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Carolina: A National Leader in Research & Sustainable Lab Operations

Each year, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill oversee more than $1 billion worth of research activity, solidifying Carolina’s prominence as one of the top research universities in the nation.

With over 1.3 million square feet of lab space, UNC research drives innovation and fosters a creative environment where the world’s top scientists collaborate to solve problems, discover new technologies, and save lives. Laboratories are also the largest consumers of energy, the third largest consumers of water, and produce some of the most challenging waste to divert from the landfill on UNC’s campus.

UNC Green Labs Committee’s mission is to to encourage sustainable practices and promote awareness of green issues in UNC’s laboratories. As a member of the Carolina community, UNC Green Labs is dedicated to reaching UNC’s Three Zeros goals: net zero water use, zero waste to landfills, and net zero greenhouse gas emissions.


We collaborate with Sustainable Carolina, the Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling, and Energy Management to monitor and assess the impact of our programs on UNC’s energy, waste, and water footprints.


Laboratories and residence halls are the largest water uses overall.

In 2016, the top five water consuming buildings were the Neuroscience Research Building, Genetic Medicine Research, MBRB, Thurston-Bowles, and Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Labs require water for sterilization, distillation, vacuum generation, glass washing, and other specialized purposes. In many instances, water-intensive equipment runs constantly every day of the year. The water used in cage-washers, dishwashers, and water-treatment equipment all adds up.



In 2017, UNC’s Office of Waste Reduction and Recycling conducted a waste characterization study in Carolina’s labs to better understand the composition of waste sent to the landfill.

Waste at UNC has three potential designations: compostable, recyclable, or landfill. This study characterized waste sent to the landfill to determine the presence or absence of recyclable and compostable waste items in the landfill waste stream.

The study showed that the majority of waste sent to the landfill from labs could have been composted, 14% of the designated landfill waste could have been recycled in the existing recycling systems at Carolina, and another 6% could be recycled if UNC added more recyclable materials to our recycling collection.

Only one fourth of what UNC’s labs sent to the landfill was actually trash.



Research facilities are the largest energy consumers at Carolina.

In 2016, the top six energy-consuming buildings on campus were: Genetic Medicine Research Building, Marsico Hall, MBRB, Thurston-Bowles, and Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Labs use a lot of energy to run specialized equipment and store samples. In one year, a fume hood can use the same amount of energy as four American households, one -80˚C Freezer can use enough energy to power a small house, and an idling 4˚C refrigerated floor centrifuge can use the same amount of energy as two constantly playing flat-screen TVs.

Add these high-energy pieces of equipment to the lab’s lights, drying ovens, vacuum pumps, heat blocks, water baths, computers, microscopes, pH meters, and other equipment: lab energy consumption can really add up.




Saving Energy, Water, and Materials in Carolina’s Labs

Air Flow Reduction Projects in Campus Labs

For these two projects, Energy Management and an outside design team worked together with Environment, Health and Safety to determine lower minimum air flow rates in the range of 6 to 8 air changes per hour. Read more…

Sterilizer Retrofit

As of Fall 2018, five sterilizers at the Lineberger Cancer Research Center and 10 in the Genetic Medicine Research building have been retrofitted with valves and software programming that puts the machines to “sleep” during hours of inactivity. Read more…

Reclaimed Water System

Pumped back to campus in purple pipes, reclaimed water is used on campus for chilled water cooling towers, for flushing toilets, and for irrigating athletic fields and landscape areas. This saves hundreds of millions of gallons of potable water—water that is of high enough quality to drink—each year. Read more…

Double-Sided Printing as the Default

UNC’s Climate Action Plan identified opportunities for the University to minimize its impact on the environment, including making double-sided printing the default for campus printers. By doing this, the University normalizes double-sided printing and has saved over 500,000 sheets of paper since 2016. Read more…

UNC Surplus

UNC Surplus helps the university keep unused departmental items out of the landfill. The Surplus staff goes to campus to pick up furniture, storage units, projectors, and other items that departments no longer need and sells them at the UNC Surplus warehouse located on Estes Drive, a five-minute drive from campus. Read more…