Being Greener

As you can imagine, from the moment we launched GREEN, I have had a lot of questions and comments regarding green practices in the lab and in life. You can also imagine that many of these conversations can be equally as negative as they can be positive. It’s not easy being told what you are doing – and have been doing – for years is negatively impacting the community. I get it. I’ve been there. I understand the difficulties associated with trying to spin on your heel and readjust, rethink, and relearn your profession and your life to include the environment. For some, the resistance to change – or to simply modify – their practices in order to lower impact is based on selfish opposition to change. They may believe our environmental changes do not affect them personally. Other times it is purely economics. This is the saddest reason, as most of the time this is the greatest limitation to one’s ability to implement green principles into their lives.

To clarify, the issue is not usually the overall cost of greening your life. Instead, it is the initial financial investment that hinders someone from being green. As an example, I recently discovered a green alternative to a harmful solvent for my research. The only problem is that this new solvent is approximately thirteen times more expensive than the harmful one. Because of the scale of my reactions, I deal with solvent quantities sometimes as large as 100 liters to make a compound. As you can imagine, when dealing with quantities like that, price becomes a significant factor. Instead of spending $450 for 80 liters of solvent to make one batch of product, I have to spend $6000. Because the budget doesn’t allow for a purchase like this, the initial impulse is to scrap this plan and go with the harmful solvent. However, by rethinking and adjusting the budget, I was able to save money and decrease the environmental impact by taking advantage of the characteristics of the greener solvent:

  1. The product I am making is more soluble in the greener solvent, so less volume is needed (20 liters at a given time versus 30 liters of the harmful solvent).
  2. The greener solvent has a higher boiling point and is immiscible in water (unlike the harmful solvent), and can be recovered and recycled easily.
  3. Reusing the greener solvent means no waste and no waste disposal (~$1.80/liter for waste removal).

Bottom line:

  • To make three batches of the product with the greener solvent:
  • $1500/20 liters (all solvent reused each time and no waste)

  • To make three batches of product with the harmful solvent:
  • $1350/240 liters + $432/240 liters waste disposal = $1782 (240 liters of waste to the environment)

    The beauty of this example is all in the fact that the solvent can be recovered, even though the initial hope was just to cut down on the environmental impact by disposing of 80 liters (or 240 liters for three batches) of a greener solvent rather than disposing of the more harmful solvent. The recovery potential resulted in a cost savings – an even bigger one for every batch after the third – with a reasonably low investment.

    Unfortunately, this is not the case with all things. As I write this article, I am sitting on my couch in the middle of the night freezing my butt off (and my fingers as I type). Why? Because some initial investments are just too great to fathom. While I know the potential for overall energy and money savings, buying a more efficient furnace, double-pane windows, reinsulating (or insulating for that matter) ceilings and walls are out of the question. It’s the saddest truth indeed. So, what do I do in the colder months – well, the same issue occurs in the warmer months with the house being too hot versus too cold – to reduce the energy waste and money spent on running the furnace to reach that comfortable temperature I want? I suck it up and turn it off.

    To be completely “green” is utterly impossible. What you want to strive for is to be “greener”. Greening is kind of like walking for the first time. For the most part, the first step is easy; it’s that second step – where you have to shift your balance – that is the most difficult. Remember, there may be twelve principles – or maybe twelve steps in this case – to achieving what we consider a truly “green” process, reaction, or lifestyle. However, if you can make it past that second step without losing your balance, you will see that it was worth the work. If you haven’t begun to think green, I challenge you to do so. What do you do in work or in life that can be greener? If you can’t afford the initial investment, what can you do to do without, change, or modify? Don’t become overwhelmed with “green.” Instead, focus on “greening”. After all, even baby steps move us forward.