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How Labs Can Curb Carbon Emissions

Collaboration, training, and analyzing internal processes are vital to reducing carbon emissions

Holden Galusha

Holden Galusha is the associate editor for Lab Manager. He was a freelance contributing writer for Lab Manager before being invited to join the team full-time. Previously, he was the...

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Carbon emissions remain a growing side effect of laboratory operations. According to a recent report published by non-profit My Green Lab with data provided by Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), the carbon impact of the biotech/pharma industry raised from a total carbon impact of 3.9 percent to five percent in 2022. And with the industry expected to be worth $3.9 trillion by 2030, according to the report, these emissions will only increase unless action is taken now.

While it is undeniably vital that major players in the industry commit to sustainable science, labs of all sizes might find a synergy by taking steps to reduce their own emissions that, at scale, have a notable positive effect on the environment.

But how can labs achieve this? Ultimately, their efforts must be tailored to address the three scopes of carbon emissions.

Defining the emissions scopes

There are three scopes by which carbon emissions are categorized:

  • Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from assets and resources that an organization owns or controls. Examples include facility emissions, vehicle emissions, and, in the case of laboratories, fume hood emissions.
  • Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions originated from sources of purchased energy. Examples include emissions from the power plant providing energy to a lab, as well as locally purchased systems, such as emissions from air conditioning and heating systems.
  • Scope 3 emissions are indirect emissions generated by all activities up- and downstream from the lab, such as transportation, distribution, and emissions from leased assets.

Decreasing emissions across all three scopes requires internal process changes, collaboration, and analysis. Lab managers can help decrease emissions from their labs across all three scopes with informed decisions and a thoughtful approach.

Close to home: cutting scope 1 emissions

Scope 1 emissions come from resources that the lab directly owns or controls. It is important to note that this does not include electricity consumed by lab equipment; while the equipment is owned by the lab, the energy itself is generated at a power plant and then purchased by the lab. As such, curbing scope 1 emissions would involve practices to decrease fossil fuel usage in company vehicles and regularly maintaining equipment to prevent greenhouse gases from leaking.

There are small improvements that all staff can make that can have a significant cumulative effect on their lab's emissions.

Curb fossil fuel usage

If your lab relies on a company-owned vehicle to carry out tasks, such as making local supply runs or transporting samples across your facility’s campus, consider optimizing the routes to cut fossil fuel emissions and save time. Route planning software can be used to map the most efficient routes.

Regularly maintain assets and infrastructure

Lab assets such as freezers and facility infrastructure like air-conditioning units can leak greenhouse gases (GHGs) from their refrigeration loops. Regular preventive maintenance is vital to stopping these leaks and eliminating GHG emissions.

Foster a culture of lab sustainability

“It’s important for a sustainability strategy that you [the lab manager] get everybody involved,” says James Connelly, CEO of My Green Lab, in an exclusive  interview with Lab Manager. Ideas to make lab operations more sustainable can come from anyone, from bench scientists to facility maintenance workers. Cultivating awareness of sustainability across your organization is perhaps one of the most effective steps a lab manager can take in curbing their lab’s carbon emissions, as it opens the floor for anyone to contribute ideas that lab leadership may not have the frame of reference to see.

Ultimately, labs have the most influence over scope 1 emissions. There are small improvements that all staff can make that can have a significant cumulative effect on their lab’s emissions.

Energy smart: curbing scope 2 emissions

Use more efficient equipment

Scope 2 changes would typically involve laboratory assets using purchased electrical power. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have become cognizant of the environmental effect their products have when operating in the lab, and as a result, many have started informing their equipment designs with sustainability best practices. Ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers are a prime example. Some ULT freezers are now charged with hydrocarbon refrigerant, which is much more environmentally friendly than hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants. Alternatively, there are also Sterling engine ULT freezers available that promise energy savings of 50 percent or more.

Fume hoods also have sustainable alternatives.  Assuming it is suitable for your application, consider investing in a ductless fume hood that instead relies on a carbon filter to capture fumes, rather than piping them outside the facility.

There are also eco-friendly operation modes for many other types of equipment, such as centrifuges. Look for such modes on equipment that your lab already has and consider enabling them if they will still meet your lab’s needs.

Identify emissions hotspots

According to Connelly, there are calculation programs available that can identify the “life cycle [environmental] impact of research laboratories,” such as Labos’ open source GES 1point5 calculator. GES 1point5 makes it relatively straightforward to quantify a lab’s carbon footprint, which can inform where hotspots may be. That said, such an analysis may not be needed; you can manually locate hotspots by examining your lab’s equipment and workflows. Connelly explains: “If you have a [high] throughput of materials and you produce a lot of waste, that’s probably your hotspot. Identifying your biggest energy-consuming equipment tends to be fume hoods, freezers, autoclaves, or biosafety cabinets . . . you can address [these hotspots] pretty quickly.” Note that the emissions hotspots Connelly describes can occur in any of the three scopes.

Optimize inventory management

By managing inventory more intelligently, such as by using a dedicated inventory management program, labs can reduce waste and potentially lessen the frequency of deliveries. Additionally, it may be possible to consolidate multiple shipments into one. Work with your supply vendors to explore what options exist to accomplish this.

Implement intelligent climate control

Laboratory HVAC systems use a tremendous amount of energy, with ventilation systems comprising up to 44 percent of a lab’s total consumption. To reduce this energy usage, consider implementing facility monitoring systems that will automatically adjust temperature settings based on occupancy. This can allow  the site to save energy overnight or at other times that the lab is unoccupied by scaling back these settings facility-wide

While scope 2 emissions are somewhat less out of a lab’s control than scope 1 emissions, lab managers still have options for reducing them. The key is being open to change—effectively addressing scope 2 issues necessitates introducing new tech like monitoring and facility automation, as well as revamping internal processes.

Collaboration: the key to combating scope 3 emissions

Scope 3 emissions are those originating from any activity up- or downstream from the lab that is not owned by the lab, including travel, distribution, and leased assets. According to the report, in 2022, scope 3 emissions were 4.6 times greater than the emissions of scope 1 and 2 combined. To address scope 3 emissions, collaboration with other organizations in the supply chain is vital.

Practice conscientious waste management

When asked about what lab managers can do to reduce scope 3 emissions, Connelly comments: “. . . They can reduce the volume of waste. So, what can be recycled? Are we putting everything that absolutely has to go into the red bag waste in the red bag waste? [Or] can some of it, if properly sorted, go into typical waste hauling?” Connelly explains that unnecessarily putting waste into biohazardous waste bags will consume more power than necessary when autoclaved, a process that “takes a huge amount of energy . . . [and] there’s no way you’re going to ever recycle an autoclaved bag of waste. [All of] the plastics have fused together, they’ve deformed, they’ve degraded.” Ensure that staff are trained in sorting waste and disposing of it properly, never putting things into red bag waste that could otherwise go in standard waste bins and be recycled downstream.

Scope 3 emissions lie at the points of intersection with other organizations, whether they be suppliers, distributors, or otherwise.

Partner with like-minded suppliers and distributors

Because scope 3 emissions are up- and downstream of the lab, reducing them necessitates partnering with other organizations in the supply chain that are also committed to sustainability. An easy way to identify such suppliers is to find those who have achieved a certified commitment to sustainability, such as the ACT Label from My Green Lab or some equivalent. It’s imperative that the certification is issued by a neutral third party. “. . . People now really want third-party certifications. They’re not happy with industry self-certifications, for obvious reasons. You don’t mark your own homework; [it] has to be an independent, third-party-verified standard,” says Connelly.

Scope 3 emissions lie at the points of intersection with other organizations, whether they be suppliers, distributors, or otherwise. As such, collaboration is a necessity to reduce emissions effectively. By seeking out partners who share your commitment to sustainable practices, you can work with them to optimize the logistics around your collaborative activities and drive down carbon emissions together.

Despite the recent spike in carbon emissions shown in the latest report, the biotech/pharma industry can still curb its carbon emissions significantly. It may be necessary, however, that these initiatives be spearheaded at the level of individual labs in grassroots efforts for sustainability. Lab managers should continually look for ways to reduce their lab’s own emissions and encourage others to do the same if they wish to drive change.