On the face of it, you might not immediately put chemistry and sustainability in the same sentence.

However, if you dig deeper you will find that chemists are as committed to caring for their environment as any other group of people.

I work in the University of Oxford’s Department of Chemistry and for the last six months have been involved with a small team of staff and students – who I’ve nicknamed the Green Meanies – on the first leg of the journey to improve our workplace.

The opportunity arose because the university’s environmental sustainability team launched the National Union of Students (NUS) Green Impact scheme. This is an initiative designed to encourage departments to work towards delivering environmentally friendlier practices.

The Green Impact scheme centres on a workbook of criteria which each department must aim to meet in order to obtain awards – starting with bronze, then progressing to silver and gold.

Meeting fortnightly, the Green Meanies pick a theme from the workbook and discuss how it can be tackled. Some things are easy to tick off – the community section for example. I work in a department where people are keen to help others and several members of our department make up the Keytones, an amazing choir that performs concerts two or three times a year to help raise funds for charity – so that’s a tick.

Water: chemists use a lot of water, so reducing the volume used for experiments is a major long-term task. However, I discovered that we ensure we are economic with the use of our dishwashers and have an online method for reporting leaks in taps. More ticks.

Waste: with more than 1,000 people using the chemistry buildings, we can generate a lot of waste. But we’re aiming to reuse and recycle as much as possible. Chemical waste is very carefully monitored by the safety office, so that’s another tick.

Travel: hey, this is Oxford, everyone cycles – even the head of department. Brilliant, another tick. There is a requirement to attend conferences both here and abroad, so we’re promoting the use of Skype and other teleconferencing facilities to cut down travel and wasted time. Tick.

I love collecting stationery and the Green Impact scheme has provided me with a brilliant method of sharing any excess with others. My stationery amnesty means that items I don’t actually need are reused by others. Tick.

I have had great fun promoting Green Impact over the last few months. I’ve devised signs requesting that people turn off lights and recycle items and I’ve also been using the plasma display screens to get the messages across. If every five minutes you’re asked to use the red bin for recycling glass then it is bound to sink in.

Another tool is the Oxford chemistry staff and student weekly newsletter that I work on. This is my weapon for disseminating the need for good practice and change. More ticks.

I have learnt a lot in the last six months and hope to learn more as we take our Green Impact journey further with the support of the environmental sustainability team. Our fingers are crossed hoping we’ve done enough to achieve a bronze award, and we are already working on some projects that might help us to obtain silver next year.

With some chemistry experiments needing extreme temperatures and others needing constant streams of water it hasn’t been possible to turn chemistry green overnight – but I have certainly had some fun turning it bronze

  • If you would like to know more about Green Impact contact sustainability@admin.ox.ac.uk


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