Lab managers set the tone of a laboratory. They have enormous influence over the lab’s priorities, operation, and culture. If anyone in a lab is in a position to build a culture of sustainability, it is the lab manager. By becoming aware of the environmental impact of their lab and the opportunities for conservation, lab managers can shift the culture of the lab to one that is more sustainable. The easiest, most impactful place to start to build a culture of sustainability in the lab is with waste.

What is waste? Waste is usually thought to be what we throw away, what is left after we’ve recycled, reused, and composted. This is also true in laboratories, where conversations about waste typically focus on diverting readily recyclable plastics from the landfill. However, this understanding of waste is very narrow. Waste is anything that we are not utilizing to its full potential. Waste is purchasing things that are not necessary, holding onto things that are not being used, and squandering valuable resources.

Using this broader definition, it is clear that we underutilize our resources. Below are five actions you can take to reduce waste in your lab. These are based on My Green Lab’s Five Principles for Reducing Waste.

Buy out of necessity

Just as having a car in Manhattan is likely a waste for anyone who takes the subway 347 days a year, buying equipment for a particular project is also likely a waste. The culture of capital equipment ownership only makes sense if the equipment will be regularly used by the lab that purchased it. In all other cases, equipment should be shared. This mindset has already been applied to some pieces of equipment, such as specialized microscopes, but it can easily be extended to all equipment. The University of Colorado, Boulder has created two innovative sharing programs that have met with great success, one for sharing ultralow-temperature freezer space and one for sharing biosafety cabinets. The University of California, Santa Barbara has also fostered a culture of sharing equipment by creating an online map of all shareable equipment on campus.

Sharing equipment reduces waste in several ways. By not purchasing new equipment, labs are preventing raw materials from being used to create something that will not be fully utilized; certain resources that would have been used to run the equipment are not expended; the valuable space that the equipment would have occupied remains open for some other use; and the lab maximizes its economic resources. In addition, the equipment that is being shared is being used to its fullest potential.

Purchasing only what is needed for the lab extends beyond capital equipment. All consumables should be approached with the same mindset for the same reason. Many organizations are becoming aware of the potential to share consumables, employing online platforms to facilitate the sharing. If an online sharing platform is not an option, simply sharing with neighboring colleagues is an excellent way to minimize waste.

Let go

Every lab has that one shelf or drawer filled with “maybe one day we’ll need this again” items. Holding onto things the lab is not using wastes space and the materials themselves, which are not being fully utilized. If there isn’t anyone in your department or institution who needs these items, consider donating them or selling them to a lab equipment resale company. Nonprofits like Seeding Labs will donate used equipment to scientists in need. There are also several laboratory resale companies in North America that would be happy to buy those unused items.

Donating consumables can be more challenging. Most high schools will welcome gloves or pipette tips. Startups and incubator spaces are also usually willing to accept laboratory consumables.

If the items cannot be reused, recycle the components that can be recycled so that those materials can be reused to their fullest potential.

Use only what you need

If equipment does not need to be left on overnight, turn it off. If there is an opportunity to eliminate single-pass cooling (often used in chemistry labs to cool reactions), choose an alternative. If the lab has adequate daylight, turn off the overhead lights. Take only what you need. Most labs do not need to be using the amount of electricity or water they consume.

Think holistically

Because it is not possible to share all resources in the lab, being mindful of what you purchase with respect to the environmental impact of the product is the most important action you can take to reduce waste. This means choosing to purchase products based on performance, price, and environmental impact. It also means starting a product search with surplus sales and used-equipment vendors to avoid buying something new. Often, purchasing used equipment can be the most sustainable, least wasteful, most economic option for a lab.

Choosing products based on environmental impact requires a new way of thinking. In some cases, this choice may be obvious. When faced with the choice between a glassware washer that uses 11 gallons of water/cycle and one that uses 20 gallons, all other things being equal, it is clear that the washer that uses 11 gallons/cycle is less wasteful and has a lower environmental impact.

Related Article: A More Holistic Approach to Laboratory Resource Reduction

In other cases, it is not as obvious. Consider pipette tips. Because pipette tips themselves are rarely recyclable and most tip boxes are recyclable, it would appear that purchasing any box of tips would have the same impact and generate the same amount of waste. However, this is not true. Tips made by a manufacturer that uses renewable energy, recycles excess plastic in the manufacturing process, or designs the packaging to be readily recyclable are inherently less wasteful than tips made by a manufacturer that uses coal-fired plants, that scraps extra plastic, and whose packaging materials are not recyclable. Thus, even though the lab still discards pipette tips, it can nevertheless reduce waste by simply making a more sustainable purchase.

The life cycle impact of a product should be factored into every purchasing decision. Adopting this mind-set not only reduces waste in the lab but can lead to industry-wide change. A transformation occurred in the ultralowtemperature freezer market three years ago as a result of more scientists choosing to purchase energy-efficient freezers. Every major freezer manufacturer now sells an energy-efficient model.

The fastest, easiest way to determine the environmental impact of a product is to look for ecolabels. Ecolabels are designed to communicate sustainable product attributes. ENERGY STAR® is an ecolabel, for example. There are ENERGY STAR-labeled −20C and ultralow-temperature freezers. When viewed through the lens of the broad definition of waste, non–ENERGY STAR freezers are wasteful; they consume more energy than is necessary, and their disposal requires additional steps to manage the refrigerants.

Another laboratory product–specific ecolabel is ACT. The ACT ecolabel is a nutrition label for laboratory products, clearly stating the environmental impact of the manufacturing, use, and disposal of a product and its packaging. There are more than 200 ACT-labeled products available to view on the ACT website.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of being mindful of what you purchase. Doing this one simple thing can have far-reaching implications for the lab and the laboratory products industry.

Reuse/Repurpose

Reuse and recycle whenever possible. The ability to reuse and recycle starts with procurement. For example, Thermo Fisher Scientific recently started shipping some of its products in fully recyclable paper coolers instead of Styrofoam. The paper cooler packaging can be recycled into something new; Styrofoam coolers are nearly always unutilized and end up in a landfill. If the lab is thinking holistically about the impact of the products it purchases and chooses the products packaged in the paper cooler, the lab will naturally have less waste.

If your organization has the ability to recycle materials, place recycling bins with clear signage in the lab. Lab-waste audits reveal poor recycling behavior in labs without easy access to recycling bins or with ambiguous signage. Many of these labs struggle just to recycle paper, let alone more difficult materials such as plastic or glass.

Related Article: How Labware Choices Impact a Lab's Environmental Footprint

Finding outlets for products and packaging at their end of life can be challenging. In general, vendor take-back/reuse programs, when available, are the best option, followed by recycling options. Vendor take-back programs are constantly evolving. As of the writing of this article, the most widespread vendor take-back/recycling programs are the following:

  • New England Biolabs: Styrofoam coolers (reuse)
  • MilliporeSigma: Styrofoam coolers (reuse) and MilliQ water filter cartridges via the ech2o program (recycle)
  • Corning: all packaging (recycle)
  • Kimberly-Clark: nitrile gloves (recycle)

Plastic recycling is constantly evolving. PET and HDPE (plastics #1 and #2) remain the easiest to recycle. Many lab products are made from a mixture of plastics or from polypropylene (#5) or polystyrene (#6), which are much more difficult to recycle. Waste-to-energy, or incinerating waste to provide energy, has become increasingly popular as a result of the lack of outlets for some of the more common lab plastics. In conclusion

Laboratory buildings consume 10 times more energy and at least four times more water than do office spaces, and are estimated to discard more than 12 billion pounds of plastic every year. It doesn’t have to be this way. Implementing the five actions above will significantly reduce the environmental impact of your work while simultaneously helping transform one of the largest industries on the planet into one that is more sustainable. It really is that easy. This Earth Month, maximize your potential as a member of the global community and as a lab manager: reduce the environmental impact of your lab.