How can we improve sustainability in the lab? An introduction to UCL’s LEAF programme

How can we improve sustainability in the lab? An introduction to UCL’s LEAF programme

What is the environmental impact of laboratory research and more importantly how can we improve environmental sustainability in the lab?

Laboratory research has a significant environmental footprint. Labs are carbon-intensive spaces resulting from high resource consumption. Researchers, facility managers, technicians and sustainability managers alike are looking for ways to minimize the environmental impacts of lab functions.

If you have worked in a lab, it doesn’t take long to think of numerous examples of the resources consumed daily. Our reliance on single-use plastics in biochemical research is perhaps the most visually apparent. As we delve deeper into some of the less obvious environmental impacts, such as the substantial energy demands of lab ventilation and cold storage, the need to assess, manage and optimize lab efficiency is clear. At first, reducing impacts in these specialist environments may seem challenging. Fortunately, there are many ways to improve the sustainability performance of laboratories, and with an abundance of benefits.       

LEAF – a new standard supporting sustainable science

The Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF), developed at University College London (UCL), UK, is helping to advance sustainable operations and research in laboratories across the globe.

Following the success of our earlier LEAF pilots in 23 UK research institutions (evidencing both significant financial savings and carbon emission reductions), UCL developed an online software platform to host the framework which we released in January 2021. Just over a year later, it is incredible to see how well this has been received by the research community, with LEAF already being adopted in over 55 research institutions globally. Currently, 34 UK universities and a further 10 UK research organizations are using LEAF to assess and improve environmental sustainability in their labs. Beyond the UK, the framework is in use in seven EU countries and has reached labs in Australia and Antarctica.

So, what is LEAF and why is it proving so popular? LEAF is user-friendly tool which supports effective action and assessment of lab sustainability. The framework provides non-prescriptive specialist guidance, developed specifically for lab users. Organized across 10 categories, the criteria support users to focus efforts in key areas impacting their lab sustainability performance. Bronze, Silver and Gold awards provide both a pathway to progress and ensure criteria is applicable to a lab at any level. For example, within the waste category, bronze-level criteria are simply focused on provision, signage and appropriate disposal. The equivalent silver criteria encourage exploring routes to carbon reduction associated with waste, with gold criteria moving on to measuring the impact of the actions taken. The framework calculators crucially allow users to estimate the impact of actions at any given time, providing data on carbon reduction and financial savings. Calculators offer estimates for equipment, waste, ventilation, cold storage and water use. The institutional mapping provided through the online platform helps to bridge the gap between lab activities and sustainability performance, providing details on progress in labs across the organization. By broadening access to knowledge of lab sustainability improvements, LEAF is helping users accelerate action to reduce the environmental impacts of laboratory research.

LEAF is also expanding what might be considered within the remit of sustainable science, uniquely including criteria which support research quality. This is in recognition that with the number of resources required to do research, ensuring it is reproducible, accessible and high quality is a sustainability consideration. As a result, the UK Reproducibility Network (UKRN) has supported the development of the relevant LEAF criteria.

Future avenues

Throughout our development of LEAF, we have maintained a focus on maximising action. The tool is designed to support science, share and enable immediate actions to improve sustainability, and provide key metrics without creating an administrative burden for its users or facilitators. To further assist the growing LEAF community, in 2021 we produced a number of useful guides and brought new features to the platform. A particular highlight is our guide on plastics and consumables in labs, found here. We have been working hard on further developments which will be brought to LEAF in 2022; it is an exciting time and rewarding to see the way LEAF is helping our community.  

A major highlight of 2021 was news from the Medical Research Council (MRC), who join the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in the UK in driving LEAF in their laboratories. This UKRI article highlights their challenge and how LEAF will be used to support sustainability across MRC institutes.

LEAF is currently available to non-commercial research organizations through Sustainable UCL, whilst we are exploring how to further expand the remit to commercial operations. We’re excited to continue to grow the LEAF programme, and look forward to further helping drive the sector towards its net-zero aspirations.

Further reading

• Hopkinson, L. et al. (2011) Energy Consumption of University Laboratories: Detailed Results from S-Lab Audits
• Madhusoodanan, J. (2020) What can you do to make your lab greener? Nature 581, 228–229, doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-01368-8
• Bain, K. (2020) The carbon footprint of science: How can we 'go green' in our labs?, Immunology News, British Society for Immunology
• Farley. M. (2019) Sustainability in Laboratories – Moving Forward, Efficiency Exchange


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