Fieldwork Mindfulness

Waste associated with research lab work is fairly well appreciated. For example, institutions are attempting to tackle this long-standing problem with programs like Green Labs, and campus-wide sustainability certifications. Organizations that promote lab efficiency and sustainability, like the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories, and companies that provide energy efficient lab products, like Priorclave, are also being established. Less common, however, is the development of targeted strategies that address efficiency, waste reduction and sustainability for field research, the red headed stepchild of scientific exploration.

Field research can involve a surprising array of impractical environmental activities. For example, fieldwork often requires extensive travel by car or airplane (encouraging fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emission), deployment of technologies like solar panels and large batteries (requiring caustic chemicals for production and shipment, and often composed of materials that cannot be recycled), preservation of field stations (traditionally built and often maintained with unsustainable practices), and waste of plastic, metal and water (enhancing the expenditure of non-reusable plastic bags, flags, and metal posts). Although these practices likely comprise a small component of the negative impact associated with scientific research, proposed solutions to tackle the more egregious environmental offenders of field work should become a more regular part of the waste reduction conversation.

Designs to address waste and inefficiencies in field research can often be easily implemented and provide cost effective strategies for completing experiments. For example, camping or overnighting at proximate field sites can reduce vehicle trips per field season.  Collaborating with local researchers at long-distance field sites can reduce flight number and save on travel expenses. Reusing field supplies is an obvious strategy, as is using paper products instead of plastic, when possible. Field station administration can also encourage environmental efficiency by implementing sustainable designs and upgrading facilities to more environmentally conscious operation (automatic lights, low flush toilets, etc.), when possible.

Initial steps have been taken by disparate individuals and organizations to acknowledge and consider waste and sustainability issues associated with field research. However, it is the responsibility of researchers to formally address these issues in their own work, within their networks, and in the literature. Perhaps scientific organizations (and some, like the Ecological Society of America, are beginning to do so already) can take the lead on creating space to discuss these issues at annual meetings. Although implementing strategies to maintain sustainability, reduce waste, and increase energy efficiency is not always possible, field researchers should become more conscientious of these topics and engage in discussion of them whenever possible.