With environmental concerns growing every day, sustainability is rapidly becoming a household word, with research institutions being no exception. Yet many labs are still unaware that they can become more sustainable with minimal effort or spending. Why is it so important that labs make this transition, and how feasible are the steps to becoming more environmentally friendly?
Start with the mindset
To spark change, education is key. Your team needs to understand the environmental impact their lab is having and which processes and equipment are the worst offenders.
Lab spaces use approximately five times more energy than office spaces, a single -80°C freezer can consume as much energy as an entire house per day, and a fume hood burns the same amount of energy as 1,733 gallons of gasoline every year. These are shocking statistics, but small changes can make a big difference.
For example, increasing the temperature of a -80°C freezer by just 10 degrees to -70°C can reduce energy consumption by 30-40%. Changing the storage conditions of your life’s work may sound risky, but scientists are one step ahead and have created a database of samples that can be safely stored at -70°C. Additionally, freezer-space optimisation, including regular disposal of out-of-date/unwanted samples and keeping a searchable electronic inventory for each freezer, can save energy and money.
Investing in the education of your staff will not only help to save the environment but will also save the lab money in the long run. Organised lab-based sustainability challenges, including The Freezer Challenge and Shut The Sash, can also help motivate your team to make a change.
Planning and organisation are key
Once the team is on-side, how do you implement change? A structured plan of action will enable your lab to work together to make a difference. Thinking ahead will allow you to both choose the most sustainable resources and ensure they are being used efficiently.
Not all suppliers are created equal, so why not choose one with a focus on sustainability? MilliporeSigma lets customers return plastic foam coolers and chemical containers and repurposes difficult-to-recycle plastic products. After being sterilised, the plastics are turned into plastic lumber that can be used in decking, speed bumps, and park benches. Since the program started in late 2015, MilliporeSigma has recycled more than 3,300 tons of single-use plastic from biopharma. To ensure your lab purchases more sustainable products, keep an eye out for the ACT label.
Good inventory management practices can help avoid duplicate purchases and significantly reduce lab waste, again saving money and increasing sustainability.
Make a habit of saving energy
Creating new habits is key to long term behavioural change within the lab. Simple actions can help make this process easier.
Keeping fume hoods closed when not in use may save up to $2,000 annually per hood, so why not put a sticker on the hood to remind users to ‘shut the sash’. Similarly, installing low-cost aerators on taps can decrease water usage by 50-70% and cost less than $5.
On a more individual level, turning off equipment when not in use can have a large impact over time. For example, you can save about $2 on your monthly energy bill when you put your computer in sleep mode at night. To make this even easier, why not set timers to turn off equipment when not in use?
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
According to My Green Lab, labs are estimated to throw away 5.5 billion kg of plastic annually worldwide; enough to cover an area 23 times the size of Manhattan ankle-deep. The mantra reduce, reuse, recycle seems an obvious place to start to counter this.
However, while reducing plastic use in favour of glass may seem to be a failsafe solution, hidden environmental costs must be taken into account. In order to be reused, glassware must be sterilised using an autoclave, which can use as much as 60 gallons of water per cycle, as well as incurring large energy costs. Make sure to run dishwashers, autoclaves, and cage washers only when full, and turn them off when finished.
Another potential hazard of using glass over plastic is the risk of contamination, which can invalidate data, resulting in experiments having to be repeated and in turn wasting even more materials. Moreover, many facilities will not recycle lab plastic due to health and safety concerns of chemical contamination. There is a middle ground to be reached, using glass where possible but acknowledging that, with recycling restrictions and autoclaving costs, plastic is sometimes necessary.
An easy win is making sure all paper, cardboard and non-hazardous packaging is recycled throughout the lab.
We live in a single-use society, but this practice is unsustainable. Before purchasing new equipment, first explore whether you can use existing equipment from other departments or institutions. Similarly, advertise under-used equipment in your own lab to local scientists. At Clustermarket, the platform allows you to book scientific and engineering equipment from over 350 facilities, making your research more affordable and sustainable, while providing an additional source of income for your lab.
This holds true within the lab as well. Share resources. If you have something you're not using – equipment, reagents/chemicals, and consumables – offer it to a colleague, or better yet, use a lab equipment booking system such as Clustermarket to improve resource utilisation and visibility throughout the institution.
Some organisations are still struggling to implement any “green lab” initiatives, lacking the right education or simply stagnant and unwilling to change. Often decision makers are stuck in their belief that labs are highly specialised places with unchangeable standards, or lab managers use the excuse ‘one lab cannot change anything’ so ‘what’s the point’?
Small changes do add up; if all labs make sustainability a priority, we will see a real difference. Even within one university this cumulative effect can be seen. During a pilot program across all labs at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB), UAB Green Labs demonstrated that, through behavioural changes alone, they were able to reduce energy usage by 620,000 kW hours. That’s as much energy as 62 homes use in an entire year!
Another common claim by those resisting change is that sustainability is expensive – however, sustainability will actually save money in the long run.
The time to act is now
Change takes time, but the sooner you start, the sooner you will make a difference. The ease of implementation will depend on the lab; for example, contamination will be a greater concern for labs working with immunotherapies than with plants. By changing attitudes through education, forming new habits, and sourcing equipment and resources sustainably, we can work together to make science sustainable.