Top 12 Things the GCI Accomplished in 2014

By Melanie Mastronardi, Secretary for the GCI

As the year comes to a close, I thought I would take this opportunity to recount some of the amazing things the GCI has accomplished over the last year. I should preface this list by saying that there are many things the GCI has been up to this year that don’t appear on the list – for example our ongoing trivia activities and the green chemistry seminar series, which are some of our greatest achievements overall – but here I wanted to highlight some of my favorite activities and initiatives that were new for us.

So in no particular order, here they are – my list of the top 12 things the GCI has accomplished in 2014:

1) In February 2014, we launched the 12 principles of green chemistry video campaign, posting our inaugural video about principle #1 on preventing waste. To date, we have produced and published videos outlining the first 4 principles and plan to finish up the remaining 8 in the near future. Be sure to check out all our videos so far on our YouTube channel!


Behind the scenes at our first video shoot.

2) On May 21-23, 2014 we hosted our second annual workshop, “The Next Steps in Green Chemistry Research”, at the University of Toronto. The workshop was a huge success with 12 invited speakers and over 70 participants attending from across North America.


Workshop attendees and speakers mingle at the social event.

3) In January 2014, we launched a Waste Awareness Campaign and started tracking the chemical waste produced in Lash Miller. We shared the result of the collected data with the department in September, and then hosted a lecture about waste collection and disposal given by Ken Greaves and Rob Provost.


Great turnout for the waste disposal talk!

4) We organized a symposium titled “Green Chemistry Initiatives Beyond the Classroom” as part of the 2014 International Conference on Chemical Education held in Toronto in July. The symposium featured 10 presentations that focused on alternative routes to green chemistry education as well as a panel discussion titled “Peer Teaching: Student-Run Sustainability Groups”.

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Student group panel at our ICCE symposium.

5) We developed a list of “Simple Techniques to Make Everyday Lab Work Greener”, which we shared at the GCI workshop in May and have subsequently posted online. Please check out the poster of our list and feel free to share it or post it in your lab as a reminder.

Simple Techniques to Make Everyday Lab Work Greener

Print out this handy guide for your own lab!

6) We re-launched the “Shut It” campaign – a program originally run in the Chemistry Department at UofT in 2008 to promote reducing energy usage by keeping variable-flow fume hoods closed while not in use. During the 4 months the campaign ran this year, we observed an average compliance of 69%, lowered the building’s energy usage, and taught occupants an easy way to conserve energy in the future.

7) Over the course of 2014, we formed a green chemistry education subcommittee, which has completed a review of the green chemistry content being taught in the chemistry undergraduate curriculum at UofT.

8) Throughout 2014, various members of the GCI represented our group and shared our experiences at conferences and events across North America. Laura Hoch presented at the ACS Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference in Washington D.C.; Laura Reyes presented at McGill University, the CSC Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition in Vancouver, and the International Conference on Chemical Education in Toronto; and Ian Mallov presented at the International Conference on Chemical Education in Toronto.

9) We inspired members of our department to start incorporating some of the principles of green chemistry in their research. For example, it recently came to our attention that the Kluger group has switched entirely from using hexanes to the less toxic alternative heptane. As an added benefit, this has lowered the cost of heptane for our department, encouraging even more people to use it!

10) GCI co-founders Laura Hoch and Melanie Mastronardi were invited to present the Sigma Xi Annual General Meeting Lecture as part of their University of Toronto Chapter Distinguished Lecture Series in April 2014.


Laura and Melanie at the Sigma Xi meeting.

11) We helped design a cover design for the Journal of Chemical Education, for the paper by UofT lecturer Andy Dicks titled “Green Chemistry Decision-Making in an Upper-Level Undergraduate Organic Laboratory”. Learn more about the cover and check out our pictured resources page.

JChemEd cover

We helped create this cover! Our website is featured on the computer screen.

12) In 2014, the GCI joined the Network of Early-career Sustainable Scientists and Engineers (NESSE) as one of their sustainable science groups. Much like the GCI, NESSE aims to empower early-career scientists to tackle today’s environmental and energy challenges, and move towards a sustainable future.


NESSE members at the 2014 Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference.

Green Chemistry Principle #4: Designing Safer Chemicals

By Laura Reyes, Co-Chair for the GCI

4. Designing Safer Chemicals: Chemical products should be designed to carry out their desired function, while minimizing their toxicity.


Since chemicals are everything, if products were truly “chemical-free” they would actually be “substance-free”!

The 4th principle of green chemistry, Designing Safer Chemicals, might sound like a paradox to many people. The very concept of safe chemicals is not exactly common. Usually, all chemicals are depicted as toxic substances.

However, the word chemicals is used misleadingly in our everyday lives. Chemicals are literally everything around us – every substance that is made of matter is a chemical. This makes consumer labels claiming to be “Chemical-Free” meaningless! If used properly, chemical-free products would be completely empty.

With this in mind, Principle #4 is a reminder to chemists that it is our responsibility to design all chemicals to not only be efficient at their given purpose, but to also reduce their toxicity by design.

Reducing toxicity is a constant priority in chemistry. The challenge comes in knowing what makes a molecule toxic. When it comes to molecules that have never been made before, toxicity becomes an even bigger concern. The field of toxicology allows us to either predict or test for a molecule’s toxicity, making partnerships between chemists and toxicologists incredibly important. Many green chemistry educators are also pushing towards including a working knowledge of basic toxicology into undergraduate chemistry degrees, to train all future chemists to consider toxicity from the very beginnings of molecular design.

In our video, we feature a great example of how a chemical’s toxicity can be reduced by rethinking its design. This example was the 2014 winner of the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award in the category of Designing Safer Chemicals. The award was given to The Solberg Company for making a new type of firefighting foam that does not use fluorosurfactants, which are environmentally persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic. The new firefighting foam mix works just as well as previous foams, yet does not have these negative impacts! We talk about the chemistry behind this in the video, and Chemical & Engineering News has a post with more details on Solberg’s foam mix for those interested.

For consumers, it can be overwhelming knowing that the term “chemical-free” tells us absolutely nothing about the product. Here’s a couple of reliable guides for consumer products that will help you make an informed decision about what can be considered safe or not. Please let us know of other guides we may have missed in the comments below, and remember to share this post with anyone who might find it useful!

GoodGuide – This is an excellent database of consumer product information, across many categories such as food, personal care, and household items. We like GoodGuide because their team includes chemists and others with a scientific background, who work together to analyze products, rather than basing their guide on hearsay.

Design for the Environment – This program is a partnership with the US EPA, to help consumers choose products that have been deemed safer for human health and the environment. Look for the Design for the Environment label on products while shopping.

Green Chemistry Principle #1: Prevention

By Melanie Mastronardi, Secretary for the GCI

1. Prevention: It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it has been created.

In this video for the 1st principle of green chemistry – Prevention – we wanted to show how habits in the lab can have a big impact on the waste that is created when it comes to preparing and running experiments. But to make it a bit more interesting – and delicious – we decided to host our video in the kitchen and turn it into a cooking competition. In the video, GCI members Cookie and Laura face off to see who can make a pasta dish the quickest to feed their hungry friends.

Once they start cooking, we see that Laura and Cookie have very different habits in preparing and cooking food (although for the record, we asked them each to do things a particular way for illustrative purposes, so their actions don’t necessarily represent their habits in real life). Laura takes the time to plan and measure carefully using only what is actually needed, while Cookie works as fast as he can even if that means he makes a few mistakes and messes along the way.

Just when it looks like Cookie will be the clear winner, we find out that the competition includes the time needed to clean everything used to make the pasta dish. Laura finishes cooking shortly after Cookie does, but has a much smaller mess to clean up and ends up being declared the winner of the challenge. This is a great example of the impact that preventing waste can have, which is important in the kitchen and the lab alike.

While this particular pasta example may not seem too tragic, by comparing it to chemical processes we can start to see the true importance of preventing waste from a green chemistry perspective:

“Use the minimum amount of material required to get the job done”

Laura took the time to find out exactly what amount of water was needed to cook 1 package of spaghetti, while Cookie used much more than he needed to – now imagine if this water was a toxic solvent in a chemistry experiment – Cookie would have much more waste that needs to be treated and disposed of than Laura, who made sure to use the minimum amount required.

“Plan ahead, to prevent ending up with excess materials that will end up going to waste”

Laura went over the recipe carefully and bought only what was needed to complete the recipe, leaving a lot fewer leftover ingredients compared to Cookie. She even found a use for the leftover wine that otherwise would have been considered as waste in this experiment! In real life, leftover food can be saved to use another time, but if it doesn’t get used before it goes bad it will end up in the garbage. In many cases, chemicals – like food – go bad over time when they are opened – so it is better to open only what is needed at the time or plan to make use of any excess reagents.

“Work safely to prevent accidents, which can be dangerous and create unnecessary waste”

Another important thing to note is that by rushing and not being careful in the kitchen and especially in a chemistry lab, accidents are much more likely to happen, which have the potential to be very dangerous and cause messes that are much harder to clean up. Cookie made a pretty big mess by accidentally pouring the cheese into his pan at the wrong time, which he then had to clean up later.

By planning ahead and working carefully and efficiently, Laura hardly left any mess to clean up, created a minimum amount of waste, and ended up winning the challenge and being able to serve her friends a delicious pasta dish first! So remember, in anything you do, always plan ahead and think about prevention!

Chemical Waste FAQs

By Peter Mirtchev, Member-at-Large for the GCI and Laura Reyes, Co-Chair for the GCI

All chemists create chemical waste, it’s simply part of our job. Recently, we started a Waste Awareness Campaign to track the amount of waste being generated by our chemistry department. Aside from this, the chemical waste disposal process was a bit of a mystery. Learning how to properly sort, label, and dispose of chemical waste should be part of every chemists’ early training, but typically gets overlooked. In academic research labs, waste disposal habits tend to get passed down from one person to the next, and often stem from tradition rather than regulation. With this post, we hope to clarify some of the confusion surrounding proper disposal of different types of chemical waste.

We recently co-hosted a seminar about waste disposal with the Chemistry Students’ Union. Our speakers were Ken Greaves (Chemistry Department Supplies & Services Supervisor) and Rob Provost (Environmental Protection Manager at the UofT EH&S Office). We found that many members of the department had important questions regarding proper disposal practices and what happens to chemical waste after it is picked up. We have summarized the crucial points of the talk in Q&A format below. There’s also very useful information at this EH&S website on chemical waste. If you have other unanswered questions regarding chemical waste, leave them in the comments and we’ll get them answered for you!

Disclaimer: the information below is specific to the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto, and may change according to institution. Check with your own institution regarding the rules of chemical waste disposal.

Q: What are the most common types of chemical waste produced in a research laboratory?

A: Solvents. At the University of Toronto, the three most common chemicals are 1) acetone, 2) hexanes, and 3) dichloromethane. The Department of Chemistry purchases over 10,000L of acetone per year alone.

Q: What is considered ‘flammable’ waste?

A: A flammable liquid is one that has a flashpoint of 23.8°C or lower.

Q: Is a mixture of water and organic solvents considered aqueous or flammable waste?

A: If the mixture is more than 50% water, it is considered aqueous waste. If it is less than 50% water, it is considered flammable waste. If the amounts are uncertain, treat as aqueous (see below for more about the treatment of waste types).

Q: What mixtures are treated as chlorinated waste? Continue reading

Waste Awareness Campaign

By Karl Demmans, Workshop Coordinator for the GCI

Welcome back to the GCI’s monthly updates about our recent endeavors and findings in green research! Today I’d like to discuss the efforts put forth by various faculty and graduate students over the past eight months to collect and distribute data about the amount of waste produced in the Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories, the main building for the Department of Chemistry at UofT. Our hope is that once students are presented with this information, they will be more conscious about their chemical procedures and consider alternate green methods to help reduce waste. For an example of the types of data we have collected, take a look at the poster found below.

Waste Poster GCI

Waste data for Lash Miller Chemical Laboratories (Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto).

In Lash Miller, waste collection occurs every Friday. Each research group gathers their labelled waste containers and brings them to  our waste department for sorting and temporary storage, before eventual disposal.  The rather colourful chart in the poster displays the amount of solid or solvent waste, broken down for each chemistry discipline, concluding with the percent of total waste each discipline produces, as well as the type of waste that is made.

The colour gradient of the five waste categories denotes the combined environmental and economic concerns ranging from solid decontaminated waste (‘best’) to acidic waste (worst). Overall, the waste picture for Lash Miller looks pretty good, with only 9% of the total waste produced in the building coming from the two red categories (acidic and chlorinated). By specifically targeting these types of waste for reduction, we can continue to improve and make the waste profile of our department even better.

For Lash Miller graduate students, if you’d like to know specifically how much waste your group is producing, send an inquiry e-mail to green [at]!

Lastly, the final part of the poster describes what each type of waste is, and explains the disposal process. The topic of how chemical waste is disposed of was recently discussed during our last GCI seminar. Click here to read our Chemical Waste FAQs!

In the upcoming months there will be another poster displaying the percent reductions in waste produced per discipline, to see how graduate students react to the current information. Thanks for stopping by to learn about our Waste Awareness Campaign and how we are helping to reduce our environmental footprint.