Leading by Example in the Lab

Leading by Example in the Lab

By Ian Mallov, Co-Chair for the GCI

Ask a scientist what their greatest satisfaction is from research.  Most will probably tell you something along the lines of “the pursuit and discovery of new knowledge.”

Some will mention the parallel satisfaction of originating inventions or techniques that are broadly applicable, and seeing that work applied for the benefit of society.

Much of the challenge of moving towards a truly sustainable culture is in applying what we’ve already shown to be effective on small scales.

Two years ago, the Green Chemistry Initiative’s 2014 Workshop team developed ten recommendations entitled “Simple Techniques to Make Everyday Lab Work Greener.”  Led by co-founder Laura Hoch, with important contributions from Cookie Cho and Dr. Andy Dicks, we publicized these during the workshop.  So what has happened to these recommendations since?  They’ve been developed – are researchers in our department incorporating them into their work habits?  Are we ourselves applying what we already know to be effective?

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that a number of our researchers were in fact using these greener lab techniques.  In an effort to make their use even more widespread, I’d like to highlight some examples of researchers in our department who are leading by example.

Further, next week our “Simple Techniques to Make Everyday Lab Work Greener” poster will be posted around the department!

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Scientist: Karlee Bamford, Stephan lab

Technique: Recycling solvents from rotovap to use for cleaning vials and glassware

Why it’s greener: Saves solvent, reduces waste generated, and reduces energy used in production and disposal of additional solvent

Issues to Consider: Use in synthesis and purification often requires solvents to be more pure than those collected from rotovap

Ian_July blog 2Scientist: Aleksandra Holownia, Yudin lab

Technique: Setting GC to stand-by mode when not in use

Why it’s greener: The GC uses much less helium gas (a rapidly diminishing resource) and reduces the temperature of the oven, saving energy

Issues to Consider: Does take a few minutes to start up again

Ian_July blog 3Scientist: Karl Demmans, Morris lab

Technique: Using 2-methyl THF as a reaction solvent instead of THF

Why it’s greener: 2-methyl THF is derived from the aldehyde furfural, sourced from renewable crops.  THF, on the other hand, is derived from fossil fuels.  While crop-sourcing does not automatically make it “greener,” consensus in the case 2-methyl THF is that it is indeed less energy- and resource-intensive to produce than THF.

Issues to Consider: Unlike THF, it is immiscible with water.  Slightly less polar than THF

Ian_July blog 4Scientist: James LaFortune, Stephan lab

Technique: Isopropanol/dry ice instead of acetone/dry ice for cold baths

Why it’s greener: An Isopropanol/dry ice bath maintains a temperature of -77 oC, almost exactly the same as acetone/dry ice’s -78 oC.   However, isopropanol is much less volatile (bp: 83 oC) than acetone (bp: 56 oC); practically, this allows for the recovery and reuse of the isopropanol after several hours or overnight, while acetone evaporates.

                                                                          Issues to Consider: Must actually recover and reuse the isopropanol!

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Scientist: Samantha Smith, Morris lab

Technique: Closing the fume hood sash when not in use.

Why it’s greener: Modern, variable-flow fume hoods – used in the Davenport wing of our building – regulate the strength of their vacuum for safety based on how far open the fume hood is.  When wide open, the fume hood uses much more energy than when closed (see Just Shut It campaign!)

Issues to Consider: Is your fume hood variable-flow?


Ian_July blog 6Scientist: Brian de la Franier, Thompson lab

Technique: Using a closed-loop cooling system for refluxes and distillations.

Why it’s greener: Uses much less water.  While some of our undergraduate labs have built-in closed-loop cooling systems, Brian simply got a small fish tank pump from a pet store and uses a Styrofoam box with ice to keep his water cold – a very easy DIY solution!

Issues to Consider: Does water saved compensate for the extra energy for the ice/pump?  Consider the energy used to purify and deliver the extra water and we can safely say yes.

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Scientist: Alex Waked, Stephan lab

Technique: Reusing rubber septa used to seal Schlenk flasks

Why it’s greener: Saves materials and money

Issues to Consider: There is a limit to their reusability.  At some point, if a septum has been perforated by too many needle holes it is no longer an effective seal.  Must also ensure septa are kept clean.

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Scientist: Molly Sung, Morris lab

Technique: Reusing gas chromatography vial caps by replacing their septa

Why it’s greener: Saves materials and money

Issues to Consider: Somewhat time-consuming to remove and replace rubber septa for each cap


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Iceland is Greener Than You Think

By Peter Mirtchev, Member-at-Large for the GCI

This past summer I had the opportunity to travel to Iceland as part of the Global Renewable Energy Education Network’s (GREEN) 10-day program in Renewable Energy & Sustainability. GREEN organizes educational adventure workshops in a number of unique locations including Iceland, Costa Rica, and Peru. The trips are focused on a central theme such as Renewable Energy or Water Resource Management, and are open to undergraduate and graduate students from around the world through a competitive application process. The registration fees cover all expenses except the flight and even though the cost might be steep for a student budget, there are plenty of funding opportunities to explore through your university’s financial office. Feel free to email the GCI if you’re interested and want to know more!


Iceland is as interesting to learn about as it is beautiful to explore. And that’s a lot.

Iceland is an amazing place. The country is completely isolated on a volcanic island in the mid-Atlantic and has a population of just over 300,000 or about the same as a few large sports stadiums packed together. As such, it tends to lead the world in per capita categories; for example Iceland has the most tractors per acre of arable land, but the second least amount of actual arable land of all countries that practice agriculture. More relevantly, Iceland is a global leader in renewable energy, supplying approximately 80% of its total energy demand from renewable sources. The country has abundant geothermal and hydroelectric resources that are used for heating and electricity generation respectively. In fact, the only fossil fuel burned in Iceland is the gasoline used to power everyone’s cars!

A geothermal plant in Iceland.

As part of the program, our group got guided tours of two geothermal and hydroelectric power plants and two days of energy lectures from professors at Reykjavik University’s School of Energy. We were also invited to a reception by Iceland’s President, Olafur Grimsson, where we discussed global renewable energy policy and how we might be able to implement some of the lessons learned in Iceland when we return to our home countries. At the end of the program, we developed innovative Capstone Projects and got feedback on their feasibility. And that was only the educational aspect of the program! When not working, we took advantage of Iceland’s stunning natural beauty, doing everything from soaking in hot springs to hiking on glaciers.

I’d like to conclude by saying that I only became aware of this fascinating program by being part of the GCI. As we’ve become more established and started getting more recognition outside of U of T, we’ve received many new opportunities for our members to get involved in outside initiatives. This has helped us expand our knowledge of sustainability, and helped us professionally by introducing us to many new contacts. To students, this is hugely helpful and I encourage anyone with an interest in sustainability to get involved in any initiative that tries to lessen our impact on our planet.

And try to go to Iceland. You won’t regret it.

Pesticides Can Be Your Friends: Be Informed

By Kiril Fedorov, Member-at-Large for the GCI

Pesticide-free living: hopeful future or wrong approach?

Pesticide-free living: hopeful future or wrong approach?

At the end of May, the GCI held its 2nd annual workshop entitled “Next Steps in Green Chemistry Research”, and one topic that was discussed that really resonated with me is the use of different toxins in our environment. Lectures like “Molecular Structures and Toxicology: The Search for Green Poisons” by Professor Keith Solomon and “Environmental Fate , Persistence & Disposition: The Role of Chemical Architecture” by Professor Scott Mabury both mentioned the use of pesticides, and I thought writing about it for my contribution to the blog would be a great way to clear up some misconceptions around the topic.

We constantly hear in the news that pesticides are toxic and that they do a lot of harm to the environment.  You may have heard of or read the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson that exposed the negative effects of the widely-used pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), or new stories about the effect of chemicals on polar bears, and decided as a result to not use pesticides or to only buy organic food. But the story is not that simple in the real world. First, we must define what a pesticide actually is before judging right away that pesticides should not be used and that we should grow everything naturally.

In the dictionary, the definition of a pesticide is “a chemical preparation for destroying plant, fungal, or animal pests”.

Now ask yourself: what does the definition actually tell you about pesticides?

It states that a pesticide is a chemical, which is basically anything you can touch (not just the bubbly stuff chemists work with in laboratories like you see in the movies). This means that anything could be used as a pesticide, even the most harmless product, if it destroys the pests that harm or prevent plants from growing. Paracelsus famously stated that “the dose makes the poison,” but now we are also hearing reports of molecules, such as bisphenol-A (BPA) that act as endocrine disruptors and can cause adverse effects that are not linear with respect to the dose. Again, the picture is complicated.

So should we give up using pesticides altogether? Unfortunately, it would be very difficult to meet the world’s need for food without them. The best option would be to make pesticides as green and efficient as possible, so that they accomplish their task of destroying pests with a minimal effect on the environment as a whole. Some of the design criteria for green pesticides include: not oil-based, low persistence, non-toxic to humans or other non-target animals, etc.

You may think that in the past, everything was grown naturally and clean, but you are only partially right since nature has a way of taking care of its own problems. There are many naturally occurring compounds that are more poisonous than some of the pesticides we used today. For example, some molds can produce aflatoxin (which is carcinogenic) and can infect cereals, grain, and legumes. If the crops are not treated to destroy these types of molds, then the harvest could potentially be lost or the carcinogens could possibly end up in some of the food we eat.

Pesticides are not always the enemy, but they are also not perfect, so we must continuously try to improve them, using all of the tools the chemical industry has to do so. Pesticides can be your friend or your enemy, it’s your choice and your responsibility to be informed about the effects (good or bad) of the products you are using.

No-Mess Composting with The Greenlid

By Kurtis Judd, Member-at-Large for the GCIImageEdit (February 2015): We, the Green Chemistry Initiative, are not associated with this product, but we do think that it’s a great option for household composting. If you’re looking for product information about The Greenlid, including where to purchase one for yourself, please visit www.thegreenlid.ca. Thanks!

Despite its many benefits, composting has not become the fixture that recycling has in Canadian homes. Walk by most subdivisions in Ontario on garbage day and you’ll see a blue box at the end of almost every driveway, but the green bin is a less frequent sight. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011, 61% of Canadian households composted their organic waste in some form. This is up from 39% in 1994, but just by my general perceptions, which are based on the practices of friends and family, we can do better.

I’ve had the conversation before, and many people seem to understand the importance of composting, but either aren’t sure how best to do it, or have tried it, and grew tired of dealing with the rotting mess in their kitchen that caused a fruit fly infestation, and left a rancid container to clean each time it was emptied. In apartments especially composting can be quite inconvenient, and this is enough to make some people not even bother.

More people will compost if we can eliminate some of these inconveniences with sound engineering, and University of Toronto alumni members Morgan Wyatt and Jackson Wyatt are attempting to do just that with The Greenlid project. Morgan received his HBSc at U of T, while Jackson is an Innis College graduate. They have designed a water-resistant, fully compostable container made of post-consumer moulded pulp, about the size of a KFC bucket. It comes with a reusable lid (the Greenlid), and compostable lids for disposing of the container in a green bin. The water resistance is a huge key to the design, as it leaves very little mess to deal with and may be just what people need to convince them to compost more frequently. For $60, you can buy a package that includes 24 containers and one reusable Greenlid, a quantity which should last about a year. This price may still be a little steep, but the product is still new, so there may be room for that price to come down as the manufacturing process is better understood. [Edit (February 2015): this pricing is now out of date, please visit www.thegreenlid.ca for the latest pricing information.]

I asked the designers what their biggest challenge was in designing The Greenlid via their website, and Morgan Wyatt responded quickly. He said coming from an academic background, where research is easy, navigating the manufacturing world was difficult. “With manufacturers, there aren’t the same types of online resources, and there is a lot more direct interaction to find the right partner,” he said.

Using Kickstarter, Morgan and Jackson reached their pledge goal of $25,000 on March 16, 2014 and will be sending the first batch of Greenlid packages out to pledge donors in the near future. They will also be pitching The Greenlid on CBC’s popular show Dragon’s Den on April 11 (set to air next season). For more information about The Greenlid visit their website at www.thegreenlid.ca, or check out some of the cool videos on their YouTube channel. Anything to get more people composting and diverting waste from landfills is a positive change, so if you have any friends or family who have decided to give up on composting, let them know about The Greenlid.

No Impact Man and Leading By Example

By Ian Mallov, Member-at-Large for the GCI


You may have heard this story in passing: a few years ago a guy in New York attempted to live for a year without making any impact on the environment.  The guy, writer and engineer Colin Beavan, documented his experience in a book, No Impact Man, which was made into a 2009 movie called – you guessed it – No Impact Man.

I’ll let the book’s first paragraph speak for itself: “For one year, my wife, baby daughter, and I, while residing in the middle of New York City, attempted to live without making any net impact on the environment.  Ultimately, this meant we did our best to create no trash (so no take-out food), cause no carbon dioxide emissions (so no driving or flying), pour no toxins in the water (so no laundry detergent), buy no produce from distant lands (so no New Zealand fruit).  Not to mention: no elevators, no subways, no products in packaging, no plastics, no air conditioning, no TV, no buying anything new…”

The rest of the book humourously details how Beavan and his family attempted this.  He didn’t go cold turkey: rather, he gradually replaced the products, services, and habits he was used to with alternatives.  And he didn’t begin as some kind of hyper-environmentally-conscious tree-hugger: among two of the first things he actually changed were to put his milk cartons into the recycling, and switch to reusable grocery bags.  Chances are, if you’re reading this, you already do these things and are two steps ahead of where he started.

Fast-forward to when they decided to unplug their fridge (responsible for a large percentage of household energy use).  Beavan and his family found the only thing they absolutely could not find another way to preserve, or buy fresh cheaply, daily, and in small portions, was milk.  Harnessing the power of phase-change thermodynamics, they discovered a solution used in Nigeria, where food spoils quickly in extreme heat and a much smaller percentage of the population owns a fridge.  They store their milk and vegetables in an earthenware pot with a lid, inside another, slightly larger earthenware pot.  Between the two a layer of wet sand is packed.  As the water slowly evaporates, the endothermic process draws heat from the surroundings, cooling the pot, which cools the milk and vegetables.  Because the wet sand is packed close and tight, the surface area is minimized and the evaporative process lasts several days.  Needless to say, sand need not be the medium – a damp towel will work.

This was on the extreme end of their journey – many other issues had already been addressed before they came to this.  Many of you will argue that changes in one person’s lifestyle make little material difference.  And you will be right.  But leading by example – being on the right side of the incremental changing of collective habits – you help to change the perceptions of normalcy among your friends and acquaintances.  For a humourous read and a few good ideas, check out No Impact Man.


Fighting Climate Change Right Here, Right Now

By Nadine Borduas, Member-at-Large for the GCI

Climate change.

It’s a humongous issue. It affects every single person on Earth. It has deadly consequences. It’s our fault.

Why, then, are so many idle? Perhaps because it requires significant changes in the current lifestyles of billions of people. The challenge is to completely move away from fossil fuels and move towards sustainable sources of energy and raw materials as quickly as possible. As chemists, we have an important role to play in this transition. There’s active research worldwide to produce fine chemicals from renewable sources and to become completely independent from petroleum based chemicals.

Because climate change is such a giant, complex and long term problem, how do we, as individuals (and chemists), make concrete contributions to address climate change? One proactive group at U of T, Toronto350.org, is attempting to make a difference. This group of volunteers recently drafted a divestment campaign to encourage U of T to sell its current investments in fossil fuel companies.

Why do I strongly support this campaign? It’s simple math. In order to avoid a 2oC increase in global average temperatures by the end of the century, which would destabilize the climate with potential for catastrophic consequences, we must emit no more than 565 gigatonnes of CO2 in the future. Burning the world’s proven reserve would emit 2795 gigatonnes of CO2. 2795 > 565!!! We therefore cannot afford to risk burning the worlds’ proven oil, coal and gas reserves. We must stop taking buried carbon out of the ground now (well yesterday…). U of T can play a leading role in climate change mitigation by cancelling its investments in fossil fuel companies. The divestment document outlines why it is in U of T’s best interest to divest for ethical and long term financial reasons. First, by divesting, U of T will become a leader in preventing climate catastrophe by helping halt the fossil fuel industry expansion. Diverting investments towards clean energy sources are necessary to make the required rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Second, since most of the fossil fuel is too dangerous to burn, there is a financial risk that stock values will fall and that investors will lose huge sums of money. Finally, social and political change can influence policy. U of T will help direct money far away from fossil fuels and even further from climate disaster.

The U of T divestment campaign is not unique in North America or around the world. Look at the quickly growing number of institutions, including several cities on the west coast and elsewhere, which have already committed to divesting from fossil fuels: http://gofossilfree.org/commitments/

My main message is this: endorse the “U of T divestment brief” at http://toronto350.org/, to fight climate change right here, right now. (And if you’re not a U of T student, staff or faculty member, check if there is a divestment campaign at your institution or start your own!)

Green Year Resolutions

By Cookie Cho, Member-at-Large for the GCI

Happy New Year from the GCI! We hope 2014 is treating you well. Did you make any Yew Year’s resolutions this year? Are you still following them, or have you given up? New Year’s resolutions are sometimes too vague and impractical to be achievable, so what people often need are specific, realistic goals that do not require a complete lifestyle revamp. Below is a list of some environmentally-friendly, low-commitment goals that we recommend, as they do not require you to change your way of life, but will hopefully help change your ecological footprint.

1.  Switch to High-Efficiency Light Bulbs

It’s not news that Light-Emitting Diode (LED) and Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulbs use 75-80% less electricity than incandescent bulbs – so why aren’t more people using them?   Sure you have to pay more for them up front, but since they use less energy your electricity bill will be lower and they will last much longer than incandescent bulbs.  Some people might be concerned because they have heard that these new bulbs are dangerous and require special handling compared to incandescent bulbs. While there may be some reasons for concern, here is how to take on these important changes safely:

a)     CFLs contain 3-5mg of mercury, which means two things – first, be careful not to break the bulbs, and if one does break dispose of it right away and don’t leave it lying around. Secondly, there are collection centers that safely handle and recycle the new tech bulbs. It might seem like extra work, but since these bulbs last much longer it’s really not going to be a huge sacrifice to drop them off every 6-10 years.

b)     There is also some concern about higher exposure levels to UV radiation. This is not a problem if you are one or more feet away from the bulb and do not stare directly into the light bulbs.

2014 will see the start of the incandescent light bulb ban in Canada. This means that the stores will not be able to resupply their low-tech bulb stockpile, so join your neighbors and start enjoying your savings early! For more information, check out the full article by National Geographic here: http://energyblog.nationalgeographic.com/2014/01/08/separating-myth-from-fact-on-cfls-and-leds-five-concerns-addressed/

2.  Recycle! Especially Aluminum

It is easier than ever to recycle today – with municipal recycling pickups in most areas, recycling chutes in new condo buildings, and waste stations in restaurants like Tim Horton’s that show you exactly what is meant to go in which bin. So I find the sight of aluminum soda cans thrown in the garbage very discouraging, to the point that I often pick it up from the garbage and place it in the recycling bin myself. What’s so special about aluminum you might ask? Reproducing aluminum from recycled cans uses 5% of the energy required for producing new cans. So by making sure aluminum finds its way into the recycling bin you are helping to reduce the cost required to produce all those cans of soda you drink, and preventing the cans from making their way into overfilled landfills.

3.  Reduce Electronic waste (aka E-waste)

Your cell phone and the other electronics you own are composed of toxic and/or scarce materials such as barium, cadmium, copper, germanium, indium, lead, mercury, etc.  While it would be great if these materials were not required to make the technologies we can’t seem to live without, innovation isn’t quite there yet. The one thing you can do is be conscious of how often you upgrade to the latest model and where your used electronics end up. Think about your last cell phone – how long did you have it for and what did you do with it when it had outlived your desire for it? PLEASE make sure it finds its way to a safe place. When electronics get thrown out with your regular trash, their toxic materials can leak from your local landfill and get into the water supply. By recycling your used electronics (which can be done through free programs offered by stores like Best Buy and Staples), you help prevent toxic materials ending up where they can be harmful, and the materials that are becoming scarce can be collected and reused in the future. Try to prolong the life of your electronics, make sure they are properly recycled when you are done with them, and when the time comes to purchase new electronics, we recommend you check out Greenpeace’s list of the more environmentally friendly electronics companies: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/toxics/electronics/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics/

I know many people often fail at completing their new year’s resolutions – but if you can accomplish even one of these goals this year you will be doing a great service to the environment!  Happy New Year!