Innovative Steps to an Environmentally-Friendly Lab
Almost no one disputes the value of “going green” as a way to improve the health of the planet - it's also good for business. Labs have begun to look at green initiatives as a way to attract top talent as they become more competitive in addressing the world’s needs. They are beginning to adopt new models of collaboration, innovative building design and green chemicals. Advice on going green abounds, and recent articles have mentioned a multitude of actions that can be taken to make a lab more environmentally friendly. Much of the advice involves a significant investment in time and money, such as the design (or redesign) of buildings and facilities.
Yet the reality is that one simple approach that is within the reach of any lab is consistently ignored. This valuable approach is “going local.” Sourcing products locally, buying products locally and recycling products locally are all ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint while reaping important ancillary benefits.
Lab managers everywhere, with tight budgets and limited time on their hands, can take this advice today, to the benefit of their labs, their local communities and the world at large. From buying new products in a more environmentally friendly fashion, to identifying surplus materials and sharing them, to engaging in innovative recycling programs, these steps all have a local angle and benefit the local community. We will discuss each activity in turn and show how each contributes to a greener lab.
Sharing surplus material and supplies with local schools
Look at your bookshelves, under desks and tables, and in closets. How many pieces of equipment do you see that were used in a previous project but are no longer needed? How many bags of pipette tips, microtubes and other plasticware are sitting in corners gathering dust when they could be used by someone else? How many items are out of date but still serviceable?
Now think about the local junior highs, secondary schools and community colleges. Their labs are woefully underequipped, yet they serve as the incubator for future scientists. They are often hungry for the very materials that are sitting idle in labs. It would be great if the surplus materials could make their way to the hands of the students who need them.
Consider establishing a “giveaway day” for local schools, during which you place surplus items in a central location and then invite representatives to come choose items they need. If this seems like a lot of work, you might be lucky enough to find that a local lab supply distributor or a major supply vendor has already set up donation days in which surplus equipment and supplies, collected by them ahead of time, are donated to representatives of local schools. In the San Francisco Bay Area, BABEC (Bay Area Biotechnology Education Consortium—www.babec.org) and RAFT (Resource Area for Teaching—www. raft.net) partner with distributors and labs to provide surplus supplies at minimal or no cost to educators.
Spending a few minutes identifying and collecting surplus materials will go a long way toward supporting the local community, nurturing future scientists, creating community goodwill and de-cluttering your lab—leading to greater efficiency and productivity.
Local recycling - beyond the basics
Recycling used paper is becoming the norm in many labs. Recycling bins for cardboard, brown glass and electronic waste are being seen more and more. But the possibilities don’t stop there. Many plastics can be recycled, most notably empty pipette tip racks.
The choices for recycling are many, but the first step is the same: develop a company-sponsored initiative that supports, encourages and streamlines recycling. Setting out recycling bins, putting up posters and stressing the importance of the program in organizational meetings all have a place in fostering an environment of recycling.
Contact your lab supply distributor to find out if there is a recycling program in place. Some distributors will actually come to your lab to pick up plastics provided by them and take them to a recycling plant free of charge. Check to make sure the recycling plant is local. It makes no environmental sense to ship plastics 3,000 miles to a recycling facility, especially when local plants can do the job just as well.
Perhaps the best way to recycle is not to purchase unneeded supplies at all!
Local sourcing and manufacturing
One of the most astonishing aspects of labware purchasing is the great distances many supplies have to travel—often a costly round-trip that could be avoided. Brian Ruf, owner of E&K Scientific Inc. (www.eandkscientific.com), a Santa Clara, California, distributor of lab supplies, had an epiphany one day while visiting a client’s lab. He noticed that researchers and technicians were using tremendous amounts of labware that was being shipped from warehouses outside California. Although many of the products were actually manufactured in California, they were sometimes being shipped to warehouses on the East Coast, only to make the journey back when the customer placed an order—leading to more cost, more carbon emissions, more time and 69 percent less money going back into the local economy.
Ruf knew there had to be a better way to avoid this tremendous waste and negative environmental impact. He found a local manufacturing firm known for producing high-quality products. In partnership with the manufacturer, he developed the Accuflow line of products, which are made, warehoused and sold locally. The line even includes a refill system that enables researchers to reuse empty boxes, further reducing waste.
Bolstered by the success of this line, Ruf is now collaborating with other local manufacturers to solve emerging problems such as plate warping, and he will continue to plow proceeds back into the local economy.
Locally manufactured products are reusable and recyclable
Green purchasing—also known as environmentally preferred purchasing—embodies the idea of buying sustainable products in a sustainable way. Today there are many products that are cost-competitive and still manage to be environmentally friendly. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides resources to help in establishing a green purchasing program at www.epa. gov/epp. The site also has a list of green products and services. Check the list to find local suppliers that participate, to ensure that you are buying locally and green at the same time. If your preferred suppliers are not on the list, encourage them to take the necessary steps to become environmentally friendly.
There are many benefits to green purchasing. Natural resources are preserved through the use of recycled content. The local economy is supported. And the energy associated with transporting products long distances is saved. Most important, green purchasing can improve both employee morale and shareholder value.
There are some simple steps that laboratory managers can take today to make the workplace greener, improving the research process and the work experience. Sourcing, buying, sharing and recycling locally not only leads to a healthier workplace, these actions can streamline processes, reduce costs and build a stronger local community.