In Pursuit of Sustainability
How the University of Pennsylvania Is Striving for Carbon Neutrality

By Mike Howie

Labs at the University of Pennsylvania recently spent three months competing against each other in all things cold storage management. Referred to as the Penn Green Labs Freezer Challenge, the event is an offshoot of the International Freezer Challenge, which is sponsored by My Green Lab and the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories. It's one of Penn's many efforts to promote sustainable practices on campus.

The challenge encourages lab staff to develop positive habits like defrosting freezers, organizing samples, and tuning temperatures. There’s a whole list of steps they can take to earn points, and at the end of the challenge, top scorers take home a prize. But there are no losers here — everyone becomes a little wiser, a little more sustainable.

That’s the ethos Penn has developed over more than 13 years of steadily working to reduce its impact on the environment. What started with paper recycling has become a multi-faceted plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2042.

More Than a Decade of Progress

In 2007, former Penn President Amy Gutmann became the first Ivy League president to sign the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Two years later, the university published the first iteration of its Climate Action Plan, laying out the strategies it would use to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases across seven initiatives: academics, utilities and operations, physical environment, procurement, waste minimization and recycling, transportation, and outreach and engagement.

“This is a defining issue of the 21st century,” President Gutmann wrote at the time. “At Penn, we must recognize the impact of a research institution of our size and acknowledge that our actions extend beyond our campus and have global consequences.”

In the years since, sustainability efforts at Penn have spread from the Sustainability Office to a campus-wide culture of sustainable thinking and innovation among students, faculty, and staff. The university has created eight new environmentally focused academic centers, reduced building-related emissions by 41 percent, certified its main campus as a Level II Arboretum, adopted LEED Silver minimum building standards, reached a 21 percent diversion rate of waste going to landfills, and more.

Sustainability in the Lab

Among Penn’s sustainability efforts is their Green Labs Program, which grew from one researcher’s efforts to reduce waste and work more sustainably. There are now 12 labs committed to the program and a Green Labs Guide that lays out daily, monthly, and annual actions lab staff can take to reduce their environmental impact.

The Green Labs Guide also includes a checklist of individual steps lab staff can take to work more sustainably. Items include turning off biosafety cabinets and equipment when not in use, “chilling up” freezers, taking advantage of vendor recycling and take-back programs, repairing autoclave gloves before buying new ones, and scaling down procedures to use smaller amounts of hazardous chemicals, among others. Labs have even switched to reusable sharps containers and installed glassware washers to further reduce waste.

They’ve also begun recycling masks and gloves through the TerraCycle Zero Waste Box program, which provides services to recycle waste that can’t be recycled through regular municipal waste collection. The labs purchase a TerraCycle box — they’re available for masks, gloves, eyewear, pipette tip boxes, and other common items — fill it with used products, then ship it out for recycling. To date, Penn has recycled more than 68,000 masks and gloves — more than any other organization in the United States, which amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and mask mandates has meant significant waste reductions.

The Green Labs Program also encourages labs to choose equipment that reduces energy use. For example, the Ultra-Low-Temperature (ULT) Freezer Efficiency Program was established to reduce the number of old and under-utilized models by providing an incentive for purchasing highly efficient freezers, including models from the Thermo Scientific TSX line, and properly recycling freezers instead of sending them to the landfill.

Similarly, the university has a Green Fund that helps students, faculty, and staff secure funding for ideas that support objectives outlined in the university’s Climate and Sustainability Action Plan 3.0, the most recent iteration of the plan that started in 2009. Applicants can receive up to 30,000 USD in funding, and those who are selected provide a full report of their project — including implementation procedures, results, and future recommendations — to the Penn Sustainability Office.

A Thoughtful Approach

Of course, some things in the lab need to remain consistent to ensure the accuracy and validity of scientific experiments, which the university prioritizes.

“We’re not going to fundamentally change the chemicals or reagents or cell stacks that you’re using,” said Colleen Reardon, the university’s senior director of strategic sourcing and sustainability. “What we want to do is say, ‘In your research, what could be a more sustainable product or process than what you’re using? Is there tubing that could be done with a product that’s not as harmful to the environment? Have you looked for a place where we can recycle the glassware that you use?’”

Where products cannot be changed, sustainability efforts become more granular and consider the entire lifecycle of a product, from procurement to disposal. For example, can products be shipped with less packaging or more recyclable packaging? Can they be delivered from a more local source or on more efficient vehicles?

“It’s top to bottom, not about the individual pipette tip,” Reardon said. “Every single choice that everybody makes throughout the day in terms of a product they use can have a sustainability impact.”

Setting an Example

Penn’s approach to sustainability is all-encompassing — it places as much emphasis on small actions that individuals can take in the course of a normal day as it does on larger systemic changes that require years of effort and leadership support. And that breadth of focus has delivered more benefits than just reduced costs, emissions, and waste.

Encouraging people to walk or bike to campus helps reduce pollution while providing real health benefits. Installing refillable water stations cuts down on single-use plastics and encourages people to drink more water. Choosing to build and operate within sustainable guidelines helps the university secure grants from the federal government and private funders. And exposing students to a variety of sustainability efforts from the day they matriculate to the day they graduate produces new generations of leaders who view sustainability as a core responsibility.

Just as the university instills positive habits in its students, it serves as an example to its business partners and the broader community, demonstrating that sustainability and business are not at odds. In fact, they can support one another.

“It’s good business,” Reardon said. “If it’s sustainable, then it’s better for everyone in the long run, and you’ll get a broader customer base and more customer loyalty, so it becomes a circular thing. We feel there’s more to it than just our bottom line.”

Indeed, sustainability is a critical factor in many aspects of life, one that requires continued focus and effort.

“It’s an urgent imperative that we continue to look at these things,” Reardon said. “We can always do better, and we’ll continue to attempt to do better.”

Mike Howie is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.