The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory with the Federal Green Challenge Region 2 Award in Waste Management on July 12. The laboratory was able to divert 3,766 tons of waste from landfills, increase its recycling rate by 13 percent, and save about a quarter million dollars in taxpayer money over the last fiscal year. PPPL is a Department of Energy-funded National Laboratory, one of eight run by the Office of Science.

The award is part of the EPA’s larger Sustainable Materials Management program, which challenges federal facilities throughout the country, like PPPL, to demonstrate environmental stewardship by annually reducing waste, purchasing environmentally safer products, and reducing overall carbon footprint. The EPA also participates in this program, offering a "lead by example" attitude in environmental care. This is reassuring to environmentalists, especially in the midst of the current administration’s proposals to cut programs, which, redundant or not, are responsible for maintaining the delicate state of our global ecosystem.

PPPL's current goal is to minimize the cost of fusion, a nuclear process which can safely power businesses and homes. Nuclear fusion naturally takes place in the core of our sun and the cores of similar stars where the environment is just right to bind nuclei together and release incredible amounts of energy. Harnessing this process is challenging, and bringing it down to be cost effective is even more so. Supplying fusion energy to the grids of existing energy infrastructure would provide clean energy to power cities with ease.

The laboratory, which is spearheading a program on clean energy, thinks its day-to-day practices should be environmentally clean, too.

“It’s part of our work culture,” said Andrew Zwicker, Head of the Office of Communications and Public Outreach at the PPPL. “We’re always trying to improve our rate of recycling and reducing, but it’s about making sure our employees are aware of these programs.”

Employees and staff recycle waste, have a composting system, and even recycle cooking oil to make biodiesel, he explained.

PPPL has received numerous awards for its environmental programs over the last several years. The Lyman Spitzer Building, the lab’s main office, was granted U.S.-LEED Gold certification in 2011. In 2012, the laboratory received a DoE Federal Sustainability award for reducing its greenhouse gases. In 2013, PPPL was awarded a DoE Green Buy award for purchasing environmentally safer products over the fiscal year. In 2015, the lab won the Food Recovery award for its campus-wide composting habits. Furthermore, PPPL has received even more awards in recognition of its "lead by example" facility, which encourages sustainable practices.

“It represents a change in how our society thinks about the use of natural resources and environmental protection,” Tayler Covington, EPA Region 2 Press Officer, wrote in an email. “By looking at a product’s entire life cycle, we can find new opportunities to reduce environmental impacts, conserve resources, and reduce costs.”

The current administration faced criticism in May due to a proposed budget cut of nearly 30 percent to the EPA, now headed by Scott Pruitt. This budget cut could negatively affect programs like SMM, which promote and encourage facilities across the country to take part in more environmentally clean practices. When asked about how this rested with the people who run these programs, Covington pointed to a long process of examination within the EPA itself.

“We are in the early stages of a long budget process and final funding levels will not be settled until Congress acts,” said Covington. “The EPA will continue to examine its programs to identify those that create unnecessary redundancies or those that have served their purpose and accomplished their mission.”

But there’s more to this mission, and companies throughout the U.S. have only started to look up to the paragons of industry that promote environmentally clean practices.

If one thing is sure, it’s that PPPL plans to continue these practices.

“We’re trying to change the world,” said Zwicker. “While we’re doing that, we’re doing everything we possibly can to be environmentally friendly, from start to finish.”

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