Failure to mark containers of hazardous waste.
Failure to provide adequate hazardous-waste training.
Failure to conduct and document weekly inspections of hazardous-waste accumulation areas.
Failure to submit annual reports regarding the use of diesel fuel.
These are some of the 18 categories of violations that a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency team found when it inspected MIT’s campus and labs in 1998. By the time the five-day visit was over, the team had recorded more than 3,000 violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. Although most of the infractions were minor, and none had resulted in harm to the environment, the EPA worried about the widespread pattern of violations and the lack of central institutional responsibility. It gave MIT five years to develop and implement an environmental-management system that would document campuswide training and monitor overall compliance, and it fined the Institute $555,000.
Over the next three years, staff attorneys negotiated a settlement with the EPA that reduced the cash fine to $150,000. The Institute put the other $405,000 toward three supplemental environmental programs designed to benefit the wider Cambridge community, as well as other colleges and universities (see “Supplemental Programs Shine,” p. 2 sidebar). And this June MIT put the finishing touches on an environmental-management system that, according to EPA enforcement attorney Catherine Smith, far exceeds the agency’s expectations.
The settlement has had an even greater impact on campus, providing the impetus for numerous initiatives aiming to make MIT a leader, rather than a follower, in environmental protection. With the support of President Charles M. Vest HM, the Institute created an environmental program office, restructured and expanded its safety offices, launched an environmental task force, and signed on to the city’s goal to recycle 40 percent of its waste by 2005. MIT now recycles construction and demolition debris and, as part of a broader initiative to reduce energy consumption on campus, is incorporating as many “green” elements as possible into new and renovated buildings. Faculty, students, and staff have organized forums and educational programs to exchange ideas and strengthen MIT’s commitment to environmental responsibility. “MIT is a world leader in environmental education and research,” says Bill Van Schalkwyk, director of environmental, health, and safety programs at MIT, a position created in response to the EPA inspection. “Quite frankly, our operations should measure up to [those] lofty goals.”
Fixing the Problem
When the EPA came to MIT, it found that the Institute took its role in health and safety issues seriously; in fact, MIT had five offices related to such matters. Unfortunately, they did not report to a central authority, and they rarely, if ever, worked together. As a result, levels of compliance with regulations varied around campus. No one, for example, could produce records to verify that employees had been trained to deal with hazardous waste. It was a systemic problem, and the EPA wanted it fixed.
Just knowing where to start was difficult enough. “It’s very hard to manage the huge number of things that go on here,” says Van Schalkwyk. EPA regulations, he points out, are written for industries that use large quantities of only a few chemicals. In contrast, universities use thousands of chemicals in small quantities. “In general, colleges and universities have had a lot of problems complying with the plethora of environmental regulations,” he says. With more than 2,000 separate laboratory spaces on campus, MIT had a problem that defied easy solution. As a result, the EPA gave the Institute about five years to develop a new way to coordinate compliance-about five times longer than the period the agency gives to typical violators.
Creating the system involved some reorganization and the participation of a broad swath of Institute employees, says Van Schalkwyk. First, the existing health and safety programs at the Institute-radiation, safety, industrial hygiene, biosafety, and environmental management-were brought together under a new environmental program office so that, for the first time, their efforts could be coordinated. Then a series of committees, whose members ran the gamut from lab employees to senior faculty and administration, worked to develop specialized projects, such as a training program and a website, and created what became known as the “environmental-management system.” The hallmark of the system is a three-tiered structure, starting with representatives who oversee environmental health and safety issues for each department, lab, and center. Each representative works with one of about 35 environmental health and safety coordinators, who have responsibility for groups of labs and centers. In turn, these coordinators work with a team of specialists from the Institute’s environmental health and safety office, which helps them provide services, such as inspections, and manage staff training. This structure provides a pathway for communication from the labs all the way up to the senior administration.
The EPA wasn’t the only body concerned about MIT’s environmental record in the late 1990s. Around the time of the EPA visit, faculty and students were also pressuring the Institute to be more responsible. “We were camping on [former chancellor] Larry Bacow’s office saying, We’ve got to do something. We’re not practicing what we preach,’” recalls chemistry professor Jeffrey Steinfeld ‘62. Although faculty were studying how to design green buildings, lower greenhouse gases, and reduce the human impact on the environment, none of their knowledge was being put to use right outside their windows.
As a result of faculty and student lobbying efforts and the EPA settlement, MIT initiated a number of programs aimed at reducing the Institute’s impact on the environment. MIT immediately expanded its recycling program, which had previously covered only white office paper, newspaper, and some bottles and cans. It began collecting all kinds of paper and magazines, cardboard, a wider range of plastics and cans, construction and demolition debris, yard waste, and even food. The recycling rate reached 12 percent in 2001 and a little more than 22 percent by the end of 2003-amounting to 515 metric tons of paper, cardboard, and bottles and cans, 766 metric tons of food and yard waste, and 231 metric tons of miscellaneous materials, such as electronic equipment, wood, oil, and grease. But that’s only halfway to where the Institute wants to be. As part of the city’s climate protection plan, MIT is aiming to recycle 40 percent of its waste by the end of 2005. Reaching that goal will take creativity, but the benefits far outweigh the effort, says Kevin Healy, MIT’s recycling coordinator. Recycled items don’t go into Massachusetts landfills, which are closing down, with no plans for more. Recycling costs less than half as much as hauling waste away, and recycled items won’t be burned in incinerators that can release toxins into the air.
Along with recycling, the Institute has committed to designing green buildings that reduce energy consumption and green labs that use fewer hazardous chemicals in research. One way to reduce a new building’s energy consumption, says John Rivers, senior project manager for MIT sustainable-campus initiatives, is to give it a high-quality “envelope”: an exterior that keeps cold winter air and summer heat from seeping in, which results in smaller heating and cooling systems and less energy waste. Another technique is to install a heat recovery system that warms new air as it comes into the building. New buildings are designed with higher ceilings and larger windows that bring in abundant light and allow it to bounce deeper into rooms, reducing the need for electric light. Controls automatically dim and then shut off overhead fixtures as daylight permeates a room.
Energy conservation, however, is going on throughout campus, not just in new buildings. Through a grant from the state, the utilities department installed solar panels on several buildings, to compare mounting methods and study the effect of climate on energy collection. Although the installations are small, they do reduce the amount of power that MIT has to generate or purchase. And seemingly small changes can add up to big savings. About 30 vending machines have been fitted with test sensors that shut down their compressors when their surrounding areas are unoccupied, which reduces energy consumption by as much as 46 percent on each machine.
MIT is also flushing out new ways to save water. The Institute has decreased its water consumption by 70 percent since 1990, largely by using water-conserving toilets, but it’s still looking for ways to conserve. Around 2,000 steam traps have been replaced in radiators to reduce wasted steam, and a system for the reuse of storm water is already in place in the Stata Center. A similar system will also be part of the new brain and cognitive science center.
Greening is going on within individual labs as well. The chemistry department, for example, “has a very good hygiene program, but it’s focused on protecting yourself and the people next to you on the bench,” says Steinfeld. “There’s almost no training on the hazard rating of what you use.” So Steinfeld is building an expert system that will recommend less toxic chemicals for use in lab experiments within the department, which generates nearly half of the hazardous waste on campus. The online system, designed to be part of the department’s purchasing process, identifies a chemical’s hazard rating, the regulations and restrictions that govern it, and the disposal method it requires. It then searches for alternative chemicals that are less hazardous but will still do the job effectively.
Along with developing specific compliance and conservation programs, the Institute is looking for ways to connect people on campus who are doing environmental research or are involved in environmental programs. In 2001 the Energy Lab and the Center for Environmental Initiatives merged to create the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment. The new lab brings together faculty, students, and staff from 13 departments to explore interdisciplinary research on alternative energy and a host of other environmental issues. For faculty and staff who simply want to meet and talk with like-minded people on campus, the new EnviroForum offers another venue. Forum events consist of short talks on environmental efforts and then plenty of time for people to network and socialize.
Campus environmental initiatives are doing so much these days that it’s difficult to keep up with it all, says DiBerardinis. Given that MIT got started later than many schools, there remains much ground to be covered. Still, the Institute’s enthusiasm for the job has not gone unnoticed. “We were thrilled that the inspection launched other things beyond compliance,” says the EPA’s Smith. “Everything has exceeded our expectations.” With its broad-based efforts, MIT is well on its way to becoming the model the EPA hoped it would be.
This new data poisoning tool lets artists fight back against generative AI
The tool, called Nightshade, messes up training data in ways that could cause serious damage to image-generating AI models.
Rogue superintelligence and merging with machines: Inside the mind of OpenAI’s chief scientist
An exclusive conversation with Ilya Sutskever on his fears for the future of AI and why they’ve made him change the focus of his life’s work.
The Biggest Questions: What is death?
New neuroscience is challenging our understanding of the dying process—bringing opportunities for the living.
Driving companywide efficiencies with AI
Advanced AI and ML capabilities revolutionize how administrative and operations tasks are done.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.