Sustainability within the MPS - It matters for everyone!

by Swati Subramanian & Maria Eichel

„They were standing there not realizing what they were doing to the ground they were standing on, the soil which gave them food, not noticing how it changed and also not listening to a woman telling them to open their eyes.”

About three months ago I sat down for coffee with my grandma, the daughter of a farmer from a small village in Saxony. We talked about a lot of things and how it often occurs nowadays, with friends or family, the topic came to climate change.  Coming from a rather small village, I know how good “real” cucumbers, tomatoes or potatoes can taste and how rarely you get these nowadays. We talked about energy consumption, change in weather, the new digital world (being a totally different topic) but also about food, nutrition and farming. My grandma still remembers the days when there was a sudden switch from “traditional” farming towards using a variety of fertilizers to increase crop yield. The type of fertilizers would always change over the seasons depending on the crops and my grandma recalled how the soil switched from looking healthy to being dry, changing color and producing food that tasted nothing like before. She talked about how she would have asked the men why they were doing such, if they didn't realize what it did to the ground they were standing on. She talked about how no one was really interested in what she said, because the crops had to be higher, there were more people to feed and the state was ordering how much food they should produce (it was back in the former “DDR” times). The words she used to describe this scene deeply moved my mind. I could feel all her emotions and the trust she lost in the generations after her – she thought we would be changing things for the better. And shouldn't we? Why are we making things worse? Are we really aware of what we are doing? None of us can change the world alone, but in this moment, I at least decided to be aware! And to increase awareness! Taking baby steps is at least a way forward – I am aware that more can be done and I am not getting a clearer conscious but… well, one has to start somewhere, right? I have decided not only to question my private life but also my workplace and gladly noticed – other people do too! That’s the first piece of good news!

Working in the lab for five to seven days a week, we produce a massive amount of waste (see the first picture – the work of a colleague after half a day of experiments), we use up a lot of energy with all the devices, we often eat unhealthy, fast food and with travelling for work alone we don't even want to think about our CO2 footprint. Being aware and informing yourself of what can be changed is a great start – educating others is the next step and you are already on the right path by trying to implement changes. To make it easier for everyone, we decided to find out what kind of steps the Max Planck Society (MPS) and its people are doing and trust us, there are already some things going on. That's the second piece of good news!

From the 16th to the 17th of May 2019 the sustainability working group of the MPI for dynamics of complex technical systems, Magdeburg, hosted the first sustainability workshop in the Max Planck Society. People from other institutes who founded a sustainability group as well as many interested employees met each others to investigate and discuss how we can make our working environment more “green”. Hence, we decided to meet and talk to people who attended this workshop to find out more about how to take steps forward.

The two day long workshop commenced with a statement regarding sustainability in the MPS by Dr. Christoph Kolbe, the MPS representative for Environmental and Safety. This was followed by a brief introduction to the sustainability working groups across the MPS and several presentations that addressed topics such as, Climate protection and climate research, Offset flight carbon footprints in research institutions and The biodiversity initiative of the Joint Works Council of the MPG. The participants were then divided into teams to brainstorm and prepare short presentations on suggestions or solutions that institutes could implement to combat issues such as carbon emissions as a result of mobility, waste reduction and management, conservation of local biodiversity, etc. In this way, the participants were not only able to share what was already being done in their institutes but also get fresh ideas for the future. For some, the concept of sustainability was new and while they had enthusiasm, they lacked the proper information and resources to practice it. The workshop provided a perfect amalgam of people who want to teach and who want to learn how to lead a more sustainable, environmentally friendly lifestyle. Some of the ideas brought forth will not only be beneficial for the work environment but also for home!

We asked some of the participants and the organisers of the workshop for their feedback on what they expected to gain from this workshop and what they achieved in the end. Dr. Anke Schräpler from the MPI for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen, a participant of the workshop, provided us with some of her personal insights and what were the highlights of the workshop for her.

‘For me, there wasn't just one highlight during the workshop but several. The atmosphere was very positive and energetic. Everybody was eager to contribute - either by sharing processes already done in the institutes, or by brainstorming ideas. We all know that there are and will be limitations to what we can change but the overall attitude was like 'Yes, we can' - at least to me. The organization of the workshop was awesome. And in this context I have to mention the mouth-watering vegan dinner! Originally, I participated in the workshop because I have had some ideas on how to run the animal facility a little bit more sustainably and I had hoped to get some more input regarding that topic, which I did. I had an interesting conversation on volatile agents: they damage the atmosphere more than CO2 and unfortunately, in the future they will be used by farmers when neutering the male piglets. Which is of course better than neutering without any anesthesia... But there are alternatives to neutering about 40 million male piglets each year (just Germany) - e.g. the immunisation against the smell of the boar (two shots per animal), or maybe people just have to accept that odor when eating meat from swine.’

Evelyn Medawar, a doctoral researcher at the MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, is a member of the recently founded Sustainability Network. We asked her a couple of questions regarding her experience. Here is what she had to say:

What did you find inspiring?

"The number of engaged and interested people from all parts of the MPG was amazingly stunning! We all felt a great momentum for the cause of engaging for sustainability within the MPG."

What seems like the best initiative?

"The best initiative was to create a new network for sustainability within the MPG to bring the matter to a greater cause and to an official level, like other research institutions already do. For example, we want to tackle the topics of travel guidelines and energy supply within the MPG."

What will you change regarding your own workstyle?

"Within our institute's Green Team we are already quite actively engaged in the process. However, we learned from the workshop, how to streamline ideas, how to foster discussions efficiently and how to build workforces who then further develop specific ideas and their implementation."

What was your highlight?

"Witnessing sustainable conferencing live: one guest talk was held via video call - the talk and the following discussions were great; this proof-of-concept showed 2 things: 1) video calls are effective in doing science and in reducing travel emissions and 2) sometimes it's good TO DO things and not to talk about them.

Another participant, David Walter, from the MPI for Biogeochemistry in Jena remembers the sheer amount of interest reflected in the number of participants, the efforts of the existing sustainability groups and the overall encouraging atmosphere of the workshop. He also said that the most remarkable thing he learned from the workshop was regarding the local biodiversity and how some institutes are trying to support it within their campuses. Also, the apparent legal challenges we face in travelling clean via initiatives such as atmosfair. He was struck, the most, by the video conference-mediated talk on ecosystem for birds by Dr. Wolfgang Fiedler and the conversion of natural resources into viable fuel options by Prof. Dr. Kai Sundmacher.

Tackling the topic of sustainability can be an overwhelming journey for most. The practice of being mindful of the waste you produce in a day and consciously trying to reduce it takes time and care. It may happen that, at first, implementing all these practices in one go can be more detrimental to the environment, not to mention expensive. But as you manage to maintain one or two of these practices initially, you get more and more confident and can adopt practices as you go further. 

First steps towards sustainability in the lab and at home:

    • Switch of electrical devices or computers before leaving
    • Be conscious about the waste you produce. Can you maybe reuse some equipment? Can you maybe switch from plastic to glass beakers in some cases (or from PET to glass bottles at home) or from plastic spatulas to metal ones?
    • If it is feasible to not have your bin emptied everyday if it is only half full or collect waste organized (in 1-2 bins instead of many single bins)
    • Separate waste (aluminium foil, plastic from packaging and paper waste are easily separable)
    • Check for microplastic free soaps
    • Bring your food and beverages in reusable and transportable containers 
    • Use digital material for reading papers instead of printing

If you want to take it a step further but you’re unsure of where to begin this journey, take a look at the tables below to get some ideas of what is being done all across the MPS and how you can engage in the topic of sustainability.

Networking Sustainability

What to do?

How? Best practice

Join or create an SG in your institute

Find some help for how to do it here: 

Join Sustainability Net mailing list


Create awareness amongst colleagues

Institutes magazine, coffee breaks, discussion rounds, organize an event, MPG-wide events such as Awareness weeks or Scientist4future (

Contribute to Sustainability Network discussion and catalogue of measures

via MAX{74EE808D-F237-4873-B8B0-36F8FA411340}&file=MPG-Sustainability-Clusters-Topics-Projects.xlsx&action=default

Follow this year`s MPAA symposia



Waste & Recycling

What to do?

How? Best practice

Ordering at vendors where you can send packaging back

Ask your local Einkauf

Replace everyday articles by more sustainable ones

Ask your local Einkauf for sustainable options (recycled paper, hygiene products, recyclable rubbish bags...)

Separate rubbish (paper, organic, plastic) and have according bags or create collection areas instead of single rubbish bins in every office.

Start changing things in your lab/office and take it from there

Best pactice: MPI for Chemistry

Check if soaps in the lab and on toilet (also at home) are microplastic free

Create posters informing about it at common places (e.g. toilet) and do inform yourself about the products used:

Best practice: MPI CBS Leipzig, example for sticker here

Have a food sharing fridge at the institute

Talk to your local administration or Sustainability Group (SG) if it could be installed

Best practice: MPI Magdeburg

Recycle old posters for kindergarten

Ask local kindergarten and your GA

Recycle old furniture from the institute to local communities or for hobby rooms

Ask around locally who needs furniture

Inform new people during safety instruction about recycling rules

Talk to your safety officer to include these information

Energy Saving

What to do?

How? Best practice

Reduce autoclave cycles (e.g. in animal facilities) and change freezer configuration (e.g. -78°C instead of -80°C)

Talk to responsible persons what is possible

Intelligent lighting management, water cooling or heating management

Discuss with management and sustainability working group what is possible

Change to Eco-Energy/Ökostrom (at work and at home)

e.g. Naturstrom, Greenpeace Energy, Lichtblick


What to do?

How? Best practice

Check which species are endangered in your region to tackle specific problem

-       How can they be protected?

-       What is really needed?

Check at local animal protection groups (e.g. Bird Protection Nabu

Build Insect hotels/bee hotels or bird nesting boxes if necessary

Ask your local administration or SG and workshop

Plant flowers on green areas or have gardening projects, have wild meadows and reduce mowing

Ask your local administration or SG make it a social project e.g. apprentices project


Fair trade coffee & more vegetarian food for events in the institute

more ideas gathered here


What to do?

How? Best practice

Train instead of plane

Ongoing discussions with MPS GA if this can be funded more

Best practice: MPI Hamburg, MPI Chemistry are in ongoing discussion;

Forschungszentrum Jülich or Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung are best practice examples, discussion thread here

Compensate for CO2

always check for Gold standard sign

Basic support by MPS is currently discussed

E-bikes for short trips from the institute, institute bikes or bike sharing, proper roofed bike parking spots

Check with your local GA, SG and directors if possible

Best practice: MPI-BPC Göttingen, MPI Magdeburg


Increase the amount and technical support for video conferences

Best practice: MPI Magdeburg

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