An introduction to sustainable lab procurement

With possibly up to half of lab emissions linked to purchasing, procurement becomes an important sustainability tool. The team at ReAdvance have put together a scientist's guide to purchasing greener items for the laboratory, with many suggestions and resources to explore sustainable procurement.
An introduction to sustainable lab procurement

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Procurement. In other words, the process of purchasing items and services for your laboratory. When I first delved into the world of procurement, I was met with a lot of complex jargon and convoluted advice. I felt confused and uncertain about my next step. However, let me share what I have learned to help you make sense of procurement.

Why procurement matters

Did you know that a significant chunk of laboratory emissions stems from purchasing? One preprint found that up to 56% of laboratory emissions can be attributed to procurement. Also, reporting is becoming more common. The EU in particular is moving quickly to make companies report about their footprints. Even for academic laboratories, their universities, funding bodies or the government could ask for such data.

Still, it not just about saving the planet; there are tangible cost savings too. Companies like Unilever, Pepsico, and Nike have saved millions by optimizing their procurement processes ($1.2 Billion, $60 and $50 million respectively).

The impact of sustaianable procurement

But what is SUSTAINABLE procurement?

Sustainable procurement is revisiting and shifting our priorities because it is more than just buying what fits – it's about valuing environmental, social, and economic factors. There are 8 “aspects” I would like to share to explain what it means to prioritize sustainability (and I will add a bit of black humor to illustrate what it should NOT look like):

Effectiveness – buying what (actually) aligns with your organization’s goals.

You said DNA-Prep Kits, I understood NEW COFFEE MACHINE“

Efficiency – reducing expenses, emissions, and environmental damage to a minimum.

“Although it took 8 months to arrive, my product has seen every continent on earth, I am so proud!”

Competitive Openness – inviting (all) suppliers to compete for the best offer (in terms of price as well as environmental impacts).

“No need for tedious online research, my friend is assembling CRISPR Kits in his garage”

Transparency – you should know and share where your products come from, how they're made, and what their environmental footprint looks like .

“Pfff, that number is so long it could be my phone number; just put it in the attachments of the additional information”

Fairness – avoid discriminating certain providers and consider fair labour practices.

“I hate their logo, it looks so offensive, they are out!”

Accountability – holding both yourself and your suppliers accountable for ethical practices, whether it's fair labour conditions or responsible sourcing of materials.

“I think Tony messed up again but anyway, he is paying for the beer so don’t mess with him!”

Responsibility – recognizing the broader impact of your procurement choices, from the forests being cleared for paper production to the children toiling in sweatshops to produce cheap goods.

“Environmental exploration – I would be glad if that would finally happen here so they could start building this new highway…”

Independence – making purchasing decisions based on objective criteria rather than external influences or biases. Whether it's resisting pressure from stakeholders or conducting thorough market research, independence ensures that sustainability remains the top priority.

“But the oracle (aka my neighbour who works at this company) has forsaken that this is going to be the new gold-standard in a few years”

The eight aspects of sustainable procurement

But how does that relate to the laboratory?

Laboratories were built to do science, not to search Google for hours to find some reagent that might potentially work  if one is lucky. Most changes in your procurement must happen in alignment with your laboratory’s work. And some can only be sparked there.

Aligning procurement to laboratory work

Collaboration and resource sharing

Reducing is king. Before making a purchase, explore opportunities for collaboration or resource sharing. Can you collaborate with other labs to share equipment or borrow chemicals?

Reduce delivery footprints through collective purchasing and bulk orders, especially in institutions with multiple labs. By pooling resources and purchasing in bulk, you can not only save costs but also reduce packaging waste. And for laboratories with less financial resources, it might be the only way to afford some especially expensive antibodies or equipment.

Review procurement practices

Do you need to reorder, or can you reuse? Some columns can be recovered, and tubes for commonly used solutions reused. Instead of purchasing entire DNA isolation kits, reuse collection tubes to save money by only buying the columns (QIAGEN offers that, for example).

Especially for academic laboratories, mindful organization and distribution of laboratory resources is often lacking. Factors such as expiration dates, and multiple people accepting deliveries and putting them in various storage locations, can result in items being wasted or lost. Software and systems for inventory management are available (even for free) – and sometimes an Excel sheet will do too.

Exploring innovation and alternatives for solvents & reagents

Explore newer items and equipment to save energy, chemicals, and resources. Some MS and HPLC already use less chemicals/eluents while needing less energy. Eppendorf produces tubes made 90% out of plant oil waste streams. Especially for laboratories in the bioeconomy, can you repurpose waste streams or adopt alternative methods that require fewer resources?

Make use of resources – such as the solvent guide from the University of Pennsylvania – to identify sustainable alternatives for commonly used solvents. Get informed about the 12 principles of green chemistry. Software such as the DOZN Tool make it easier to optimize experimental procedures (solvent choice, reaction conditions, and waste minimization strategies, etc.).

Finding better options for your products

Look for suppliers offering eco-friendly alternatives for the items you need. As mentioned above, consider bio-based products such as Eppendorf tubes made from recycled plant oil waste streams.

Shift your focus towards suppliers that prioritize sustainable delivery methods and packaging materials. Vendors like NEB utilize paper and hemp-based products instead of traditional plastic for packaging. Additionally, inquire about innovative shipping practices, such as sending items at ambient temperatures to minimize the need for cooling materials like insulation and liquid nitrogen (e.g., available for primers).

Also, what happens to your items afterwards is a factor to be considered. Opt for items with eco-friendly disposal options, such as paper cartridges from Labcon instead of traditional plastic counterparts. Additionally, suppliers like Rainin offer easily recyclable pipette tip boxes. Others offer to take back your waste (but take care, as some of them just discard it themselves and thereby cause a higher footprint due to additional transport).

While the principles might seem straightforward at first glance, putting them into action can be a complicated task. Sustainable procurement isn't just about being eco-friendly; it's about finding the delicate balance between environmental, economic, and social considerations. Also, can you trust all claims made? Theoretically, certification should help you make the decision. We give some tips and introduce the top 5 most important certifications in one of our articles. Furthermore, all change inherently involves risk. What if the new product or supplier that seems to be of superior quality doesn't deliver in time?

To make it easier for you, here is an actionable plan that also summarizes the information from above:

A five-step roadmap to get started

1. Awareness & Assessment

Begin by fostering awareness of what sustainable procurement entails. Understand the environmental, economical, and social impacts associated with the items and services you procure. Assess your current procurement practices (i.e., everything that you did not consider to be important so far) and identify areas where sustainability improvements can be made.

Awareness of what procurement entails

2. Prioritization & Perspective Change

A shift in perspective is necessary. For example, consider whether certain purchases are essential and evaluate the importance of factors such as environmental impact, supply chain ethics, and end-of-life considerations for you personally (or your laboratory or company).

3. Learning & Identification

This is the most painful step – it takes time to learn about sustainable alternatives available in the market. Explore different products, suppliers, and procurement practices. Educate not only yourself but leverage your team as well – again there is a lot of money to be saved.

4. Balancing Risks & Testing

Recognize that transitioning to sustainable procurement may involve risks and uncertainties. Conduct thorough risk assessments before implementing changes. Test alternative products or practices on a small scale to gauge their effectiveness and reliability if possible.

5. Reporting, KPIs & Maintenance

Establish key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the impact of sustainable procurement efforts. Develop a reporting framework to track progress and communicate achievements internally and externally. Stay informed about emerging regulations and industry standards related to sustainability reporting. Regularly review and update procurement practices to maintain alignment with sustainability goals.

Finally, if you want to see some real-life examples of how to go through websites from providers, you can watch our recording (where you can also see me in person).

If this post contained useful information for you, you can always join ReAdvance's weekly lesson live events for free. Or you can follow us on social media, where we share these lessons in bit-sized chunks.

All images by ReAdvance.

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