The effort to make research labs more eco-friendly
Science has furthered our understanding of the universe, our world, and ourselves. It has supplied us with many of the modern conveniences that make our lives easier and helped extend our lives by developing vaccines and finding cures for diseases. Yet all these achievements come at a cost.
Scientific research labs are notably behind other sectors that have made concerted efforts to be more environmentally friendly. My Green Lab, a California non-profit whose mission is to help labs become more sustainable, explains that labs “consume as much as five times more energy per square foot than typical offices.”
On top of that, a 2015 article in Nature provided data from the University of Exeter that showed that the scientists in its bioscience labs generated almost 300 tons of plastic waste the previous year. If that same number were true for all the research institutions across the world, it would equate to about 5.5 million tons of plastic waste.
Clearly, an effort to establish more sustainable labs is of great importance.
Challenges in Sustainability
It’s not simply a lack of concern that has led research labs at universities and drug development companies to become so wasteful. There are very strict standards that must be maintained when doing research, which includes keeping freezers at precise temperatures and sterilizing equipment properly. At the same time, large pieces of equipment are used to provide the right environment for research, from humidity control to ventilation. All of this requires considerable amounts of energy.
Many laboratories also use single-use plastics in the form of plastic pipettes and spectroscopy cuvettes. When used, the plastics are often contaminated and therefore unable to be recycled. Such necessary pieces of equipment are precisely what have caused the enormous amounts of waste produced by labs.
There are logical steps that can be taken to reduce waste in research labs. As in every other home or business, turning off lights and equipment that are not in use is a good start. In research labs, scientists can save considerable amounts of energy by shutting the sash on the fume hood (the cupboard that protects lab workers from exposure to dangerous fumes) when they are not using it.
Harvard’s Green Labs Program created a “Shut the Sash” competition that awards free pizza to one lab every month that meets energy use targets for fume hood use. After the first five years of the program, researchers noticed a 30 percent reduction in fume exhaust levels, annual reductions of 300 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and annual savings of $240,000 on energy.
Labconco is an example of an equipment manufacturer that makes devices for sustainable labs. The company’s fume hoods have a patented design that use less air volume and can save up to $7,000 per hood each year when compared to traditional ones. Its biosafety cabinets are also designed for energy efficiency, using 60 percent less energy than previous models. Both products are largely made of recycled materials, as well.
Reducing Waste in Labs
Another quick fix in the effort to make more sustainable labs is making the switch from plastic pipettes to a reusable variety. Pyrex pipettes, such as the ones available from Fisher and Qorpak, are sturdy and able to be cleaned with only detergent and water. Similarly, plastic spec cuvettes that are often thrown away can be washed and reused, as can reagent bottles containing volatile liquids such as ethanol and methanol. Rainin Instrument manufactures TerraRack™, which is a pipette tip rack made of 100 percent recyclable material and uses less plastic than traditional racks.
Of course, plastic isn’t the only type of waste that is generated in research labs. Thermo Fisher Scientific is also dedicated to manufacturing environmentally friendly lab materials. The company makes products using “green chemistry” and “green engineering” and labels them with a green leaf, making them easier for sustainable labs to identify. Ultimately, Thermo Fisher hopes “… greener product alternatives can help advance sustainability in the lab by minimizing the use of hazardous chemicals, minimizing waste and material consumption, and increasing energy efficiency.”
MilliporeSigma is another lab provider that has embraced sustainability. In addition to offering environmentally friendly reagents and chemicals, the company invites labs to send back used containers and coolers. These items are not able to be recycled in standard ways, but they can be sterilized and repurposed to be used in making benches, speed bumps, and decking.
Sustainable Labs Resources
As awareness of the sustainability problem in research labs grew, the efforts being made to combat their waste intensified. In addition to My Green Lab and Harvard’s Green Labs program, there are several other resources available to labs looking to go green.
Labconscious is an open resource available to those working in the life sciences field looking to improve their lab’s sustainability. The site offers sustainability tips, a guide to environmentally friendly products, and links to other online groups and labs for further information.
The University of Washington offers similar assistance, including a climate action plan and strategies for helping labs save energy and other resources. Its Green Lab Program offers bronze, silver, and gold certification to labs at all UW campuses according to strict criteria.
As more research labs make the commitment to go green, there will undoubtedly be more companies providing the necessary materials — ultimately making it an increasingly easier transition. That being the case, the future looks bright for sustainable labs.