Environmental sustainability — or “going green” — is a way to meet needs with less adverse impact on the world in which we live. Reusing materials, reducing the amount of energy and raw materials consumed, and recycling materials whenever possible not only makes good sense for the environment, but also returns value to production processes and lowers costs.

What can you as a lab manager do to help your own laboratory go green? You may have already discovered that recycling can reduce your costs and enhance the bottom line. Your customers may be asking you to provide evidence that you are operating in an environmentally sensitive manner so that they can rest assured knowing their supply chain is “green.” Even your own employees may be concerned with environmental issues and want to become part of the solution, knowing that they are helping to reduce negative impacts on our world.

Here are some opportunities for you to consider:

RECYCLE / REUSE / REDUCE

Let’s begin outside your lab. First, encourage and support recycling of materials in break rooms and other common areas. Segregate paper, aluminum, glass, and plastics in their own bins for recycling. Determine the best place to locate bins for collecting batteries and other workplace materials for recycling. In 2007, Sigma-Aldrich implemented several new recycling programs for resources consumed within our own facility offices. We have partnered with local recycling companies and organizations to establish a reliable and easy-to-manage recycling program.

Inside your lab, there may be opportunities to “green” the lab. Here are several options: (1) minimize the need to print and photocopy whenever possible. If a hard copy is necessary, make only one and send other copies electronically. (2) Consider a validated record keeping system for optical or electronic storage. (3) Look for resources that offer new ideas and alternatives using “green” chemistry (e.g., progressively using safer and environmentally friendly chemical alternatives as a substitute for more hazardous materials).

There are also opportunities to work with vendors to support recycling. We launched a well-received program to provide our bulk solvents customers with an easy process to return empty containers and cylinders. We also have a new polystyrene container recycling program. We pay all costs for the program, making it a unique opportunity to participate risk-free.

WASTE MINIMIZATION

If possible, redesign processes to generate less waste. Review procedures to determine where changes to reduce waste streams may be practical and safe. Do your procedures prescribe the rate at which water is to be left running when it is necessary? Are employees following procedures?

Purchase chemical supplies in amounts only as needed. Try to keep inventories as low as practical. Speak with your chemical suppliers to see if they can provide shorter turnaround times in order to allow you to minimize materials stored onsite.

Review procedures to identify opportunities to use less solvent, or an alternative solvent that is safer and more environmentally friendly. We were one of the first to supply 2-methyl tetrahydrofuran (2-MeTHF) and the only domestic distributor to supply cyclopentyl methyl ether (CPME). 2-MeTHF can be characterized as a true “green solvent” since it is manufactured from a by-product of agricultural waste, such as corncobs, bagasse, and sugar cane stalks. CPME is much more stable than both THF and 2-MeTHF when it comes to forming peroxides and does not have any of the safety risks or storage issues that occur when working with inhibitor-free THF.

Determine if it is possible to send packaging materials back to suppliers for re-use. With the Solvent Returnable Container program, customers can return all empty containers to Sigma-Aldrich to be refilled and reused. This eliminates the amount of glass and cardboard waste generated. The returnable containers maintain a positive nitrogen pressure that keeps solvents from being exposed to the atmosphere. This extends the shelf life for high purity solvents, thus reducing the amount of solvent going to hazardous waste. Investigate local recycling opportunities for non-hazardous packaging materials.

ENERGY REDUCTION

Take inventory of how energy is used around your lab. Determine, by percentage if you can, to what extent energy is consumed for lighting and for equipment. Make the simplest changes first; use low energy-consuming, low mercury- containing light bulbs. Evaluate the impact of replacing water aspirators with vacuum pumps. Turn off lights at the end of the day, or for prolonged periods of non-use during the day. Turn off fume hoods when not in use.

ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS (EMS)

An EMS can be simple or sophisticated. It can serve as the record-keeping system and the waste-management system. A simple EMS may be a manual filing system that is properly managed and routinely updated. A sophisticated electronic EMS can organize and manage all information going through your laboratory. It can send reminders to those responsible for permit conditions, reveal resource use and waste disposal trends, and create compliance reports. An EMS can facilitate efficient management review and assign corrective actions and tracking to support continual process improvements. There are many EMS providers who create software for select industries. Many providers offer helpful demonstrations of their products.

ISO 14001 CERTIFICATION

Have your customers ever asked if your operations are ISO certified? If not, eventually they will. Your customers may want confirmation that your laboratory is being run in an environmentally sensitive manner. One way you can communicate this message is through ISO certification. Like EMS, ISO certification can be simple or complex, depending on your operations. The topics and programs discussed above, however, contain most of the elements of an ISO 14001 system, including Environmental Commitment and Policy, Planning, Implementation and Operation, Checking and Corrective Action, and Management Review.

SUMMARY

I have found that a committed group of passionate volunteers can make for a very creative and effective implementation committee. I have used committees to brainstorm, to investigate what others in the industry are doing, to prioritize ideas and needs, to assess the business aspects and costs of implementation, and to create awareness among other employees regarding sustainability efforts. A small committee of passionate employees can help solve problems quickly, and can be just plain fun to interact with. Depending upon the size of your laboratory operations, consider creating a “green” committee of your own, or merge with an existing (and effective) one, such as the safety committee, to create an Environmental, Safety and Health Steering Committee that can efficiently consider ideas, prioritize projects, and make business cases to management on the benefits of “green” activities. A stepwise approach, such as pursuing the opportunities discussed above, can help build confidence and momentum toward launching an effective green program in your laboratory.