by Elizabeth Young, Ph.D., Lydia Morrison, M.S., and Nicole Kelesoglu
The laboratory is a place of inspiration, curiosity, ingenuity, and often altruism. Researchers are, by and large, a thoughtful and deeply invested group, but the environmental and ecological consequences of life science research are not typically at the forefront of researchers’ minds when planning their investigations. Is it possible to minimize your environmental impact when working in the laboratory?
1. Start the Discussion
The first step towards raising awareness about greener lab practices is to start the discussion with your coworkers. Share your concerns, brainstorm ideas together, and perhaps provide a list of green-labs-themed websites they can review. Excellent programs with websites include My Green Lab, LEAF, Max Planck Sustainability Network, Green Labs NL, University of Bristol Green Labs, Harvard Green Labs, LabRATS, - and many more. New England Biolabs supports the Labconscious® website which began in 2014 as a community of concerned life scientists, seeking to crowdsource solutions to the field’s pervasive environmental challenges. Over time Labconscious has grown to offer science communication focused on laboratory sustainability to an international audience. Practical insights, expert interviews, and open resources are available to foster dialogue and support worldwide efforts to go green. Whether within your lab group, or across global initiatives, awareness is the first step towards collaborative action.
Once you have explored best practices, speak to your environmental health and safety officer to ensure that your lab is taking full advantage of any green programs already available to you. While some institutes and universities have realized the value of pro-environmental policies for the life sciences, others have been slower to adopt new processes. For instance, most universities offer basic recycling services, which collect paper products, beverage bottles and cans, but few offer specialized recycling methods that can address the various new streams of recyclables that are commonly used in life science research, such as polystyrene, polyethylene and polypropylene. This can be due to local unavailability. No matter what is available to you at your lab facility, you can always help to prevent lab waste with upfront efforts to reduce consumption.
Be aware that laboratory safety policies frequently dictate how certain types of laboratory waste must be treated, whether it’s incineration, sterilization, or neutralization. Each of these methods is associated with its own environmental concerns; when possible, choose methods and chemicals that don’t require regulated disposal. When regulated disposal is required, as for certain chemicals, consider secondary treatment methods that can minimize the amount or volatility of disposable materials, like distillation
Once you’ve identified a few tactics for cutting your lab’s environmental footprint, share your ideas with a larger group: present your findings at the next lab meeting, prepare a list for inclusion in your departmental newsletter, or hold a departmental seminar. You may be surprised by how receptive your coworkers are to your suggestions.
2. Reduce Laboratory Plastics Waste
Single-use lab consumables are commonly made from plastics by necessity, as they are lightweight, mostly inert and extremely stable. Unfortunately, plastic decomposes slowly, if at all. Local recycling is the most responsible way of disposing of the copious amounts of plastic generated in the lab since it reduces the need to generate virgin plastic from petrolium. Small things, such as using refillable tip boxes, can help reduce the amount of plastic used. Items such as empty media bottles can also be recycled. Nucleic acid purification, in particular, is notorious for generating large amounts of plastic waste in the laboratory. Similarly, common sterile cell culture techniques result in large volumes of plastic waste. Recycling of plastics associated with these techniques may be available near you but be sure to investigate Biosafety Level (BSL) restrictions for their applications. With any biological protocol, look for opportunities to miniaturize reaction volumes and or reduce the number of plastic consumables involved. Consider if single-use plastic can be replaced with glassware or processed for reuse to reduce the overall associated carbon footprint.
Cold shipping is another area where life science balances its environmental footprint with critical conditions for scientific success. Many reagents and sample types require controlled temperature shipping, and expanded polystyrene (EPS) is the only reliable material for protecting and insulating certain temperature-sensitive samples or research products. EPS is extremely stable, taking upwards of one million years to decompose in a landfill. EPS recycling is available in a few locations, but an EPS reuse program, like NEB’s shipping box recycling program and Andrew Markley’s Styrofoam® box recycling program at the University of Wisconsin are even greener alternatives. Andrew received one of NEB’s Passion in Science Awards™ in 2014 and has since worked to spread his box reuse program to other universities.
Progress in life science sustainability relies in part on upstream innovations driven by demands in the food and healthcare industries. Excitingly in 2020, in response to the global recycling crisis, paper based cold shipping cooler options were introduced to the industry. While not applicable for shipments that require dry ice or longer transit times, paper-based shippers like NEB’s ClimaCell® Cooler have already reduced the environmental impact of life science. The nonprofit, educational organization, I2SL, laboratory waste landfill diversion working group released a technical bulletin in 2021 inducing proposed guidance to reduce EPS foam containers and packaging in science. Life science eagerly awaits future material science and recycling technologies to close the loop on this global issue.
If your institution’s recycling program is limited, a good first step is to speak with your local environmental health and safety officer. Learning what provisions are available for new recycling programs, or what chemical safety rules must be adhered to, will help to guide your search for next steps.
3. Conserve Water
Water consumption in life science research (and manufacturing) is extremely intensive. Things such as buffer production, cleaning of glassware, sterilization and incubation in water baths can all utilize large amounts of water.
There are several ways to conserve water in the lab. When making buffers or other aqueous solutions, follow an SOP; dumping out batches of incorrectly made buffers wastes both time and resources. Washing glassware by hand can be highly water efficient, but isn’t a realistic option for certain labs; newer dishwashers can be connected to deionized and filtered water supplies, allowing for multiple rinses of important glassware. If your lab uses a water flow vacuum system, consider investing in a small vacuum pump; you can choose a size that fits your lab’s particular needs and available space. Choose recirculating water baths, when possible. Consider installing aerators or water misers to minimize the amount of water that pours out of the faucet. While some improvements may be out of your hands, suggestions can always be passed on to your environmental health and safety officer or facilities manager. The simple action of reporting a dripping faucet is helpful. NEB’s pledge to protect the environment extends to its local watershed; as such NEB has a unique solution for treating its wastewater and returning it to the ground.
4. Reduce Energy Consumption
Who hasn’t unlocked the lab door, after a long weekend, to find that the lights had been on the whole time? Some laboratories are equipped with “smart” lights, activated by motion sensors; but if your lab is not, be mindful about turning the lights off. Much of the climate control is determined by your facilities department. Still, there are several ways that every researcher can help save energy in the lab; it will just take some small adjustments to your established routines.
One of the major, researcher-related energy costs in the lab can be the easiest to avoid – skip the post-PCR hold. Plan your PCR to finish before you leave for the day or ask a labmate to move your tubes to the refrigerator, because your 4°C-hold step wastes significant energy.
Another simple, yet effective way to save energy is to shut the biosafety cabinet (tissue culture hood) sash. By shutting the sash, you stop the laminar-flow fan from running when it’s not needed. Save even more energy by shutting the sash of the fume hood. Since 2005, the Office for Sustainability at Harvard University initiative Shut the Sash has been going strong, and has demonstrated significant energy savings. Fume hoods are critical to lab safety but improper use can cause terrible misuse of building air system energy. Keep the sash as low as possible and close the hood when not in use.
Freezers are also known to consume large amounts of energy in the lab. Eliminate cold air loss by periodically scraping down the gasket that seals the freezer to remove any ice that has accumulated. Also, by keeping the coils on the rear of the freezer unit free from dust and debris, you can prevent the freezer from working harder to achieve and maintain temperature. Consider if certain ultralow temp freezer stocks can tolerate -70C instead of -80C. Keep in mind that ULT freezer actual temperatures can fluctuate as much as 10C. To protect your frozen stocks, organize freezer contents and create a map to post on the freezer door to make open times shorter and less frequent. Most importantly, schedule lab team meeting times to resurface older stocks to eliminate under-utilized storage space.
5. Share ResourcesChemicals
Always review your experimental protocol; in some cases, greener chemicals can replace toxic chemicals. For example, one could consider replacing ethidium bromide, which is commonly used for staining DNA in agarose and acrylamide gels, with a greener stain such as GelRed™ or SYBR® safe. Be aware that replacing ethidium bromide by adding dyes during the casting of gels will risk significant changes in DNA migration patterns. MIT is well known for their green chemistry initiatives and general leadership in this area. In scenarios where safer options are not applicable, consider buying the smallest amount that will serve your purpose, or try to source your chemicals from a “shared” source. Find out if your institution has a shared chemical repository, and if not, work to set one up.
Perhaps you have changed your research focus and have equipment on your bench that you no longer need. Rather than disposing it, designate a place in the building for equipment reuse. There is probably another researcher in the building that can use it, and you may find something you were looking for as well! University Sustainability offices sometimes offer a “Reuse Room” where researchers can deposit specific items for recycling and reuse, including equipment and labware. The University of Colorado UC Boulder Green Labs program has demonstrated outstanding benefits to science from managed, shared research equipment.
You’ve already taken the first step; you’ve educated yourself about several greener actions you can get started with. The next step is up to you, but we’d like to suggest that you keep learning – learn what your institution and local governance can do for you. Learn what’s recyclable, what can be reused, and how to reduce your lab’s waste profile. Then, help to raise awareness amongst your coworkers. Work together to come up with a plan, tailor that plan specific to your department and then work to get leadership support.
At NEB, we’re committed to reducing our own environmental footprint and we are always open to suggestions as to how we can do better. We encourage you to share your ideas with the labconscious community, so that we can all benefit from each other’s ideas, big or small.
Bringing your eco-mindedness into the laboratory can be easy; all it takes is a bit of research into your institution’s policies, and a commitment to making life science research greener. Start small, question convention, and know that you can make a difference!
To learn more about sustainability in the laboratory, visit www.labconscious.com.