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Taking Action Toward More Sustainable Science

Taking Action Toward More Sustainable Science

Why sustainability has a place in the laboratory

In recent years, scientists have become increasingly aware of the disproportionate environmental footprint of the life sciences industry. The statistics of laboratory energy and plastic use are staggering, with laboratories consuming 10 times more energy and four times more water than a commercial office space and producing an estimated 5.5 million metric tonnes (about 6.1 US tons) of plastic waste annually.1,2 Now, a new generation of lab managers are using these statistics as drivers for change and championing sustainability and environmental protection. They see that for a sector typically aimed at contributing to the welfare of society, environmental sustainability must be part of that contribution.

Already, things are improving. Global drivers for sustainability are developing across all sectors and there are more and more opportunities for laboratories to reduce their environmental impact. One of the most simple and effective ways to do this is by changing how plastics are used. Plastic products are crucial to many laboratory processes. From single-use pipette tips, gloves, and tubes to flasks and beakers, plastics are everywhere in the laboratory. By implementing plastic recycling and reuse programs and seeking out ways to reduce waste, research facilities, contract research organizations, and pharmaceutical companies can dramatically improve the eco-friendliness of science.  

Many of these initiatives are multifaceted, targeting changes to the everyday practices of scientists in the laboratory and how purchasing decisions are made. In parallel, labware vendors are using less energy-intensive manufacturing processes and adopting recyclable packaging and shipping materials, and guiding lab managers through reuse and recycling best practices. 

Exploring sustainable plastic labware solutions

Reducing the reliance on single-use products is an effective starting point for laboratories to be more sustainable. The advantage of using single-use plastics to avoid sample contamination, in addition to disadvantages associated with materials such as glass, has led to an over-reliance on disposable products. However, the widespread availability of high-quality, durable, and reusable labware means that reducing reliance on single-use plastics is more attainable. Such products promote sustainability, as they last a long time, need to be replaced less frequently, and can also be recycled once no longer needed, which results in less waste. What’s more, over time, there could be financial savings associated with reusable labware, in addition to time savings from not having to track and reorder stock. 

Many labware vendors are aiming to keep up-to-date with new eco-friendly materials used in plastic manufacturing to incorporate options with the lowest environmental impact, while meeting laboratory requirements. Technologies are improving and costs are coming down for manufacturers to source and use mechanically and chemically recycled resins where possible that will provide more environmentally friendly options in the long run and reduce the use of virgin plastic resins. Also, the use of bacterial enzymes to digest plastic waste for recycling is becoming a potential option for re-use of plastic polymers3. Moreover, there are ways to increase the shelf life of plastic products to help increase sustainability of plastic use. For example, washing labware with non-toxic biodegradable detergents reduces the environmental impact of chemical pollutants, non-biodegradable surfactants, and microplastics found in most conventional detergents.  

Aside from using more reusable and recycled plastics, laboratories can also choose to buy products from vendors that use sustainable manufacturing practices. Some examples include those who source renewable energy from hydroelectric plants or solar panels, promote green initiatives like the use of low-energy LED lighting, 100 percent recycled packaging materials, and shipping ambient or with more environmentally friendly paper-based cold chain shipper boxes. Material also matters: laboratories can choose products that have been manufactured using recyclable materials like polyethylene and polypropylene.   

Fostering a culture of sustainability

Selecting “green” suppliers is only part of the path to limiting a laboratory’s environmental impact: behavioral and cultural changes within teams are also needed. Many managers are working with staff to change day-to-day practices. Not only does this involve breaking habits, such as reaching for single-use labware for applications where it is not needed, but also establishing new behaviors, such as utilizing multi-use products, using non-toxic detergents, and actively recycling, where possible.  

Furthermore, even the most environmentally conscious laboratories can be hampered by a lack of information available from vendors about the sustainability of their products or their manufacturing practices. This can limit or impact a laboratory manager’s ability to choose more sustainable products, or take advantage of programs that support recycling or sustainability. Many companies do advertise their products as “eco-friendly,” but it is difficult to know if or how they are more sustainable than other products, or whether the label is a form of greenwashing. As such, laboratory managers often have to make purchasing choices without the proper tools to make informed decisions.  

To improve sustainability in the life sciences sector and enable lab managers to make more informed purchasing decisions, it’s very helpful if vendors provide transparency regarding the environmental impact of a product. One such solution is the ACT Environmental Impact Factor Label managed by the nonprofit organization, My Green Lab. The program uses an independent third-party auditor to assess the laboratory products and score them based on a number of different environmental impact factors; such as product recyclability, energy use, and sustainable manufacturing practices. My Green Lab uses the scores to produce an ACT label for each product, which can help inform a potential purchaser about a product’s environmental impact.   

The ACT label is like an eco-nutrition label for lab products. By emphasizing Accountability, Consistency, and Transparency (ACT) around manufacturing, energy and water use, packaging, and end-of-life disposal, the ACT label is designed to make the process of comparing and choosing more sustainable products easy. ACT labels can be used to compare products before purchasing something new or to evaluate the impact of a product currently in use. Reading the ACT label is simple: the lower the score, the lower the impact on the environment. Most categories are rated on a scale of 1 to 10.  All scores are added together to provide a total Environmental Impact Factor (EIF) score.  Using the ACT label, lab managers can make more informed decisions by comparing products based on their EIFs, thereby improving the sustainability of their facility.   

Toward an environmentally friendly laboratory

There are more and more ways for manufacturers and laboratories to reduce the environmental footprint of science, from using renewable energy and reusable materials in the plastic labware manufacturing process, to laboratories choosing greener products and using them in more sustainable ways. When it comes to plastics, scientists can change the way they use plastics in everyday experiments by emphasizing multi-use versus single-use products. Where it is not possible to reuse products, scientists can partake in recycling initiatives to help offset the less eco-friendly processes. 

Lab managers have the power to drive sustainability and lower their laboratories’ environmental impact by demanding products manufactured in environmentally sustainable ways. Initiatives like ACT labeling are providing transparency into manufacturing practices, encouraging more sustainable purchasing, and are a starting point on the path to greener science. 

References:

  1. Paradise. A. "Clinical Labs: Making the Switch to Green." Clinical Laboratory News. March 11, 2019. Available at: https://www.aacc.org/cln/articles/2019/march/clinical-labs-making-the-switch-to-green (Accessed: 16 June 2021).
  2. University of Exeter. "Scientists call for reduction in plastic lab waste: Five and a half million tons of plastic being generated globally in the course of scientific research." ScienceDaily. December 23, 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/12/151223221353.htm (Accessed: 16 June 2021).
  3. Cornwall, Warren.  "The plastic eaters." Science 373 (6550), 36-39. DOI: 10.1126/science.373.6550.36