Why is it that at home, we can attain more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, but when we come to the laboratory, we forget the well-known reduce – reuse – recycle principle? Climate change is on the rise, and we are all aware that we need to do more in this aspect.
Let me first emphasize the part that different life science branches are playing in climate change. The global pharmaceutical industry is 55% more carbon emission intense than the automotive industry, and 4,4% of the worldwide global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the healthcare sector (hospitals and laboratories) alone (Greever et al., 2020).
Scientists are starting to recognize and address the problem of the non-sustainability of laboratories. By implementing more sustainable practices, they can use the resources more efficiently, resulting in better funding opportunities.
Not all is lost in the fight against climate change. That is why we conducted an overview of 5 key sustainability areas that you can focus on in your laboratory.
1. Reduce energy consumption and conserve your resources
An average research laboratory can use more than three times the amount of energy used in an office building (per square meter) (Harvard University). That makes sense since the laboratory equipment can be running without pause for extended periods. It takes a lot of energy to run electronics and office equipment, and lighting, but most energy-intense equipment in the laboratories is heating and cooling equipment. The reason for that is that the plug-load equipment is rarely turned off, so it is a constant energy consumer.
A Kirschner Laboratory at Harvard Medical School laboratory conducted a case study about their laboratory equipment energy consumption by the type of equipment (Figure 1).
What you can do
Here are a few simple ideas that can help you reduce the energy consumption of your laboratory:
- Turn off or unplug the laboratory equipment currently not being used (small appliances, refrigerators, freezers, autoclaves, etc.).
- Turn off computers and other office equipment when not being used.
- Turn off the lighting when it is not being used, especially during the night and over the weekend.
- Shut fume hood when not being used.
- Check samples and reagents and clean out what you do not need anymore.
- Clean your equipment regularly – change the filters that need changing, clean the exposed refrigeration coils of refrigerators and freezers (usually at the backside), and clean the door sealing.
- Make a schedule for bigger equipment to get the optimal use out of it when it is turned on and turn it off once no one is using it.
- Share your laboratory equipment with other departments. You will save money because you will be able to share costs with other research groups, you will save energy because there will be only one instrument running, and there will be fewer resources used to produce the instrument.
- Reconsider the temperature in your refrigerators and freezers. You might be able to use a higher temperature to store your samples/reagents while still keep the longevity of them.
- Consider energy consumption when purchasing new equipment.
2. Improve your waste management
Laboratories produce an enormous amount of (mainly plastic) waste. Estimates have been made that a scientist in a bioscience laboratory generates short of 1 ton of plastic waste in a year. If we extrapolate this to a department with approximately 280 scientists, that is equivalent to about 5,7 million plastic 2L water bottles.
Besides plastics, laboratories use a lot of chemical compounds to conduct experiments. The alternative to conventional chemicals is green chemistry. Its concept aims to reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals that are hazardous to human health. These chemicals, in most cases, are also problematic for disposal. There are 12 guiding principles in green chemistry, and you can read more about which ones they are and how you can apply them in this article. You can find an alternative to the conventional chemicals with most of the vendors already.
Electronics are also a waste that is significant in the laboratories. You can attend to a sustainable practice during the electronics life cycle, such as sharing and redistributing. We will discuss the details later in this article. But there is inevitably going to be an electronic waste, and it is crucial to dispose of it correctly.
What you can do
A few ways to reduce your waste and better manage it within your laboratory:
- Clarify the waste management and recycling processes in your lab. You can provide labeled bins with explanations about what type of waste belongs where.
- Switch from plastic to glass when possible. You can read about how scientists switched to glass Petri dishes and Falcon tubes in their labs here.
- Request less packaging and more recyclable plastic from your suppliers.
- Put the bins next to the space that most of the waste is generated. Examples: paper recycling bins next to printers, comporting bin in a kitchen or break room.
- Recycle equipment that can no longer function or be repaired.
- Correctly collect and dispose of (recycle if possible) electronic waste.
- Print double-sided.
- Use more environmentally friendly chemicals when possible.
- Apply 12 principles of green chemistry.
3. Take care of your equipment
Taking proper care of your equipment makes sense from a sustainability point-of-view and brings economic benefits to your laboratory. When your laboratory is clean and well maintained, that means a better work environment, hence better-derived experiments. You can read more about how important it is to take care of your laboratory equipment in this blog post.
Usually, we realize the true meaning of maintaining laboratory equipment when it is too late. While cleaning and keeping up with the laboratory equipment and facilities might not be your favorite part of the research, it is necessary. Only think about how big of a problem it is when an important piece of equipment breaks down, and it prolongs your experiment for weeks, or when contamination leaves you devastated.
What you can do
Small changes in your routine can make your laboratory more sustainable in the long run:
- Set a cleaning schedule and stick to it.
- Watch out for dust, heat, and electrical surges around your electronic devices.
- Defrost your -20 freezers at least once a year to keep them free of ice.
- Keep up with the routine service of your equipment to ensure optimal functioning and prevent breakages.
- Keep your equipment calibrated.
- Repair or refurbish the equipment that needs it.
- Maintain your software – you need to regularly keep up with the system and antivirus software updates to eliminate security threats to your organization.
4. Optimize your processes
While all the individual steps will make your lab more sustainable, it is worth considering connecting all the dots and optimize your lab processes. When your processes are optimized, that will result in a decrease in energy consumption
When considering process optimization in your lab, digitalization will be one of the most thorough and wholesome approaches you can choose.
Digitalization will take you an extra step towards sustainability, and at the same time, it will improve the productivity and efficiency of your lab.
The decision to optimize processes and implement digitalization needs to be made strategically, and we realize that all the strategic decisions need to make sense financially. Return on investment (ROI) is a common performance measure that includes all the project’s benefits and costs. We dived deeper into the topic of digitalization ROI in laboratories in a blog article, where you can read about the examples of short- and long-term digitalization savings.
What you can do
There is not just one way to go about digitalization, so we are sharing a few different approaches:
- Make a map of your laboratory processes
- Consult with digitalization experts
- Calculate Return on investment for digitalization
5. Incorporate sustainability in your culture
Culture is not to be mistaken for a strategy, as these two are not interchangeable. Culture is generally considered as values that are predominant in a given entity.
When you decide to introduce new and different values into your organization, such as our example of sustainability, you should not be surprised to experience a certain amount of resistance to change from laboratory employees. That is to be expected, no matter the objective to implement more sustainable practices in your laboratory because people simply do not like change.
You can follow a few guiding principles to build your culture. We described this in more details on the case of building a digital culture, but a somewhat similar approach works for building sustainability culture as well.
What you can do
You can follow these guidelines when you are implementing sustainability in your organization’s culture:
- Lead by example and apply sustainability practices in your everyday life. You can also enroll your laboratory in some of the green labs’ programs.
- Set the right goals and consistent communication. Do not try to do it all at once, but rather set smaller goals that will add up in the long run.
- Provide guidance and education for your laboratory staff. The chances are that they are not aware of a certain problem, so explain it to them, and it might get them aboard to the sustainability journey.
- Involve your employees in the transition towards sustainability. Listen to their ideas and find a good way to implement the relevant ones.
- Organize sustainability competitions. That can be done in a different scope, appropriate to your organization.
- Check your progress and measure success. Set a KPI (Key Performance Indicators) on the topic of sustainability and measure it regularly to see how you are progressing.
- Provide adequate tools and equipment to support sustainability practices. Keep in mind that this does not mean that you need to buy all the new things (which is quite the opposite of sustainable). Make a list of what you need, check your storage, ask colleagues and consider buying second-hand and used items. If none of these options work for your situation, you can still opt to buy what you need from a new one.
Take home messages on sustainability in the laboratory
- Life-science laboratories are very carbon-emission and energy-intense facilities.
- You can implement simple steps to improve sustainability in your laboratory.
- Reducing energy consumption will improve your sustainability performance significantly.
- Use your resources wisely and remember the reduce – reuse – recycle principle.
- Set up a waste management system and get all of the laboratory staff on the same page in this regard.
- Taking proper care of your equipment will save you money and carbon emissions.
- Process optimization will improve the efficiency and productivity of your laboratory while also adding to the progress of your sustainability journey.
- Build your company culture around sustainability.