The impact of individual sustainability efforts

13 Sep 2023

Image: © Francesca O'Rafferty/NatPro, Trinity College Dublin

Dr Gaia Scalabrino discusses the sustainability practices at Trinity’s NatPro and explains why individual efforts still matter.

The environmental crisis, climate emergency and biodiversity loss are such urgent challenges that big players are expected to address them. Further, global approaches are in place to balance the health of people, planet and animals, such as the One Health by the World Health Organization.

Nevertheless, as individuals, we all have the opportunity and the responsibility to take the actions required to build a nature-positive future by contributing to sustainability practices. We can implement behavioural changes to achieve tangible results, despite the fact that many of us are not experts in the field of sustainability.

As executive director of NatPro, the Trinity Centre for Natural Products Research at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) in Ireland, I am involved in several sustainability activities within the field of health science.

At NatPro, we work with natural products, which are chemical compounds produced by natural biomass such as plants, cereals, seaweeds and biowaste. We apply scientific expertise to identify bioactives that would enable the development of novel bio-based solutions to support health and wellbeing and deliver sustainable innovation.

Three sustainability approaches

My experience in applying sustainability practices in the workplace includes contributing to the transition to a circular bioeconomy, greening laboratory practices and offering awareness in leading economic systems change.

At NatPro, we promote the circular bioeconomy, as the sustainable use of natural resources is an integral part of this transformation and is embedded in Irish policy strategies. Many stakeholders that I work with throughout the supply chain and value systems are keen to actively play a role in the development of value-added, bio-based products.

In particular, there is interest in the design for upcycling and the valorisation of waste, as well the sustainable use of renewable resources. The need to unlock sustainable innovation and to regularly apply techniques, such as lifecycle assessment, to improve current business models is growing. In addition, increasing funding opportunities and defining regulatory pathways are pivotal to accelerate transparency and standardised guidelines.

Another approach that we implement is relevant to professionals working in scientific laboratories. As part of the centre’s operations, we strive to integrate greener practices in research activities and procedures.

‘Implementing more sustainable practices inspires researchers to stimulate innovation’

Our labs are certified ‘green’ by My Green Labs, a laboratory gold standard for sustainability best practices aiming to reduce the negative impact on the environment in areas spanning from energy, waste and water to procurement and resource management.

TCD Green Labs is a group of people working to make labs more sustainable at Trinity, while Irish Green Labs is a national network formed to collectively support and share laboratory best practices across the country. Implementing more sustainable practices within the community inspires researchers to stimulate innovation and improve procedures.

An additional approach lies in prioritising the interest of all stakeholders over shareholders. I engage with industries interested in sustainability initiatives, such as the Benefit Corporation movement that embraces a holistic approach for continuous improvement to benefit all people, communities and the planet.

As this network is growing worldwide, in 2023 B Lab Europe has trained the first cohort of people in Ireland (which I have found instrumental to be part of and to be surrounded by like-minded people) towards becoming B leaders to support companies in this transition as they assess their business impact on governance, workers, environment, community and customers.

Accelerating mindful habits

Common to those good practices, which are only a few of many available, is the fundamental role of each individual. Today the word sustainability is often used loosely, but with increased awareness and the correct guidance, we can all create significant impact by improving our behaviour and integrating ethical changes, when carrying out lab activities, developing business models or simply undertaking personal daily activities.

Certainly, it is challenging to promote and make changes. Often there is some hesitation when evaluating new approaches to be introduced in our workplace, mostly due to the uncertainty, lack of information or visibility.

Debates arise frequently on which certifications might be more reliable, as additional market transparency and standardised practices are required. To take informed decision, it is key to challenge the available options and identify a solution that embraces our business vision, with the support of professional experts in the field of sustainability.

Throughout this transition, I recognise that systems thinking, and an entrepreneurial mindset facilitate these efforts, as curiosity, problem-solving and resilience are required for driving change with urgency.

Good solutions come timely

To strive towards continuous improvement, I have learned by example that a complex systems approach is required to address sustainability challenges, systemic views and transdisciplinary integration are needed to address complex systems, the individuals’ behaviour matters and actively contributes to global impactful changes, and there are no perfect solutions to address complex systems, but good solutions come timely and they should be advanced promptly.

For example, take single-use cups. More than 200m are used yearly in Ireland. That’s approximately 366 per minute. Clearly, there is a national issue to resolve. Nevertheless, simultaneously, an individual can promptly contribute to the solution by using reusable cups, when needed.

This is not easy and certainly not the perfect solution, as a person would need to always carry a reusable cup. Further, it might be difficult to keep it clean, if used several times a day (being an Italian, I drink a lot of coffee), or the choice of the reusable cup’s material might not be the most sustainable. The conundrum is even bigger when dealing with bigger groups, as multiple variables affect the choice of cups to use. Suddenly, a simple choice becomes a complex challenge. Nevertheless, ignoring it is not the answer and each effort is worth it.

Those initiatives, among others, continue to grow globally, offering a supporting network and a sense of camaraderie, which enable the achievement of concrete solutions. Overall, best practices are achieved by collective efforts, but individual action is required to succeed. The respect for natural resources and for the community, as well as the focus on shared values, are critical to deliver today a positive impact for our regenerative future.

By Dr Gaia Scalabrino

Dr Gaia Scalabrino is the executive director of NatPro, the Trinity Centre of Natural Products Research at Trinity College Dublin.

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