Biology co-op student diverts two tonnes of waste from landfills

Monday, October 1, 2018

This story originally appeared as a blog post via University Health Network. 

“While it may be true that human activities are threatening the world as we know it, it’s not true that we aren’t doing anything about it,” says third-year University of Waterloo biology student Rachel Shantz. In fact, Shantz' work helped save over two tonnes of ice packs from landfill – the equivalent of one hippopotamus!

Shantz was a sustainability co-op student working in the Energy & Environment Department at University Health Network (UHN). During her work term, she was instrumental in the development of more sustainable labs. From decreasing energy use through UHN’s Shut the Stash program to reducing landfill waste through a new ice pack reuse program, Shantz felt a social responsibility to push for sustainable solutions that result in positive changes for the environment.

“When eight million tonnes of plastic is entering the ocean each year and 27 soccer fields worth of the world’s forests is being lost every minute, it may seem like being ‘sustainable’ is far from reach,” Shantz writes in a UHN blog post. “While it may be true that human activities are threatening the world as we know it, it’s not true that we aren’t doing anything about it.”

Each week, the research labs at UHN receive hundreds of frozen ice packs – used to keep pharmaceuticals and other materials cool during transportation. Prior to the introduction of the ice pack reuse initiative, the packs were often thrown into the trash after arrival. The new initiative now sees the ice packs returned to their vendors, allowing for them to be reused. This saves the ice packs from ending up in landfills or biohazard bins.

“The thing is, new ice packs are cheap, and recycling ice packs takes effort and coordination (which means cost),” explains Shantz. “This is an example of when companies have to look beyond just the economic benefit of sustainability. Sometimes the main driver is social responsibility … companies must be responsible for the waste they create, as that has a major effect on the environment.”

Although a program like this is not without its challenges, UHN now has a stable take back program with New England Biolabs (NEB), Cedarlane, and FroggaBio. Between January to mid-August, over two tonnes of ice packs have been diverted from landfills and returned to vendors.

The ice pack reuse initiative is proof that being sustainable is not entirely out of reach. When individuals and companies care for all aspects of sustainability, it can drive and encourage change in a variety of different ways.