Towards a Greener Future: Promoting Sustainability in Laboratory Practices
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.
It is so important to adopt sustainability in the laboratory environment. I used to work for a chemistry lab back home in India where I had to do basic stuff such as setting up for the lab, where I placed all necessary chemicals, alcohols, and all of the other materials we needed for that specific day, and cleaning up after each section of class like disposing the liquid from the liquid waste to the big waste container instead of draining down the sink because it can be dangerous. When I started working, I had no idea about how important it is to practice sustainability in the lab because I was just like other students being lazy and not following the proper guidelines, and after learning the procedures, I never did what I used to do in the lab.
By following the procedures, you can keep labs sustainable in many ways, such as waste reduction, energy efficiency, green chemistry, and sustainable purchasing. In the lab, there are many ways to reduce waste, and I did this by using reusable glassware, avoiding single-use plastic, and recycling properly into recycling waste machines. For energy efficiency, I ensured the lab had all the good lights, such as LED lights, because it saves money, and I also improved by telling the school more about the HVAC systems, which helped students and myself reduce energy consumption. For green chemistry to be there, the students and I made sure that fewer hazardous chemicals were present in the lab and reduced the waste, so importantly, there were fewer toxic reagents and solvents that could help. Lastly, regarding the sustainable purchase menu, I made sure whatever supplies I purchased were eco-friendly. I had to ensure this with help from the teachers, deans, and the school because the school and its lab were not very well funded and were correct and, importantly, sustainable friendly. Therefore, I ensured the students practiced in a sustainable laboratory environment.
I used to work in an introductory biology lab where I had to set up and clean labs once the students were done with the experiments. My lab coordinator was not aware of how to practice sustainability in the lab, and hence when I started working, I wanted to make sure that there was a less environmental impact from my workplace, and therefore, I encouraged sustainable practices in the lab.
I did this by first replacing all lab utensils and instruments made of plastic with glassware, such as pipettes and test tubes. When I could not replace any of the lab utensils with glass, I made sure to use biodegradable disposable utensils and instruments. We made sure to wash all glass test tubes at the end of the day and re-use them the next day.I also employed strategies to separate recyclable material and hazardous waste materials by having separate trash cans for them. We did not have any huge equipment that required a lot of energy consumption; however, we tried to save as much energy as possible by switching off any light microscopes when they were not in use. Lastly, for all the sustainable practices in the lab to be successful, I needed everyone using the lab to follow these protocols; hence, I made sure to teach my coworkers and students of the lab on how they can help practice sustainability in the lab.