Clinical and life science research laboratories are responsible for a massive environmental footprint due to, among other factors, wasteful practices, use of hazardous chemicals, and reliance on energy-intensive equipment. In the United States, health-care buildings account for 9% of total primary energy consumption for all commercial structures. A typical life science laboratory uses more than three times as much electricity per square foot as an office building, mostly because of ultra-low temperature freezers, incubators, fume hoods, computers, and other equipment necessary to support laboratory research. By using large amounts of energy, common laboratory practices exacerbate pollution, thus contributing to climate change. Not surprisingly, efforts are underway to increase scientists’ awareness of the needed shift towards sustainable laboratory practices, with the goal of protecting the environment while advancing human health.
In a 2013 letter (Reduce, reuse and recycle lab waste) to the scientific journal Nature, Gaia Bistulfi wrote “As scientists and good citizens, many of us strive to reduce, reuse and recycle waste at home. We should be doing the same in the laboratory.” In 2015, scientists estimated that the nearly 20,500 institutions worldwide involved in biological, medical or agricultural research generated around 5.5 million tonnes of lab plastic waste—roughly the combined tonnage of 67 cruise liners, and equal to 83% of the plastic recycled worldwide in 2012.
Now, the non-profit organization My Green Lab reports that every year laboratory-generated plastic waste could cover an area 23x the size of Manhattan ankle deep. “Although much of this waste is hazardous, a lot of it isn’t. In fact, anything that can be thrown in the trash has the potential to have a different end of life.” For example, it is possible to recycle nitrile gloves, and it is possible to recycle lab plastics—from tip boxes to conical tubes.
Thus, labs that implement sustainable practices, or green labs, are becoming not only increasingly numerous, but are also involved in promoting systemic change. Programs that support research groups in reducing their carbon footprint and plastic waste are flourishing in many countries. Some of these programs operate in partnership with My Green Lab—facilitating cooperation among “lead scientists, vendors, designers, energy providers, and others in a common drive toward a world in which all research reflects the highest standards of social and environmental responsibility.” As of now, My Green Lab has engaged over 1,300 labs from over 220 institutions in over 40 countries with the flagship My Green Lab Certification program, including labs from academic institutions and biotechnology companies. Thousands of institutions across the world participate to The International Laboratory Freezer Challenge, an annual competition designed to promote best practices in cold storage management. Last year alone, over 1,200 participating labs with over 12,000 cold storage units saved a total of 6,732 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere—equivalent to the energy consumption of over 1,300 homes in one year. Some universities, such as the University of California, require their campuses not only to have green labs programs, but also to provide annual reports on sustainable practices.
However, “Despite the growing enthusiasm for green labs, some proponents still say that they are working within a system that deprioritizes sustainability. Some behaviors like plastic use remain entrenched in scientific practice and continue to increase. Making sustainable laboratory practices standard in research laboratories will require incentives for researchers and companies to divert waste and save energy.”
Yet, scientists can act now even without making changes in systems and policies. Rather, they can use existing tools to lead by example at their institutions, for example by sharing laboratory equipment or asking suppliers for more sustainable packaging.