Going Green: How Research Labs Can Become More Sustainable

Hello Lab Notes readers! Can you believe it has been 7 months since the last blog piece? 2020 has been a challenging year to say the least with COVID-19 still spreading across the country. All of this to say that after a long hiatus, Lab Notes is back. In this piece we are talking about sustainability and waste in the research industry, and how research labs can reduce their carbon footprint.

Academic research centers, Biotech, and pharmaceutical companies work to discover and develop new technologies, medicines, and products that are essential to our daily lives. Often lost in this process is an awareness for more environmentally sustainable practices. On average, research labs consume 5x more energy and 4x more water than typical offices and consume an estimated 5.5 million tons of plastic each year (6,7).

In this blog we will see why research labs utilize so much single-use plastics, consume so much water, and energy-intensive equipment, and some ways they can reduce their carbon footprints. The research industry is about half the size of the automotive industry and thus, provides a big opportunity to become more sustainable.

Scientists are high-volume users of single use-plastics. Gloves, assay plates, petri dishes, conical tubes, pipettes tips, vials are just a few examples of common single-use plastics. Plastics are a convenient option for the research industry. Their single use allows for easier and effective sterile practices. They are also easy to produce and distribute. Plastics allow for easier transportation of biological samples and can both be used and disposed of in large quantities. These plastics can help researchers perform a number of experimental procedures: culture cells/bacteria, extract DNA and proteins, store/preserve samples, add reagents for a readout. The use of chemical reagents and biological samples can be dangerous to human health/safety if not disposed of properly. Hazardous waste cannot be recycled so it undergoes different treatment options: incineration, autoclave, microwave, or chemical treatment.

One solution to reducing plastic consumption might be a return to glassware. Before the development of plastics for research purposes, glassware was used for the same purposes. Recycling is another effective way to reduce plastic waste. Manufacturers have developed waste management systems and take-back programs to recycle lab plastics. Styrofoam coolers, gloves, pipette boxes, certain reagent bottles, conical tubes and more can all be recycled; the key is setting up an effective system in the lab to separate waste from recyclable materials. Viewing laboratory supplies as permanent, and not consumables can save overhead costs on single use consumables and promote sustainable practices.

Water is also essential to lab operations: it is required to: maintain health/safety standards of researchers (washing hands), fill incubators that house cells, water baths to heat reagents, Sonicators, autoclaves, and other lab experiments. Unlike plastics, water consumption can be harder to monitor. There are some easy solutions to reduce unnecessary water usage in a research lab. Distilled water is a more purified water used for lab experiments and cannot be replaced by tap water. Using it only for it is intended use can go a long way, considering it takes nearly three gallons of water to produce one gallon of distilled water. Autoclaves are commonly used to sterilize glassware and reusable lab plastics. Autoclaves require large amounts of cold water to cool down the hot water that drains from the system after each use (single pass system). By putting them on a closed looped system (recirculating), up to 70% of water can be reduced.

Next, energy conservation is a concept we are all familiar with. In our personal lives we are encouraged to make conscious choices to reduce wasted energy, such as using energy efficient appliances and turning off unused appliances. Research labs are one of the largest energy-consuming industries in the country (3). This is due to the large number of energy intensive pieces of equipment that, in some cases, run 24 hours a day. Ultra-low temperature freezers that store biological samples and reagents at a temperature of -80°C for later use, are a prime example. Interestingly, one -80°C freezer can use as much energy as an average household every day. Simply reducing the temperature to -70°C can reduce energy consumption by 30-40% while still protecting biological samples for later use.

Another important piece of lab equipment, water baths, can consume as much energy as a dishwasher every hour. Large water baths can consume as much energy as a window air conditioner every hour. Tissue culture hoods with frequent usage can consume about half as much energy as a house (7).The lesson here is similar to our daily lives, turn off non-essential equipment when not in use.

Finally, sustainable procurement practices are an often over-looked but important action to reduce a lab’s carbon footprint. While writing this piece, I was pleasantly surprised to learn how scientific vendors are addressing environmental sustainability. Creating high quality products with less plastic and creating take-back programs are good initial steps to reduce plastic waste. Organizations such as My Green Lab have been created to provide support to research labs/facilities as they try to reduce their environmental impact of their work. On top of identifying solutions like the ones discussed in this blog, My Green Lab provides support for labs looking for sustainable product recommendations. In order to do this, they have created a label called ACT (accountability, consistency, and transparency) that contains data about the sustainable features of a given lab product. Over time they hope to catalog hundreds of sustainable products to help the research industry become more environmentally sustainable.

I think most scientists are somewhat aware of the high-volume usage of plastics, water, and electricity needed to produce high quality research on a daily basis. But what is not often is realized are the necessary solutions or steps to reduce our carbon footprint. Throughout this blog, we have seen examples of how scientists can make smart sustainable choices. Whether you work in a research setting or not I hope this piece will help inspire you think about ways to be more environmentally conscious in your daily life.

References:

  1. Bell, Alice. Can Laboratories Curb Their Addiction to Plastic? 10 Nov. 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/10/research-labs-plastic-waste.
  2. May, Mike. The –80 Takedown. 2 Oct. 2017, http://www.labcompare.com/342365-The-80-Takedown/.
  3. Paradise, Allison. A Greater, Greener Commitment. 2016, http://www.labmanager.com/business-management/a-greater-greener-commitment-4957.
  4. Paradise, Allison. Taking ACTion on Sustainable Purchases in the Lab. Dec. 2018, blog.quartzy.com/taking-action-on-sustainable-purchases-in-the-lab.
  5. Relph, Rachael. Making Sustainable Labs a Reality. Apr. 2020, http://www.labmanager.com/business-management/making-sustainable-labs-a-reality-22090.
  6. Urbina, M. A., Watts, A. J., & Reardon, E. E. (2015). Labs should cut plastic waste too. Nature, 528(7583), 479-479.
  7. http://www.mygreenlab.org/about.html.

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