My Green Labs: Waste Not

Georgina Grimsey

Jan 27, 2020

Operational Efficiency

Waste Not

As sustainability becomes increasingly important, laboratories have emerged as the next major frontier.  The opportunity for energy reduction is enormous, as laboratories consume 5-10 times more energy per square foot than typical offices.  Similarly, research facilities also offer disproportionate opportunities for water conservation, waste reduction, and more sustainable selection of consumables, reagents, and process equipment.  A 2015 article in the journal Nature estimated that lab plastics accounted for 5.5 million tons of waste in 2014, equating lab plastic waste with 83% of the total plastic recycled worldwide in 2012. 

This outsized consumption is largely due to the fact that laboratory operations are rarely critically examined. Walk into any laboratory and you’re bound to see equipment left on 24/7, fume hood sashes left open, packaging material – especially EPS coolers – piling up, and materials that could be recycled discarded into the trash. This happens not because it has to be this way, but because this is the way it’s always been.

It’s time to change this. Whether you work in a lab or sell products into a lab, you can make a meaningful contribution to reducing the environmental impact of laboratories.

If you work in a lab…

  • Turn off equipment overnight and when not in use. Unplugging a water bath overnight can save as much energy as unplugging your refrigerator at home for a day.
  • Participate in the Freezer Challenge. Cold storage units (freezers, refrigerators) are typically the largest energy consumers in a lab. The Freezer Challenge is an international competition designed to help labs implement best practices in cold storage management and win prizes, like your photo in Nature.
  • Purchase products with reduced packaging. For example, use pipette tip refills rather than new boxes, or purchase conical tubes in bulk rather than in a styrofoam rack.
  • Select safer, more benign chemicals. Green chemistry is not just for chemists – for all experiments, consider whether a safer, less hazardous substitution can be made.
  • Learn what materials can be recycled at your facility. Many waste streams can be recycled, either in specialized waste streams or through municipal recycling.
  • Engage your suppliers – tell them about your laboratory sustainability goals and ask them what products and services they have that can support.
  • Become Green Lab Certified. Becoming green lab certified is a great way to make a culture change in the lab to being more sustainable.

If you sell products into a lab…

  • Consider packaging materials that are made from recycled content and are readily recyclable. Packaging materials remain one of the largest waste streams from laboratories. As more companies and universities are aiming to reduce their waste, they are looking for vendors who can help them achieve their waste goals.
  • Design products with sustainability in mind. For example, if you make equipment, consider energy consumption when designing the equipment. If you sell antibodies, consider whether there is a more sustainable alternative for producing them.
  • Look at your supply chain to identify suppliers with commitments to sustainability. Are you aware of where your raw materials are coming from?
  • Tell your customers about your commitment to sustainability.  If you’re doing something at your manufacturing site to reduce waste, tell your customers. Customers care about sustainability, and the more you share your story, the more it inspires others to follow.
  • Consider obtaining an ACT label for your products. The ACT label is an eco-label for lab products that shows the environmental impact of a product and its packaging. This label allows you to effectively communicate sustainable product attributes to your customers. It also provides your company with a roadmap for how to improve your products to be more sustainable.

Imagine what the world would look like if instead of doing things the way they’ve always been done, we acted with awareness and intent.  The life sciences industry is three times larger than the building products industry and just over half the size of the automotive industry. Working together to reduce waste – whether landfill waste, hazardous waste, or by reducing energy and water consumption – would have a profound impact on our planet.

About
My Green Lab

My Green Lab is a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to transforming the life sciences, industrial sciences, and healthcare industries by building a culture of sustainability through science.  We work with scientists and research organizations to improve environmental health and resource utilization. Our members and supporters range from small laboratories to some of the scientific community’s largest corporations and academic institutions.  Run “for scientists, by scientists,” we leverage our credibility and track record to develop standards, oversee their implementation, and inspire the many behavioral changes that are needed throughout the scientific community. In addition to motivating behavioral changes in and around the lab through easily and rapidly implementable tools with clear measurement and verification, we are also leading data-driven research into environmental health impacts and resource consumption. 

My Green Lab’s work has been featured in Science, Nature, Women in Science, Medium, and Sustainable Brands.  Our efforts have been celebrated by the Department of Human Health and Services, the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, and the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL).