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Making Sustainable Labs a Reality

Making Sustainable Labs a Reality

How to reduce the environmental impact of research

Rachael Relph

Rachael Relph is the chief sustainability officer at My Green Lab, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a culture of sustainability through science.

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Lately, it’s been hard to miss all the news articles about rising ocean temperatures and plastics in the environment and our food chain. Fortunately, there seems to be many things we, as individuals, can do about it—from using reusable bags to riding a bike to work to changing our diets. While many of us have made efforts to reduce waste and use less resources at home, when we come to the lab it seems a much harder task. With so much water, single-use plastics, and energy-intensive equipment that seem necessary to do science, it can be hard to imagine what can be done to make labs more sustainable. Nevertheless, scientists around the world have been taking a closer look at how they work in the lab and they are finding meaningful ways to reduce their impact at the bench—and it’s easier than you might think!

This idea of making labs more sustainable is often referred to as “green labs” and it’s a movement that has exploded at academic institutions and biopharma organizations around the world in the past decade. From the United States to Ireland to New Zealand, thousands of scientists are now engaged in green lab efforts either through a program at their organization or on their own—and this number is growing rapidly. Scientists engaged in green lab efforts are working to reduce the environmental impact of research by reducing energy and water use and waste generation in the laboratory environment. So, what are they focusing on?

One of the most noticeable environmental impacts in the lab is the amount of waste. From gloves to pipette tips and glass bottles to cardboard boxes, laboratories generate a lot of waste. Not all these materials end up in a landfill or incinerator, but even recycling requires resources and doesn’t extend the life of the product forever. The best thing to do is to avoid waste from the start, and there are many ways to go about this.

Purchasing equipment and supplies

Let’s start with the products themselves—take those pipette tips as an example. Instead of buying tips in an individually wrapped box, you can buy them in reload systems that can cut the amount of plastic waste by 25 to 60 percent depending on the tip size and system. And they come in sterile and non-sterile formats, so there is little reason not to use these. Buying items like bulk conical tubes instead of racked systems is another easy way to eliminate waste. Many vendors offer products that can help you eliminate waste before it is generated. Not all vendors are marketing these products on their webpages so be sure to ask your sales rep or procurement manager to help you explore options.

Identifying more sustainable products is also possible through environmental product labels like ENERGY STAR® and ACT. ENERGY STAR, an energy-efficiency label created by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy, highlights equipment that meets certain energy efficiency standards. ENERGY STAR ratings are now available for -80°C and -20°C freezers. Another environmental label called the ACT label, is an econutrition label for laboratory products that allows scientists to compare products based on their environmental impacts related to manufacturing, use, and end-of-life. The ACT label is independently verified and is designed to enable scientists to make more informed purchasing decisions by being able to choose the product that best supports their sustainability goals.

Consolidating orders is another strategy for avoiding waste. Instead of everyone ordering what they need whenever they want, explore ways that the lab could place a single order with each vendor maybe once a week or even once a month. Working from a common supply of reagents can help make this possible, as each person isn't ordering to resupply their own stock. Of course, taking time to plan experiments can be helpful here, too. Spending an hour at the end of the week to check that you have the materials you expect to use in the next week can help you avoid last minute urgent purchases. Some vendors also have supply centers, which are single fridge vending machines that stock commonly used materials and are refilled with fewer shipments than ordering the products individually.

Efficient use of resources

Another big step that labs can take is to make sure they are wasting right. What can be recycled and what can be landfilled varies greatly from place to place. Working with your organization and waste hauler to identify which products (not just material type) can be recycled is key to making sure this material gets recycled instead of landfilled. Creating clear signage with pictures of common products in the lab that go into each bin makes it easy and fast to waste correctly.

Though much less visible, energy and water are also consumed in large amounts in the lab. Lighting can account for around 15 percent of the energy used and making sure you turn off the lights when the lab is unoccupied or when there is enough daylight is a simple way to save energy. Equipment accounts for another 20 percent of the energy use in the lab. Having a group discussion about what needs to be left on and what can be turned off can help you identify equipment that could be shut down or put on an outlet timer to turn off automatically. If you have duplicate equipment, evaluating how frequently you use them may help you determine that you could shut one down or share the resource with a colleague.

Water gets used in the lab in a wide variety of ways. At the tap, faucets can be outfitted with low-flow aerators—simple devices that screw onto the end and reduce the flow of water by up to 50 percent. If you find that you leave the tap on while you wash dishes, consider using a wash bucket or ask your organization if the sink could be outfitted with a foot pedal to make it easier to turn the water on and off. You should also check if water-cooled equipment, including ice machines and distillation set-ups, could be placed on a closed-loop or replaced with an air-cooled system. Large medical-grade or steam-jacketed autoclaves are also water intensive as they continually run cold water to cool the hot steam discharge before it goes down the drain. These units can be retrofitted with water-saving devices or switched out for more efficient research-grade autoclaves.

Working toward more sustainable laboratory operations doesn’t just benefit the environment, it can have a positive impact on your lab. Finding ways to reduce waste and consume less materials can help the lab save money—a benefit everyone can get behind. Your organization will also see big savings from reduced water and energy usage. Even if these savings don’t go directly to the lab, they help your organization invest more in infrastructure and resources that benefit you in the long term. Looking at science through the lens of sustainability also lets you see opportunities to change and make improvements that you might not have thought of before. For example, thinking about how you might reduce waste in an experiment might prompt you to find or create a simpler procedure with fewer steps that also saves you time. Many laboratories find that the process of investigating and implementing sustainable solutions prompts discussion in the lab that helps build communication and engagement amongst lab members. Organizations are also viewing sustainable labs as a way to recruit and retain the next generation of scientists that are increasingly focused on minimizing their environmental impact.

As your laboratory begins adopting green labs best practices, it is important that other lab members become part of identifying and implementing the solutions as well. For example, rather than just one person shutting off all the equipment at the end of the day, it is best for the lab to discuss what can and cannot be turned off and agree that it’s okay to remind people to shut things off. By having these discussions as a group, your lab can determine where the biggest opportunities are and what solutions will work best for you. When everyone in the lab is able to take ownership of the change, it becomes part of the culture of that lab and the new status quo.

So, whether it is something you do on your own, or get involved in through your organization’s green labs program, you can get started today making your lab greener.