The gradual reopening of businesses and workplaces is welcome news, but clearly businesses are operating very differently. This is reflective of our ‘new normal’ during this period of unknown. With the use of standard and even heightened safety protocols, this reopening has included a gradual restart of on-site lab-based research.
During this ramp up of research, lab sustainability measures remain important to protect our environment and to maintain efficiency where possible.
As more people appear at worksites, so are bottles and dispensers of hand sanitizer. In fact, demand for hand sanitizer has skyrocketed by 1400% from December 2019 to February 2020 alone!
Not all hand sanitizers are created environmentally equally, due to an ingredient called triclosan (TCS). This synthetic substance is eventually washed down the drain and poses a threat for water contamination. TCS has been identified in drinking water in some geographical regions. Closer to home, it has been reported in Canadian municipal sewage sludge.
The direct environmental risk in aquatic environments is in its toxicity and bioaccumulation in aquatic wildlife. This also has economic impacts as reported by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). They noted that 25 million tons of seaweed are harvested annually for various products, demonstrating that TCS puts both ecosystems and important resources at risk.
Health Canada has produced a list of authorized hand sanitizers, several of which include TCS as the active antimicrobial agent; however, to reduce potential pollution these should be avoided. Keep the ingredient list in mind when purchasing sanitizers and disinfectants for yourself or in your workplace.
An important note is that the antimicrobials like triclosan are the issue here, not sanitizers themselves. When antimicrobials are added to sanitizers, they increase the ability to kill bacteria and have no effect on viruses, so TCS would add no benefit against the coronavirus.
These ingredients in hand sanitizers have also been studied for their ability to produce microbial resistance. TCS for example, was studied in surface waters and found to produce resistant communities. For more information on how microbes can become resistant against our best efforts, check out our blog post “Drugs vs. “Bugs”: Antimicrobial Resistance and the Power of Stewardship”.
Antimicrobial resistance can put additional strain on the healthcare system, making it important to remember that sanitizers are meant to be used in the absence of soap and water. But both do provide protection and hand hygiene is crucial for preventing the spread of germs.
Another part of our ‘new normal’ includes mandatory face coverings in indoor spaces across several regions in Ontario. This applies to office buildings and to lab settings. Although PPE is key in keeping everyone safe, globally millions of tonnes of associated waste will be produced this year.
In order to reduce this waste, reusable masks are a great option when possible. Disposable masks might be required in certain settings, so be sure to double check with your workplace.
Most importantly, if disposable masks are required, make sure they are disposed of properly: in the garbage, not in the recycling or littered.
For more information on the environmental impacts of PPE, check out our earlier blog post here.
Another exciting update is that as research returns, so do our lab sustainability programs. Our Shut the Sash initiative is able to return in a modified form. With labs at reduced capacity, this is crucial to ensure fume hoods remain closed between shifts.
PMCRT and KDT have 230 fume hoods combined, each individual hood uses 3.5 times more energy than the average household. This was the reason behind starting this important program in 2016. Notably, the program has helped enforce a minimum of 90% compliance per month, saving energy and helping people win prizes along the way.
Accompanying our Shut the Sash initiative, the ice pack recycling program and Operation Green are making a modified return. This is an exciting chance to keep our labs energy conscious, even in the face of big changes to operations.
How will these programs operate differently? One example is that now pickups will be done on an appointment-only basis. For Operation Green, an email must be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org to confirm that your donation has been wiped down for sanitization, or left untouched for 3 days. This follows Canada’s guideline for the length of time that COVID-19 has been found to last on surfaces.
Similarly, if you have ice packs for our recycling program, the same rules apply, and please send an email to email@example.com.
Thank you to everyone who held onto their donations while the programs have been on hold and we look forward to getting started again!