Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Green Up!

Laboratory managers can play a leading role in implementing improvements in research process and facility management. When coupled with lean thinking, these objectives can become powerful tools for change with an eye toward sustainability.

by John C. Mlade,Daniel D. Watch
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

Improving the Science of Science with an Eye Toward Sustainability

Over the last five to 10 years there have been several key developments in the ways we conduct research. From new models for collaboration within and among research teams, to innovative ways to design and construct sustainable laboratory buildings to support and encourage human interactions, to equipment running more samples faster than ever before, research processes continue to evolve. The primary reason for these developments is to accelerate research in order to be more competitive in the marketplace and to address many of the needs facing our world today.

The best researchers are in very high demand globally. To attract and retain such talent, government agencies, private industry and academia are building and operating green laboratories that provide stimulating spaces with ample natural light, thoughtful interior design, inviting work spaces, shared equipment resources, and efficient architectural and engineered systems that adapt to changes in research agendas. Green buildings not only save on operation expenses, but can improve productivity and provide superior research environments. The design and operation of your facility are very important, and should take into account sustainable initiatives in order to be successful.

The laboratory manager plays a key role in creating such a facility. While most lab managers work in existing facilities and rarely if ever have the opportunity to contribute to the design of new laboratories, many opportunities exist for lab managers to improve laboratory management in ways that will facilitate research and keep an eye toward sustainability. The following represent ideas beginning to take hold at some research institutions. They are directly applicable to the work of laboratory managers and, if implemented using the Six Sigma process or other lean thinking strategies, can deliver positive results for any institution. 

Sort and Recycle

The research team is asked to take inventory of what is in the lab and determine if everything is still necessary. If the supply is not necessary then it should be recycled. The intent of this effort is to help clean up the laboratory and reduce the amount of research-impeding clutter that tends to accumulate over time.

Label and Store

Label all laboratory supplies and store them in a consistent location. All storage needs to be planned. As the research process is mapped out, appropriate storage locations are identified and labeled to help organize the lab. KanBan is a Japanese lean management approach for supplies that utilizes a signboard listing all supplies necessary in the lab and the lowest amount acceptable before more supplies need to be ordered. The research team orders just-in-time supplies to minimize storage costs, clutter in the lab and the use of expensive laboratory space for storage. On a campus setting or in a large facility, consider centralized ordering and distribution.


Standardize the bench size with mobile casework to be as effective as possible. Typically a three-foot module is used because that is the amount of room needed for knee space when someone is seated. The tables are typically six feet long to accommodate one three-foot-wide mobile base cabinet and a knee space, or two mobile base cabinets. By adopting a plan for laboratory flexibility, a strategy for bench size standardization can be phased in.

Green Chemistry

Green chemistry, the practice of designing chemicals that are environmentally benign yet commercially viable, is coming into its own. As always, advances in science beget advances in business. The principles of green chemistry are being adopted in a growing range of industries, such as biomedical, electronics and consumer goods.

“Green chemistry has already turned maize into biodegradable plastics, developed non-toxic solvents and dramatically reduced the toxic byproducts from the manufacture of popular pharmaceuticals like ibuprofen.

It is vital to the production of Toyota’s new electric cars, made in part from kenaf, an annual grass plant,” reported Soyatech, a provider to the soybean and oilseed industries.

Green chemistry reduces pollution at its source by designing products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous substances. In practicing green chemistry, the designer of a chemical carefully considers an agent’s eventual impact on the world. Is this material or its by-products toxic? How will this affect those working with it? Is it renewable? Greening a process also involves reducing the number of steps, energy input and waste. Why use a large molecular compound when only a small part of it is needed?

While both Europe and Asia have long pushed green chemistry, it has only recently gained traction in the United States. The Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, which established a national policy to prevent or reduce pollution at its source, gave a green light to green chemistry. The Environmental Protection Agency, charged with enforcing the act, promoted green chemistry through research grants, public-private partnerships and its prized Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge awards.

Today, the list of successes in the business application of green chemistry is growing. “DuPont’s Teflon production pollution problem was solved by rethinking how the molecules making up Teflon are put together. It now uses carbon dioxide as a surfactant rather than the toxic perfluorooctanoic acid,” reported Soyatech. “To produce one of its most popular drugs, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer revised a complex four-step process that produced toxic wastes into a one-step process using ethanol, saving millions of dollars. Other big pharma companies have made similar changes in their manufacturing processes, saved millions of dollars, and now regularly win environmental awards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

Nearly all chemicals currently come from petrochemical sources, but much of green chemistry involves utilizing living things, such as plants. Thus chemists need to be retrained in their thinking and approaches. Green chemistry proponents also speak of the urgency to teach green practices to scientists in developing countries.

Green chemistry and toxicology are increasingly being taught in science courses, requiring students to forge new methods. Academic institutions are also increasing the number of laboratories suited to green chemistry. And because these labs use 75 to 80 percent fewer energy hogging fume hoods than traditional labs, the institutions are saving a tremendous amount in energy costs.

Environmentally Preferred Purchasing

Environmentally preferred purchasing, or green purchasing, is the practice of purchasing sustainable products for business operations, including laboratories, and may include paper, office supplies, furniture, chemicals, dry lab supplies and janitorial supplies.

Implementing a green purchasing protocol is largely a policy decision, although stakeholder adherence should be monitored and support offered as needed. Once a green purchasing policy are put into place, it is relatively easy to continue. The green product market has expanded considerably in recent years and offers many products that are cost-competitive compared to their conventional counterparts.

For green purchasing program to be effective, it may be necessary to centralize purchasing activities. Many benefits support the centralization of purchasing, including economies of scale and purchasing power, single-point accountability and reporting on purchasing, evaluation and tracking of improvement, and a reduction in research for suitable products.

The value of purchasing green is several-fold. In addition to preserving natural resources through recycled content, the local economy may be supported through the purchase of regional products. For some products, such as furniture and finishes, green cleaning products, chemical alternatives, and office copy machines, an improvement in indoor air quality may be realized. For other items, such as fuel-efficient vehicles and Energy Star appliances and equipment, operational savings may be achieved.

Green cleaning is a smart practice that contributes to the operation and maintenance of sustainable facilities. The benefits include reduced exposure to potentially hazardous chemical, biological and particulate contaminants that impact human and environmental health. In many cases, green cleaning programs can save money, because many green cleaning practices, such as the use of appropriate entryway systems, reduce the amount of dirt, pollen and other contaminants that enter the building

In addition to using low- and no-VOC cleaning products that limit impact on indoor air quality, green cleaning programs also regularly utilize chemical concentrates with appropriate dilution systems, deck-to-deck partitions and negative pressure in janitorial closets, training of maintenance personnel, and hand soaps that do not contain antimicrobial agents, unless otherwise required. Comprehensive green cleaning programs may also include energy-saving strategies such as using energy-efficient equipment and scheduling cleaning during daylight hours to reduce nighttime lighting and allow building temperature and ventilation setbacks.

For laboratory managers, implementing a green purchasing program should take into account the following concepts:

• Existing guidelines: The U.S. EPA has developed considerable resources to guide the creation of a green purchasing program. http://

• Source reduction: Labs can buy less of what will become waste.

• Waste stream diversion: In order to ensure that recycled content products are utilizing former waste streams, products are used longer through reclamation and refinishing, and are also recyclable.

• Use of local materials: This supports local economies and reduces the embodied energy associated with transporting products.

• Decreased toxicity: Buying products whose manufacture, use and disposal avoid hazardous chemicals and materials.


In summary, laboratory managers can play a leading role in identifying and implementing improvements in research processes and facility management. From green chemistry to flexible design and environmentally preferred purchasing, opportunities exist to support green initiatives. When coupled with lean thinking, these objectives can become powerful tools for change with an eye toward sustainability.