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Growing Green

A voluntary program to change lab practices saves money while promoting sustainability

by Dennis Nolan
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Laboratories can be one of the largest users of electricity and water at an institution. They are also among the largest consumers of materials and generators of hazardous waste. Lab equipment can use a lot of electricity. Some of this equipment must be left on continuously.

Laboratories can also use a lot of water. Water-cooled equipment, vacuum aspirators, and rinse washers use a continuous stream of water that is not recirculated and goes directly down the drain.

While many institutions have implemented green lab design and use energy-efficient equipment, few have looked at attempting to change the practices of the lab users. Lab personnel may not consider their environmental impacts. This may be due to a lack of information about their “footprint.” Often people do not realize what they are wasting because they have not been made aware of it.

In higher education, there is a growing movement among institutions to develop programs that encourage labs to be green. Green lab programs have the potential to save researchers and facilities money while benefiting the environment. Given today’s budgetary climate, a program that promotes sustainability at minimal cost but with the potential for significant savings is a win-win scenario.

At the University of Texas at Austin, the Green Lab program started in 2010 while the university was benchmarking institutions for ideas to get researchers to self-inspect their own labs. We noticed several universities had started green lab programs. A founding concept was that the program had to be voluntary. We did not want to force labs to be green. A Green Lab recruitment email went out on Earth Day, and a small group of ten labs volunteered to be the pilot group.

One of components that green lab programs employ is a self-evaluation that lab personnel can use to assess how green their lab is. We asked our labs to complete a Green Lab self-evaluation form. [See sidebar] Once completed, the Green Lab team (the director of sustainability and the assistant director of EHS) met with the lab manager or principal investigator to review their self-evaluation and see what additional innovative green lab practices they were doing. We also asked them for suggestions on how to promote the program and to set a goal for the year.

Growing a green labs program

Green Lab stickerAfter talking with the lab managers, we decided to implement several marketing strategies to get participation. During our meetings with the lab managers, they suggested developing some type of recognition. We developed a sticker that could be placed outside the lab for others to see. We also created a promotional video to increase awareness of the program. [See website.] We asked lab managers and faculty to participate with the intent that their peers would be better advocates than administrators would be. We were very pleased when the dean of the College of Natural Sciences volunteered to have that facility become a Green Lab.

Being green does not have to be expensive

Many Green Lab practices cost little or no money. For example, by maintaining an accurate inventory of chemicals and supplies, lab managers can reduce the potential for over-ordering unnecessary materials. Having a first in, first out policy can also reduce the potential for expired reagents.

MIT implemented a website called the “Green Alternatives Wizard” ( This website assists researchers by providing them with less hazardous chemical or process alternatives. Such practices have the potential to lower institutional costs by decreasing hazardous waste disposal. In some cases, alternative chemicals may be safer to use as well.

As in your dishwasher at home, consolidating loads in glass washers and autoclaves saves energy and water. Heating blocks and water baths use a lot of electricity to maintain a constant temperature. Some of our researchers now use timers to turn on these pieces of equipment a few hours before they come into work.

Ultralow freezers

While some labs call them minus-86 freezers, Allen Doyle of the University of California, Davis, stresses that they should be called ultralow freezers. Lab personnel have the tendency to think that these freezers should be set at minus-86. Second to fume hoods, ultralow freezers are often the second-largest energy consumer in the lab. A fullsize ultralow freezer can use as much electricity in a year as your house does! They also put out as much heat as a small gas grill. When you set the temperature to minus-86, it puts a strain on the compressors to maintain maximum coldness. For every ten degrees an ultralow freezer is turned up, it will typically save $100 in electricity a year.

Having worked in a lab, I remember days when I had to put on cryogloves to search for a single sample. This process could sometimes take hours because the freezer was not inventoried. After finding the sample, it would take hours to get the freezer back to regular temperature, and the next time I went into that freezer, sample boxes were iced over. Give your freezer a break by inventorying the contents.

Most lab personnel do not think about preventive maintenance of their lab refrigerators and freezers. This is not wise. If you do not do preventive maintenance on your car, the car will not last very long. The same can be true for your lab refrigerators and freezers. Considering that these units can cost $10,000 to $15,000, you want them to last as long as possible. UT Austin conducted a survey of over 300 freezers on campus and found many needed maintenance. Cleaning the coils, filters, and gaskets will extend the life of your equipment. Labs should also periodically defrost their freezers.

UT Austin’s Energy Resource and Conservation program purchased a spare ultralow freezer for the university so that labs can defrost and service their freezers. It also acts as a backup in case a freezer fails.

Green labs and environmental health and safety

Being a green lab can also improve safety in your lab. You may be able to get your EHS person to support a green lab program.

Environmental Health and Safety implemented a close-the-sash program in 2012. Fume hoods can cost more than $5,000 a year to operate when they lose conditioned air. Keeping the fume hood sash closed protects the lab users and can also reduce operational costs.

Using less-hazardous chemicals and smaller quantities reduces the impact of spills and disposal. When Environmental Health and Safety realized that mercury spills were costing hundreds of dollars in cleanup and disposal costs, they implemented a thermometer exchange program. Labs could turn in their mercury thermometers in exchange for free alcohol thermometers.


When purchasing equipment, look for Energy Star labels. Most lab equipment will not have this logo, but if you are buying conventional refrigerators, you will see it. Many lab freezers and biosafety cabinets now list their electrical usage. Try to buy the most efficient unit. When you purchase fume hoods, consider using low-flow hoods. When purchasing lab equipment, look for equipment that can be programmed to hibernate when not in use.


One of our recent initiatives has been a composting program for our animal bedding. We mirrored a program at Emory University that composts its animal bedding. The bedding is picked up by the same company that composts our food waste from our dining halls. In one year we estimate that we have diverted a semitrailer load of animal bedding from the landfill.

Recycling and reuse

Another green lab opportunity is recycling. Check to see whether your lab plastics have a recycle symbol on them. Most likely they can be recycled if they are not contaminated. One of our faculty spearheaded a program to recycle Styrofoam from the labs. Each month labs bring their Styrofoam to the loading dock for recycling. Consider implementing a Craigslist-type program to reuse unwanted materials and equipment. The lab next door might have something you want and they don’t need!

Starting your own green lab program

When you start a green lab program, I suggest starting small and letting it grow. We had ten participants in our pilot. The following year we set a goal of getting ten more to join. We now have more than 30 lab groups in the program. Remember that you do not have to do everything, but try to do something. One of our faculty said that while an individual may not make a big impact, many working together can have a huge impact.

Getting more information

Information on green labs can be found at the Labs21 web page, . Academic institutions that have green lab programs often have web pages that you can use to get more ideas. Enter “green labs” in your favorite search engine. UT Austin’s Green Lab’s web page can be found at

Green Labs Self Evaluation

The University of Texas at Austin
Green Laboratory Self Evaluation

Principal Investigator:  
UTEID:   Phone:  
Email:   Date of Evaluation:  

This voluntary checklist was developed to assist researchers in making their laboratory greener. Laboratories use more energy than any other facility on campus. They are also significant material consumers and waste generators.

Having a Green Lab can save researchers money. By using green laboratory practices, researchers spend less on unnecessary materials and equipment. Green lab practices also benefit the environment by consuming and disposing less.

Note that these practices should only be considered and used when it is safe to do so. Safety first!

Check “yes” only if your laboratory exhibits a characteristic 75% of the time or more.

CHEMICALS: Does the lab:YNN/A
1. Maintain and review their chemical inventory to prevent over-purchasing  Ο  Ο  Ο
2. Use chemicals/reagents first in, first out  Ο  Ο  Ο
3. Use mercury-free equipment whenever possible (thermometers, electrodes)  Ο  Ο  Ο
4. Use green chemistry practices…
  a. Scale down procedures to use less chemicals  Ο  Ο  Ο
  b. Use more efficient chemical reactions  Ο  Ο  Ο
  c. Substitute with less toxic chemicals in experiments  Ο  Ο  Ο
  d. Use computer simulations as a substitute  Ο  Ο  Ο
5. Maintain an inventory of supplies and equipment and check before ordering  Ο  Ο  Ο
6. Purchase recycled products whenever possible  Ο  Ο  Ο
7. Not order more materials than expected to be used in a reasonable amount of time  Ο  Ο  Ο
8. Check with Surplus before purchasing equipment, office furniture and appliances  Ο  Ο  Ο
9. Use vendor equipment buy-back programs  Ο  Ο  Ο
10. Purchase energy efficient (such as Energy Star) equipment whenever possible  Ο  Ο  Ο
RECYCLING Does the lab:YNN/A
11. Use a shared office and lab supplies area  Ο  Ο  Ο
12. Recycle paper (good on one side) and other office supplies  Ο  Ο  Ο
13. Print/copy double-sided whenever possible  Ο  Ο  Ο
14. Recycle wire hangers for lab coats  Ο  Ο  Ο
15. Use rechargeable batteries  Ο  Ο  Ο
16. Turn off equipment when not in use  Ο  Ο  Ο
17. Disconnect unused equipment to reduce phantom loads  Ο  Ο  Ο
18. Put computers, copiers, printers in sleep mode when not in use  Ο  Ο  Ο
19. Turn off lights when leaving (even during the day)  Ο  Ο  Ο
20. Consolidate materials in freezers and refrigerators to use less equipment  Ο  Ο  Ο
21. Use room temperature storage methods for DNA/RNA  Ο  Ο  Ο
22. Turn off biosafety cabinet when not in use and turn off UV lights after 1 hour  Ο  Ο  Ο
AIR Does the lab:YNN/A
23. Keep chemical fume hood sash lowered as much as possible to
reduce volume of conditioned air being exhausted to the outside
 Ο  Ο  Ο
WATER/STEAM Does the lab:YNN/A
24. Cooling lines: use a closed loop chilling instead of a single pass system  Ο  Ο  Ο
25. Report water leaks to Facility Services immediately  Ο  Ο  Ο
26. Turn off pipette washer/rinser as soon as pipettes are clean  Ο  Ο  Ο
WASTE Does the lab:YNN/A
27. Autoclaves: consolidate loads when possible. Defrost frozen materials before autoclaving  Ο  Ο  Ο
28. Biohazardous and Sharps waste: Dispose only when 2/3 full.  Ο  Ο  Ο
29. Mail: Remove names from vendor catalog mailing lists  Ο  Ο  Ο
TRAINING Does the lab:YNN/A
30. Train lab personnel on green lab practices  Ο  Ο  Ο


Please describe any additional green initiatives that your laboratory has implemented.