresa Yu.

Financial barriers to sustainability

Many individual labs make smaller-scale efforts to optimize sustainability within their research.

The bioscience research-focused Kumar Lab has switched to gloves that biodegrade many times faster than its previous model did, according to lab manager Katherine Patterson. In terms of more large-scale changes, Patterson said there is not much the lab can do.

While individual laboratories should be involved in the process of reducing their footprints, they probably do not have the ability to make significant changes, according to associate professor of business Christine Rosen, whose research focuses include sustainable product design and business strategy. She added that more funding is needed to make some of the large-scale changes, so labs need to work with the university and state government.

According to Rosen, the campus has dealt with financial shortfalls and a structural deficit in recent years, and the shutdown resulting from COVID-19 shelter-in-place measures has added to the financial struggle.

“We’ve had all these issues with power shutdowns and so forth,” Rosen said. “We lurch from one crisis to the next, and it makes it very challenging to try to deal with challenges like environmental sustainability because it costs money to reduce your carbon footprint and to reduce your toxic chemicals.”

While the campus is working on retrofitting buildings, it needs more state funding to overcome the financial limits preventing further sustainability measures, according to Rosen.

Rosen said members of the campus community who care about environmental sustainability need to find ways to mobilize to advocate for increased funding from the state government.

“There’s no free lunch here. It isn’t just about giving up x,” Rosen said. “It’s about actually acquiring these new capabilities that cost money and that requires investments and sacrifice.”

Emma Rooholfada is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @erooholfada_dc.