Celebrated annually on April 22, Earth Day raises awareness about environmental conservation and encourages people to be more environmentally conscious. To mark the day, we’re shining a spotlight on a St. Paul’s Hospital recycling champion.
The Centre for Heart Lung Innovation (HLI) at St. Paul’s Hospital has been at the forefront of innovative heart and lung research for 40-plus years. More than 250 scientists and staff work together in the state-of-the-art laboratory to find solutions to heart, lung and critical care disease.
To generate life-saving discoveries, the lab – like any biomedical research lab – must also generate a certain amount of waste. But thanks to an active green team, HLI is finding ways to make science more sustainable.
Research associate Dr. Gurpreet Singhera – or the “Recycling Queen” as she is affectionately known by her colleagues – is a member of the Green+Leaders Network, a collection of volunteers working to improve the environmental performance of health care operations across the Lower Mainland.
“I’m a self-proclaimed recycling champion and am always looking for ways to keep the recycling program active and better at HLI. My colleagues at HLI have always supported me in doing so,” she says.
There are unique challenges that come with leading this work in a research lab since some items can’t be recycled. For example, the contents of biohazard sharp waste buckets – needles, syringes, blades and glass – get incinerated. But many other materials can find a new life and over the years Dr. Singhera has led a number of environmental initiatives and forged partnerships to help divert waste from the landfill.
As a busy hospital research centre, HLI receives daily shipments packed in expanded polystyrene packaging (a.k.a. Styrofoam). Since Styrofoam takes hundreds of years to break down, the centre has always made an effort to recycle the material, even before Metro Vancouver banned Styrofoam from landfills in 2018.
Currently, HLI is able to dispose of its foam packaging through the St. Paul’s Hospital Styrofoam recycling program. Prior to that, the centre would gather the packaging and send it to a local waste collection and recycling service provider to be recycled.
Many of the daily shipments the lab receives contain ice packs. Biological reagents, including culture media, antibodies and assay kits, must be kept cool or frozen to remain in stable condition. Until recently, Dr. Singhera had a longstanding arrangement with a local biologics company to reuse the packs. Under this arrangement, the company would come once a month and pick up all the ice packs for use in future shipments. Unfortunately, Dr. Singhera says, this partnership fell through after a few years and she is actively searching for another way to recycle ice packs.
Solvents, such as ethanol, methanol and formalin, are used for experiments in the labs at HLI. All these chemicals are toxic to water ecosystem, so solvent waste is collected and sent to an environmental contractor. Here, the solvent waste is converted into burner fuel that is used by pavers for road repairs.
As a member of the Green+Leaders, Dr. Singhera worked closely with Fraser Health to set up designated recycling bins for paper, refundables, and mixed-containers in both the lab and office areas at HLI. Clear signage ensures it’s easy for everyone to use the bins properly.
“I am very happy to see that most of us are compliant and helping the program. We have been audited twice on our recycling stations and I am proud to say that we have passed with flying colours, “she says.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, HLI would order catering for large centre-wide meetings. Dr. Singhera noticed the jugs of water delivered with the food were being wasted, so she helped introduce water coolers to the meeting space. Staff now fill up reusable water bottles at the water coolers and everyone is encouraged to use washable mugs for their coffee and tea.
These are just a few of the steps Dr. Singhera and the HLI team have taken to help reduce their environmental footprint.
“Together, as a team, we all are doing our part and making an effort to keep Mother Earth healthy and green for future generations. I am very proud of all of us at HLI for being part of this effort,” she says.