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The research lab is not a place you would consider to be eco-friendly. Walking around it is easy to spot the huge amount of avoidable plastic waste, with discarded pipette tips and racks, unnecessarily large Styrofoam delivery boxes and unrecyclable bottles. Easier to miss is the energy waste, with equipment remaining switched on overnight (sometimes along with busy researchers), special freezers, sterile ventilation systems and computers left on standby.
The high energy consumption and significant waste production of a scientific lab are sometimes staggering.
An average life science lab consumes three times the energy of an equivalent-sized office space, and it’s been estimated that a single institute can use as much energy in a weekend as a regular house uses in a whole year.
Plastic waste from scientific labs amounts to five and a half million tonnes per year, equivalent to that from 67 cruise ships, much of which is not accepted by recycling plants due to contamination. There is evidently a need for us scientists to take action.
Sustainability is something we all increasingly need to consider, but doing so in the lab environment can seem like an insurmountable task when the whole scientific process seemingly requires so much resource. The benefits of tackling this issue aren’t just global though, as researchers can also save money at both a lab and a university level.
Together with Sophie Quick (University of Edinburgh), we share a few simple ideas for making your lab a little more eco-friendly.
It seems obvious but reducing energy consumption from electrical equipment in the lab is a very effective way of reducing the lab’s carbon footprint.
In our homes we are more careful to switch off lights and appliances when leaving, but typically are more careless in the lab. Whether it’s your computer or bigger lab equipment, powering it down can make a big difference as it will often run unnecessarily all night.
Installing a timer on the plug sockets for water baths, film developers and other pieces of kit means they come on automatically during normal working hours but save energy at other times.
If your PCR machine needs to run overnight, try altering the settings so it holds at 10oC rather than 4oC.
Freezers are essential for long-term storage, but they require a huge amount of energy to power. To keep them efficient check the rubber seals are working and defrost regularly. To minimise overall impact try consolidating into smaller storage to reduce the total number of freezers required – easier than asking scientists to throw away precious samples!
One of the most significant drains on energy is an open fume hood, as when the sash is up it pulls room air into the hood while simultaneously pumping in reconditioned outside air. Closing the fume hood sash is a simple solution but has a huge impact.
In 2005, Harvard University started a ‘Shut the Sash’ Campaign that has generated an annual saving of $240,000 and reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 300 metric tons, all from just a 30% reduction in fume hood usage.
Making more environmentally friendly choices at the outset is perhaps more effective than trying to deal with the impact. For example, replacing hazardous chemicals such as ethidium bromide with an equivalent but non-mutagenic product such as SYBR Safe.
When stocking the lab, it is surprisingly easy to lose track and end up duplicating across labs, so centralising with a spreadsheet or a system like Quartzy is beneficial to reduce wasteful ordering, or you could even try combining orders to reduce shipping costs and waste. There are schemes designed to help, such as the Biolabs freezer program that provides onsite communal freezers to promote resource sharing. Websites like Rheaply Asset Exchange Manager also help with offloading unwanted equipment, much like Gumtree for scientists – this sharing attitude will be of greater benefit as more labs see the benefits of it, so involving more groups will help this community to grow.
If you are serious about making an impact, you can take the time to research companies that are actively going green and you can choose to order from sustainable suppliersthat are also committed to reducing their own carbon footprint.
A challenging aspect of becoming more eco-friendly is dealing with the amount of single-use plastic waste, but applying the classic ‘Reduce, Re-use, Recycle’ principle can be helpful.
To reduce the overall consumption of plastic, we should aim to use autoclavable glassware instead where possible. Planning experiments with consumable wastage in mind is also useful, taking time to consider if you could multiplex or miniaturise without affecting your outcomes.
Instead of throwing plastic away, think about ways to re-use. Styrofoam boxes from deliveries can be saved for use at your bench or for sending of your own packages, or can even be used as ice boxes! Pipette tip waste is often unavoidable but buying refill racks and autoclaving pipette tip boxes helps, utilising the tower rack systems from Gilson, Rainin or Starlab, which also offers special collection bins for the empty plastic racks. You could also wash and dry reagent reservoirs and cell scrapers if they are for techniques that don’t require as much sterility, such as Western Blots.
Certain programs exist to enable labs to recycle certain products, which is worth investigating at your institution. While only certain plastics are recyclable, the environmental or sustainability departments often have pilot or established schemes designed to help researchers do their bit. In addition, some labs are devising their own in-house solutions that are proving effective.
Though essential in all sorts of reagents and experiments, our water consumption can easily be reduced with a few simple changes.
A tap that leaks 60 drips per minute wastes 21 litres per day.
You can make a big impact by replacing these, especially if you change your water baths as regularly as we all should.
Beyond waste, we can also reduce our environmental impact on water by always disposing of chemicals appropriately and never flushing them down the drain, which risks contaminating drinking water.
As scientists, we must recognise the impact that our research has on the environment but also see that making small changes can minimise the effects while still enabling us to pursue our work. So stop feeling blue about your carbon footprint and go green instead!
Posted by Dr. Karolina Szczesna
Senior Product Manager and Technical Support at Proteintech Ltd.