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Three Strategies to Make Labs More Sustainable

Three Strategies to Make Labs More Sustainable

Making the research enterprise more sustainable and equitable

Star Scott

Star Scott is a Green Labs expert with a background in conservation-driven research. She is the co-vice president for the Georgia chapter of the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories, as...

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Christina Greever

Christina Greever has been in the laboratory sustainability movement for five years, and has been involved with molecular biology research, behavioral neuroscience, research compliance, and science sustainability over the past...

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To date, most laboratory sustainability efforts have focused on reducing the environmental impact of science and making those efforts economically viable. Though these efforts have been valuable, true sustainability should also consider people and communities impacted by the research enterprise, and drive changes for how researchers conduct science.

To pursue these solutions, it is important to first understand what “equity” means. Equity is the notion of being fair and impartial as an individual engages with an organization or system. It acknowledges that everyone has not been afforded the same resources and treatment while also working to remedy this fact. Equity is often conflated with the term equality, which means sameness and assumes, incorrectly, that we all have had equal access, treatment, and outcomes. In fact, true equity implies that an individual may need to receive something different (not equal) to maintain fairness and access (Morton et al, 2015). 

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If lab leaders want to support truly sustainable research initiatives and uphold social and environmental justice, they need to prioritize equity within the research enterprise. By using the framework, “who is benefitting and who is bearing the burden?”, lab leaders can consider the impact the scientific enterprise has on others and identify needed changes for improvement. 

Hazardous waste

Once hazardous waste leaves the laboratory, other professionals handle its processing, allowing scientists to remain focused on research. One hundred thousand pounds, or more, of hazardous waste can be generated by a single US research institution annually, transported and disposed of per a contract usually given to the lowest cost bidder. For scientists, this system has provided some invisibility to the volume of waste generated and its final disposition. Hazardous waste is usually transported far away from a research institution to an incinerator, waste-to-energy plant, or subtitle C landfill. Despite federal and state regulations, the disposal process is not perfect, as communities around the US experience negative health effects and environmental pollution from living near hazardous waste disposal facilities. Hazardous waste from laboratories impacts the air, soil, and water quality of the communities near these sites. At best, the incinerator or landfill abides by all environmental regulations. At worst, the hazardous waste causes harm in communities who didn’t generate it.

It is well documented that lower income and higher minority communities have historically been chosen as sites for waste disposal landfills and incinerators, and experience detrimental health effects as a result of this close proximity (Mohai and Saha 2015; Commission for Racial Justice 1987; Tessum et. al 2015). The current prevailing model in the US is that the burden of hazardous waste disposal is unevenly experienced, a system that predominantly benefits powerful research institutions and communities that are whiter and more highly educated.

Scientists can mitigate these inequities by embracing and applying principles of green chemistry. Using resources such as MilliporeSigma’s DOZN Tool and the American Chemical Society’s Solvent Selection Tool help eliminate the most toxic and environmentally-persistent chemicals from your lab applications. Consider whether reactions can be scaled down, or improve processes to reduce the quantity of hazardous waste byproducts. Consider whether chemicals could be recycled locally, such as via solvent distillation. Finally, learn about your institution's disposal process for hazardous waste. Perhaps a disruptive model can be implemented to transform the current system. 

Laboratory plastics

Single-use plastics provide many benefits to science such as improving efficiency and sterility, but communities around the world are negatively impacted by its use. Urbina et. al. estimated the research enterprise generates 5.5 million metric tons of plastic waste per year. 

As most plastics are derived from fossil fuels, the growing need for these fuels and plastics has led to increasingly disruptive extraction processes. With eight million metric tons of plastic entering oceans each year, plastics generated in one place can negatively impact communities around the world. This is caused by mismanaged coastal waste, as well as the plastic waste trade, in which more developed countries ship plastic scraps to countries with less-regulated waste management. The US is offshoring its plastic waste, which is often sorted by poor workers in unsafe conditions.

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Plastic becomes even more dangerous as it breaks apart. Once in the ocean, plastic breaks into tiny pieces (microplastics), which readily bind to some of the most toxic chemical pollutants in our oceans. These pollutants bioaccumulate up the food chain, resulting in sometimes dangerously high contaminant levels in larger fish—those most likely to be consumed by people.

Both the extraction of fossil fuels for making plastics and the management of plastic waste are processes that harm the climate, wildlife, waterways, and the food chain. This ultimately also harms humans, but some of us more than others. Fracking wells and drilling sites are disproportionately located in poor, rural, and often minority communities. Similarly, ocean plastics disproportionately impact coastal communities in which local seafood is not only part of their cultural heritage, but also more affordable and accessible than food purchased at a store. This causes contention when scientists recommend to locals not to eat their local diet because it’s no longer safe. This pollution comes from the world, but these communities are left with the burden and suffer negative health impacts.

Scientists can be developers of unique solutions to mitigate plastic use in the lab. While it may not be possible to stop all scientific plastic use overnight, it is important for lab leaders to take initiative to reduce use in their labs by engaging in sustainable procurement, engineering out plastics, opting for glassware and washing when possible, sourcing alternative plastics, asking companies to provide take-back programs for their products, and asking questions about how their institutions manage this waste. The research community, including lab leaders, must seek to use plastics responsibly or find alternatives to reduce (and eventually eliminate) the environmental and social justice burdens of plastic. 

Equity within the lab

While the above narratives demonstrate examples of how laboratory sustainability must include equity considerations for communities impacted by the research enterprise, scientists can also more fully embrace sustainability by considering equity within their laboratories. Research spaces have well-documented inequities: gender pay gaps, funding disparities, limits to collective bargaining, and burdens of invisible work on underrepresented individuals, to name a few. 

When considering what scientists contribute to society—knowledge, as well as ideas that inform advances in engineering, medicine, and public health—it is crucial that these processes be equitable to better serve all communities. A more equitable lab can also attract and retain more diverse talent, support different perspectives and ideas, and lead to better innovations. In clinical applications, this diversity of thought leads to better health outcomes for patients in underrepresented groups. In addition, there is evidence that greater equity leads to a happier workforce. 

Lab managers can take a variety of actions to build greater equity within their lab. A great place to start is being more transparent about pay and promoting pay equity within the lab. Other actions that can improve equity among lab staff include things like access to family leave, ensuring that lab chores are shared among all lab members regardless of tenure or seniority, provide recognition 

to all staff for their accomplishments, encourage mentorship opportunities for everyone in the lab, and recognize the burden of extra mentoring and service work expected of underrepresented staff. For laboratories to become sustainable, the experience of scientists must be considered. A greater focus on equity will benefit everyone, but especially underrepresented individuals in science.

Making a positive impact

The research enterprise has a responsibility to produce science without burdening or harming others. Adopting more equitable sustainability practices will enable scientists to have more positive impacts on society. Scientists should be empowered to discover less harmful ways of conducting science. Opportunity exists for the entire research enterprise to do better; from lab and product design, to shipping practices, to how scientists are trained and treated. Given the massive environmental footprint and buying power of the scientific sector, seemingly small systemic changes can result in large global impacts.