Steps every scientist can take with limited time and resources

On this first post of the ReAdvance initiative Sustainability Series we get an overview of the online talk with Dr. Sriram Satagopan, where he explored with the post author how to make progress in lab sustainability when you have limited time and resources.
Steps every scientist can take with limited time and resources

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As scientists we often face multiple challenges that make it difficult to change something about our processes. Although many researchers would like to be more sustainable, it is not a simple task. At least it appears like that…

In our experience (from two scientists who have changed almost everything about their processes, even how they work in sterile environments such as cell culture), the main difficulty in the beginning is not so much our research but rather our thinking. Multiple common misconceptions might hold you back, although many opportunities are right in front of you. To give you some examples, we share a few stories and experiences that might help you:

Starting off

Starting the journey in sustainability often begins with a moment of realization, a spark of awareness that prompts a shift in perspective. For me (Patrick, a Biochemist from Germany), this moment came during my undergraduate studies. I somehow became aware of the stark contrast between sustainable practices I implement at home and the “change of personality” when I stepped into the laboratory. We are often somehow anxious about changing our protocols and thus, follow them without second thoughts. Rightfully so as far as it comes to the fragile aspects that will influence our samples. However, this leaves space for actions that only affect the consumables and processes alongside our protocols. Those are the perfect steps to start off. Anything else can come later.

One such tip is to throw caps of canonical tubes that one is not using into recycling bins instead of the biohazardous waste. These “common” bins that are often nearby are for contaminated waste that will be autoclaved – of course, a very energy intensive process that will also prevent any content from being recycled). Another easy step is to use smaller items when possible (e.g., 15mL instead of 50mL tubes – which is saving 50% of plastic). Although it is so tempting to jump ahead, take the time for test runs (in HPLC, MS or Microscopy-Scans) to avoid wasting valuable sample but also time and resources … the list is long.

Similarly, Sriram’s journey (a senior Microbiology colleague of mine) was ignited by a simple YouTube video: shake your hands 10 times after washing your hands, and you will only need a single wipe. In the laboratory that means using wipes carefully, potentially opting for small Kim-Wipes. Also, if you are just wiping water, then let the wipe dry (or throw it in the recycling trash). He emphasized the significance of taking small, manageable steps towards sustainability -- rather than striving for perfection from the outset -- enabling him to build momentum (see below).

Figure representing wow to start off using a triangle and three key words.
Figure 2: How to start off? Three key words: At first, impact: Prioritize where you see a clear effect e.g., reducing plastic waste by using smaller items instead of starting discussions in the group whether you should switch to the provider that has longer delivery way but more certifications for their tubes. Momentum: Start step by step, the larger action will be easier when you have a feeling for the field. Feasibility: Make sure you initiate change “around“ fragile experiments not within them. Do not start by trying to opt for a more benign solvent before you assessed whether you can prepare a solution of two components in one tube instead of two. Also, make sure to include your group (especially when turning off machines in order to avoid frustration later on).

“But there is no time”

It seems that limited time and resources pose significant challenges for scientists striving to integrate sustainability into their workflows. Nevertheless, underfunded laboratories are often the greener ones and indeed, sustainable practices often save time in the long term through the optimization of protocols. Still, how to start then?

We call it the concept of "Implementing By Abstraction," which refers to finding opportunities for sustainable practices and integrating them into existing workflows seamlessly. It means you do not sit for hours and reassemble your protocol extensively. Instead, you understand what concepts like “reduce” or “reuse” aim at, and then you look for opportunities during your experiment. Once you identify one, you can either take action right away if it is easy and straightforward (reducing the time the hood is open) or you note it down and let your mind tell you later if there is a solution (e.g., instead of using two tubes for one reagent each and subsequently mixing them, you just use one to prepare a solution). If this is interesting to you, check out our latest 'lesson' on how to identify opportunities for sustainability (we send these lessons once a week to inspire sustainable practices).

Figure representing time perception by scientists.
Figure 3: Every scientist is busy, yet limited time is not a concern for sustainability. Rather it is the misconception that limited time feels like exhaustion which makes every change seem as if impossible (= high effort). Because of this impression, scientists are likely to just focus specifically on their experiments forgetting about their consumable consumption and to relentlessly optimizing their work.

For Sriram, planning ahead emerged as a key strategy to streamline processes and overcome time constraints. Often, their lab would run out of their single-use items for the kits and assays they did every day. However, as he was opting for glassware to be more sustainable, he always remembered to make sure to have some autoclaved and ready. It did not take long until his colleagues came to him to ask whether they could borrow some…

He also suggested to just order the columns for DNA preps and reuse the collection tubes – for example, QIAGEN offers just the columns for a lower price than the entire “set”.

 This article is already long enough but there is a story of Sriram saving his supervisor a lot of money by “changing the running system”. If you are interested, here is a recording.

Figure showing scales to represent sustainability trade-offs.
Figure 4: Sustainability is often considered a tradeoff to scientific processes. This misconception lies in forgetting that data quality is still the highest priority and sustainability is just another motivator to optimize rather than follow convenient practices.

Embracing imperfection

In the end, there is no need to worry about whether we are doing enough - absolute sustainability is not achievable in the laboratory. However, there are many low hanging fruits that do not impair processes but will prove very impactful especially when maintaining them for years!

Do not be content with small steps but appreciate them as the ones introducing you into the topic. There will be many challenges ahead but until then you will have the momentum you need. And for all the other experiences and insight that might help you, we have an online event every 2 weeks. Join us whenever you like and make your lab greener – safely and efficiently.

Learn more about the ReAdvance Sustainability Series and take the first step by registering now. Let’s become more sustainable together!

ReAdvance logo showing a green pipette over a circle-shaped network, the name ReAdvance and the keywords sustainable, scientific and selected underneath.

All images by ReAdvance.

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