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Prioritizing Sustainability into Daily Decisions

Simple steps to keep sustainability at the forefront of your lab

James Leatherman

James Leatherman is a research associate/ lab manager at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Oncology Cancer Immunology/GI Clinical Research. He has focused on breast and GI cancers vaccines...

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When planning for lab sustainability, the first step needs to be acknowledging you and your team’s capacity. You don’t have to tackle every issue at once, so prioritize what’s most important to your lab. For example, can you tackle recycling, resource management and purchasing, green chemistry, or energy conservation? 

Next, seek the support of superiors and staff. The only way to successfully implement sustainable practices into the lab is to get full buy-in from everyone involved. Finally, look at your research space and see what small change you can make. Once a normal pattern is set and subsequent users are trained, minimal follow-up should be needed.

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Encourage sustainable habits

Take a walk around your lab. Be sure to interact with and include the members and point out common places of waste and failure. For example, if a water faucet leaks, who in your group is the point of contact? Does your staff know how to place a maintenance work order? 

Have a conversation about what needs to go into biohazard waste and what can go into common trash. If you have separate recycling streams with multiple bins, make sure proper signage is located around each bin to minimize contamination.

The only way to successfully implement sustainable practices into the lab is to get full buy-in from everyone involved.

Know your equipment

In our lab, we implemented lab chores that rotate between members each month. Teaching how chemical or biosafety hoods should be cleaned and shut down properly allows for reduced energy usage in the ventilation systems. Scheduling lab members to rotate monthly on equipment checks allows them to recognize when problems arise and preventative maintenance is needed.  Daily or weekly equipment shutdowns also demonstrate to users that not everything needs to stay on all day, every day. Our refrigerated centrifuges, microcentrifuges, ovens, water baths, shakers, and computers all have stickers on them as a reminder to “turn off at night” or “turn off when done.” These types of simple practices can have a big impact on energy conservation and equipment maintenance.  

Evaluate vendors and suppliers

Take time to explore the suppliers of your consumables. One tool we‘ve seen grow in popularity is the ACT Label, which identifies products that meet comprehensive criteria for sustainable manufacturing. Also, selecting suppliers that are closer to your workplace can lower your environmental impact and cut down on transportation costs. You can also seek out suppliers who offset electricity usage with renewable sources or are using recycled materials in their production. Some vendors are now offering recycling of non-biohazard contaminated supplies. We’ve seen offers to recycle nitrile gloves, pipette tip boxes, rigid plastics, glass, aluminum, and chemicals. 

Meet with your vendors and express your interest in greener products. We’ve found that partners are looking to become better stewards, just as we are.