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Making the Business Case for Sustainable Solutions in Your Lab

A guide to building an airtight argument for sustainable investments

Paula McDaniel, PhD

Paula McDaniel, PhD, spent 23 years in corporate analytical and product development groups at Air Products after receiving her PhD in Physical Chemistry (University of Illinois, 1988). In 2011, she...

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Sustainability is a key issue in today’s world, but what does it actually mean for your lab’s operations? Lab-focused sustainability improvements often address changes relating to raw material choices or waste stream reduction, not lab processes. Whether your team focuses on testing, synthesis, or manufacturing, decisions on improving your operation’s sustainability often come down to a cost/benefit analysis. Peeling back the layers of inputs and outputs for your operation is key to building your case for change. 

ROI: The cornerstone of your argument

Building the case for any investment-requiring change starts with a return-on-investment (ROI) calculation. Very simply, ROI is cost savings divided by investment cost. ROI calculations determine the financial benefit of an investment by calculating the length of time to recover the cost of the investment. Investments can be capital, lab renovations, or software. Supporting a green solution with smart financial assessment is the way to get buy-in on the proposed investment. The process of digging through the details will help you validate the true cascading benefit of the option under consideration.

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In standard investment calculations such as replacing an aging piece of equipment, the assessment is often straightforward. Investment costs are usually compared to parts availability/repair costs and lost revenue if the instrument fails altogether. Now, let’s layer on solutions that will address lowering the carbon footprint. In identifying greener options, look at the broader inputs and outputs of your operation. 

Supporting a green solution with smart financial assessment is the way to get buy-in on the proposed investment.

Getting management buy-in will require some homework by the lab manager. To achieve your lower carbon footprint goals, changes might involve capital acquisition, space modifications, and workflow changes.

Factors to calculate ROI

In calculating the cost of and return on implementing greener solutions, think broadly about inputs and outputs in the operation. As you gather data, don’t shy away from items that are fuzzy in terms of exact dollar figure impact. A list of comparisons to current state can be added even if precise figures are not known. Outlined below are some basic categories of cost and benefit to evaluate. In addition to more standard items, sustainable considerations are also proposed. Use these checklists to look for factors to include in your ROI calculation and help determine when the time is right to make a change. 

Initial costs 

In the case of an equipment capital investment, initial costs will include some or all the following:

  • Equipment cost
  • Lab renovations
  • IT fees (network accessibility, software licensing fees for users)
  • Operator training (courses and travel)
  • Secondary capital (prep equipment, balances, new gas handling systems)

Also factor in savings that might be realized with trade-in or sale of existing equipment, along with opportunities for operation consolidation.  

Operational changes

Surrounding the core physical investment, identify operational process changes that can potentially impact the sustainability of your operation. During this phase, collect data that help paint a more complete picture of your overall operation and evaluate the change’s true cost and environmental benefit. 

Chemical cost: compare type, purity, hazards, and amount used. Remember that today’s process might need to be altered following implementation. Ensure you consider modifications to things such as flush cycles or replicates needed to ensure operational cleanliness. If less efficient or lower-purity chemicals are used, more waste might be generated to achieve desired operational readiness. In addition, evaluate the cost to maintain your chemical supply through refrigeration or freezing. 

Disposable supplies (non-reusable): consider quantity, quality, and reuse options. In addition to ensuring your operational quality is maintained, evaluate if a change in scale/size of vials, tubes, or pipettes can be made to reduce waste. Some supplies might be greener based on material of construction and final disposal options (landfill versus incineration). Factor in the human cost to implement disposal or reuse operations. Personnel time and cleaning waste are a true cost that should not be overlooked. 

Facility cost: does the change allow the operation to use less electricity, emit fewer/greener gases, or leave a smaller footprint? Will a more modern approach allow you to retire several pieces of older equipment, thereby consolidating operations? These options can have a dramatic impact on facility cost and electricity utilization. In addition, evaluate the proposed change in the context of reduced engineering control usage. Ventilation level or type (hoods, point-of-operation ventilation snorkels, ventilation enclosures) are a major lab facility cost. In a complex lab operation, your facility team might not be able to pinpoint a unit operation cost for your calculation, but directional guidance is achievable. In addition to electricity savings, air quality monitoring and permitting costs in your locale can be significant drivers for sustainable solutions in a laboratory operation. 

Sustainable solutions can be a competitive advantage for your organization and your company.

Waste: in addition to the comments above, does your proposal enable the use of greener waste streams for chemicals and disposables (gloves, vials, pipettes)? Partnering with your environmental, health, and safety (EHS) expert can help you make the best balance of cost and green solution choices. 

Miscellaneous: include paper and ink costs (and disposal costs) if transitioning to an electronic output. Do not overlook acceptance hurdles by your team or your customers. Depending on quality system constraints, ensure your documentation standards support the use of electronic media for key phases of your operation.

Accounting for non-quantifiable changes

As scientists, our tendency is to strive for significant figures, but not every change is going to come with a hard and fast number for their cost or benefit. To incorporate these changes into your argument, create qualitative evaluations, comparing today with the future solution to complement the hard figures. Also, highlight pending changes that will impact future operations. For example, an instrument will be unsupported by the vendor, a chemical will become unavailable, or a waste stream option will be obsoleted. Additional evaluations such as these can provide urgency and encourage time sensitivity, which will aid your management decision-making process.

In evaluating sustainable solutions, don’t overlook the “people impact” and broader benefit for your lab team. For example, by implementing a software solution, do you enable more remote work, reducing employee travel time and resources (automobile depreciation and travel congestion)? Can instrument consolidation reduce travel time or give your operators a less cluttered lab environment? Don’t overlook the need for change management to accompany new process or procedure implementation, but recognize that sustainable solutions are often attractive to existing and potential employees alike.

External factors to consider

Additionally, your customers’ needs and industry drivers can be utilized to prioritize sustainable solution implementation. Regulatory driven customer requirements often revolve around residual chemicals which can make their way to water, air, and people. If your lab has a manufacturing focus, addressing greener solutions is an important driver of change. Remember, however, that testing revalidation or product requalification might be required based on your new process or method. Engage your customers to ensure smooth acceptance of your changes if needed. 

Sustainable solutions can be a competitive advantage for your organization and your company. Keep your finger on the pulse of your industry and relevant EHS drivers to avoid being caught off-guard when change is afoot. Partner with other experts (waste disposal, facilities teams, EHS, chemical vendor) to gather input on what challenges they have today and what they see for the future. Prioritize your initiatives and ensure you look broadly at inputs and outputs to assess the overall sustainability of a solution. As you travel down a greener operational path, don’t overlook simple changes your team can make today while building the case for green investments. Close sashes when hoods are not in use, turn off unused equipment and lights, and reduce engineering controls (ventilation snorkels, special treatment hoods) to make a dramatic difference in your lab’s carbon footprint today.