Starting a Green Initiative: Where to begin?

Starting a Green Initiative: Where to begin?

by Nikola Čanigová, Irene Steccari, and Logan Hodgskiss

Starting a green initiative within a building or institute can be a daunting task.  Although many will agree that this is a good idea, finding the people and resources to make it work can be challenging.  A multitude of green groups and initiatives have been started all around the world, and many of these have faced similar setbacks and challenges when trying to get off the ground.    Even the implementation of small changes can be hampered by a persistent resistance to change.

Even so, these changes are still possible. A group of students and technicians at the Institute of Science and Technology (IST) Austria saw the need for changes to be made and decided to do something about it. Green Labs Austria has been working with them to mutually share resources and ideas for labs that want to be greener. We have sat down with Nikola Čanigová, a PhD student in the Sixt Group, and Irene Steccari, a technician in the Heisenberg Group, to find out how they got started and what lessons they learned that might be helpful for other groups looking to start their own initiatives.

What made you want to start a green initiative at IST Austria?

Nika: I felt like I needed to make a change, because scientists produce tons of waste and use a lot of electricity, without often realizing it. I wanted to bring awareness to this problem and get my colleagues to think about the impact of their actions.

Irene:  I wanted to use my role as a technician to make practical changes in the lab, such as reducing the amount of packaging of our products, ordering in bulk, favoring sustainable companies. Also, I am often communicating with other groups, technicians and our group members, which makes implementing these changes easier.

How do you get people involved in the IST Sustainability Group?

Nika: We try to get people interested in the various sustainability projects through email and social media communication and for the green labs initiative I gave a talk in one of our seminar series, which ignited some interest and started off the entire project.

Irene: A great way to communicate and share ideas is by talking to all the experimental labs through technician meetings, since the technicians can then talk about the lab-specific problems within their group meetings. We also realized it is a good idea to have a befriended contact person in each lab, who is willing to hang posters or initiate the discussions within their group.

Do you experience resistance from co-workers or faculty members? If so, do you have any suggestions on how to handle this?

Irene: In general, the ideas are well received, but it can be harder to have the changes happen on a practical level. Sometimes people get excited about the initiative and immediately start adjusting their habits accordingly, but sometimes they look for limitations and argue that it could negatively affect their workflow. This can only be overcome with discussions and suggesting changes that are easy to implement and manageable.

Nika: When it comes to faculty members, they are very much in favor of these changes, they are even willing to pay extra for more sustainable products or services, which is inevitable for large-scale changes. This support is also very necessary, because we need it to make changes in the lab support facilities providing our glassware or recycling our waste. To emphasize this need, I took part in a faculty meeting, presented our ideas and got a written proof of their support in the form of a questionnaire, which makes discussions with the facility managers easier.

In your opinion, what is the most effective way to get started?

Irene: It is important to break the process down into manageable chunks, start easy and interfere as little as possible with the work habits of scientists. We focus on one sustainability topic per month to provide enough time to let the changes become a habit before introducing new ones. We suggest concrete, simple but high impact changes, such as shutting the sash, turning off equipment at the end of the day or collecting plastic waste for recycling.

Nika: I think what helped me the most was teaming up with other students and technicians to share the workload. We now all have a specific task to focus on and just need occasional meetings to coordinate our efforts. It is also crucial to reach as many people as possible with various forms of communication, to maximize the impact we have.

What are the biggest obstacles that need to be overcome?

Irene: It is a challenge to coordinate between labs and the facilities due to our limited authority over the facility developments. However, if more labs get involved in the initiative, it could be easier in the future to implement changes on a larger scale. 

Nika: Inspiring people to get actively involved can also be hard, especially for tasks that are not very enjoyable, such as hanging posters or initiating discussions about sensitive topics. It is also quite time consuming, which is a problem as we’re all doing this as a side project on top of our normal work duties. We are lacking an official IST sustainability person to coordinate this and other projects. This person would have more time, resources and authority to implement the changes, but we are hoping that this will change in the near future.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to start their own initiative in an institute or building?

Nika: I would suggest to simply do the first steps and suddenly you will find yourself surrounded by people with the same opinions and vision, who were just afraid to get the project started on their own. People with common interests and goals are for sure out there, you just need to reach out to them 🙂

Irene: I think it is an important step to get the technicians involved. They often think about the suggested changes in a critical and practical way, which can lead to some great and creative discussions and new ideas. I would also advise not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to get inspired by what other labs and institutes have already done.