contributed by Laura Hoch
I am extremely excited that I was asked to write a blog post about green chemistry and sustainability at the University of Toronto, where I am currently a PhD student in Materials Chemistry and Co-Chair of the Green Chemistry Initiative (GCI). I am continually impressed by U of T’s environmental leadership and dedication to fostering a thriving sustainable community of students, faculty, and staff. Connected through the Sustainability Office as well as the U of T Environmental Resource Network (UTERN), over 60 environmentally focused student groups work together to continually improve the mindset and environmental footprint of the university. U of T currently has one of the highest institutional waste diversion rates in North America (72.1 % of all waste gets recycled, composted, or repurposed). We produce more than 25 % of our electricity on campus (enough to power 730 Ontario homes), and solar thermal hot water heaters provide the hot water for the showers in the athletic centers. U of T is also the leading public sector purchaser of local sustainable food in North America and there are community garden spaces all over campus, where much of the food grown is used directly in U of T restaurants and eateries.
Because of this general culture of sustainability, students are encouraged to take the initiative to dig deeper and address sustainability issues from many different angles. As a result, there are numerous student groups at U of T focused on improving sustainability and reducing the environmental impact of their respective disciplines. As a chemist, I wanted to learn more about how I could incorporate sustainability into my research; after talking with my fellow graduate students, I realized I was not alone. So in 2012, we started a student group within the Department of Chemistry called the Green Chemistry Initiative (GCI), with the goal of teaching each other and our fellow students about green chemistry in order to promote sustainable practices within our chemistry community. With 11 founding members, we began by creating a Green Chemistry Seminar Series, which allowed us to bring in leaders from many diverse backgrounds to share insight on the different ways green chemistry can be applied. We also launched a department-wide Green Chemistry Trivia challenge where we pose weekly thought-provoking questions related to green chemistry and provide practical answers that are linked to green chemistry resources. This allows us to provide “bite-sized” information to the department on a regular basis so that green chemistry is always on people’s minds. I’ve had several people tell me that they now do something differently in the lab because of one of our questions. We also created a website to not only provide updates on our ongoing projects, but also to include a repository of helpful information from both the scientific literature and various web-based resources. We have to date hosted two annual workshops designed by and for graduate students (though all levels of researchers are welcome), focusing on practical, direct applications of green chemistry in research. Last year’s workshop, entitled “The Next Steps in Green Chemistry,” had more than 70 participants from across North America and a dozen speakers from academic institutions, large industrial companies, and governmental agencies.
The GCI has now grown to 24 members and we continue to work together to run various initiatives and educational outreach events. This year, we have launched a Waste Awareness Campaign, collecting and presenting data on chemical waste production within the department, with the ultimate goal of replacing the more hazardous classes of waste with more benign alternatives. We also have started a Green Education Subcommittee and work closely with the teaching faculty to increase and enhance the green chemistry content within the undergraduate curriculum. We have received tremendous support from our department, and we feel that we are starting to build a good conversation among the students and faculty about green chemistry.
My experiences with the GCI have not only taught me about green chemistry, but I have also learned how to reach out and engage with people about sustainability. I think many people often feel that if something isn’t perfectly “green” from the beginning, it’s not worth trying to improve and so they stop listening to suggestions. However, I have learned that by showing people that any improvement at all is still an improvement, they become much more receptive to our messages. We always try to point out what someone is already doing right, which gives them something tangible to build and improve upon.
Ultimately, what I have learned from interacting with and observing the many sustainability initiatives at U of T is that so much can be accomplished by working together, doing what you can, and always trying to improve a little bit at a time.