Testing the eco-experiment

A new McGill committee aims to turn laboratories green

Frequent usage of pipette tips, regular shipments of quotidian laboratory products, numerous trials with non eco-friendly reagents – these are all environmental issues to be tackled, but which do not necessarily pertain to the general public. Addressing such specific issues is the role of the Pharmacology Green Committee (PGC), a Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics-based council of McGill graduate students and staff within the department. The committee’s goals include decreasing the amount of waste produced by labs, encouraging eco-friendly behaviour, and making the Pharmacology and Therapeutics department more “green” in its own science-savvy way.

The PGC has undertaken important projects such as providing recycling bins for plastic and paper in every lab, replacing Styrofoam cups with ceramic mugs for weekly guest speaker presentations, and putting up posters elucidating which lab products can be recycled.

“The most common theme [regarding pharmacological research] is that people tend not to know what’s better [environmentally],” explained Sebastian Boridy, PhD IV student in pharmacology and therepeutics, and co-chair of PGC. “As a committee we’re trying to emphasize the impact our day-to-day activities in the lab are having and give options. Because for humans, if they know there’s a better option, they’ll use it.”

In order to provide more avenues for busy students and staff to engage in eco-friendly behaviour, the PGC has set further goals for 2011.

One goal is to promote the purchase of environmentally-friendly products. For those who aren’t necessarily willing to pay more, the committee is trying to raise enough money to be able to cover the difference in cost, compared to products that are cheaper and less eco-friendly. These products span from things as simple as hand-soap to chemical solvents.

The committee has also looked into replacing certain reagents in the protocol – substituting certain chemicals with others that are greener and produce the same end result as far as the experiment goes. In fact, several people in the committee have been carrying out these tests and generating results. For instance, ethanol can be used instead of methanol for the Western Blot technique, which is used frequently in labs to detect specific proteins in a given tissue.

“We’re all scientists,” said Tina Scardochio, co-chair of PGC and PhD III in Pharmacology and Therapeutics, “So we’re trying to approach it in a way in which others will understand and believe. We’re coming at it from a very science perspective. We have proof, we’ve ran the experiments, you can replace this with this, for example.”

A long-term goal is to consolidate orders from a given company amongst laboratories in the department. Products shipped to labs usually come in plastic #6 boxes, which are non-recyclable in Quebec, and are then further packaged in more boxes, including one made of foam. The committee hopes that by improving communication between different labs, and possibly setting up an online site that people can easily access, orders can be consolidated. As a result, there will be less shipping, less packaging, and less waste.

The committee also hopes to remove the negative associations with these changes and make them easier.

“Basically, we want to be effective,” said Scardochio. “We have a specialized, unique focus because here, in the science department – and labs essentially – you have different concerns than the general public, and I don’t think those needs are necessarily catered to by any green committee that I know of at McGill. So we’re trying to create a trend so that other departments will set up similar committees and then join forces to have bigger impact.”