What YOU can do to make your lab greener

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In a previous post on the FEBS Network, I discussed the main problems faced by bioscience research in terms of sustainability. Here, I provide a more comprehensive overview of the specific measures that can be implemented in the lab. It is important to keep in mind that, although most of these measures could be put into practice by a single individual, some of them might require the involvement of the administration office, depending on how your research centre is organized. For example, if your lab/department buys its consumables independently from the rest of the building, the change into a more sustainable alternative will require the agreement of only a few people. However, if the building has a centralized purchase system (“stores”), any changes in procurement will require further discussion.

The importance of individual engagement and community action

Apart from directly making sustainable changes, the two most important things you can do as a research scientist are to get informed of why and how you should contribute to making research more sustainable and to convince/teach/show your colleagues. It is important to remember that, as outside the lab, every small gesture matters, not only because of its immediate effect, but also because it creates a habit that can be easily spread among your peers, which in turn increases the impact of the initial change. This is in part why communication is such an important tool in sustainability, as I will mention later. However, this is not always simple and one can feel easily overwhelmed facing the issue alone. Start by talking to your sustainability team, or your health and safety department, to learn of any initiatives that might already be in place. If there is not a green initiative in your institute yet, try and start one. You can ask the health and safety team to send an email asking for people interested in starting a sustainability working group. Then, get together and discuss possible actions.

Waste and product life cycle

As I mentioned in the previous post about general sustainability issues in bioscience research, there are two areas of particular interest: waste and carbon footprint.

In general, we should all focus on reducing our waste in our daily life, but this is even more relevant in the lab, where a recycling option is often not available at the end of the line. Reducing waste can be done at three different points in the product’s life: purchase, by buying the most sustainable options; usage, by making sure we make the most out of it; and disposal, by ensuring that the product ends up in the most sustainable waste stream possible. A few specific tips:

  • Know your suppliers: there are many sustainable options available on the market. One can simply do an internet search of “sustainable product name” and find good alternatives. This goes from kits to chemical reagents and plasticware. Remember that choosing sustainable suppliers is not only about considering the product itself, but also production, logistics and packaging. Many suppliers are replacing their packaging materials with sustainable ones, and when polystyrene boxes are not avoidable they offer a return scheme.
  • Avoid single-use plastics: replace these with products made from recycled plastic, biodegradable plastic or glassware and/or reuse the plastic when possible (e.g. always grow your bacteria in glass containers, also for minipreps).
  • Avoid individually wrapped items: if your 10 cm dishes can come in multipacks, so can your 6-well plates.
  • Understand when to use which product, such as which level of sterility is really necessary. For example, if you don’t really need filter tips there are more sustainable options available for non-filter tips. In common pipette tips boxes, the box makes up about 96% of the total plastic of the product! For non-filter tips these boxes can be replaced by stackable tip refill racks, or reused with new/washed tips.
(top) Glass bottles and other glass containers should be used over single-use plastics;
(bottom) the ten plastic tip boxes on the left could be replaced with the ten stackable racks
on the right side, reducing plastic waste. 
Photos by Marta Rodriguez-Martinez.

  • Share: before buying, make sure nobody else around has the same or similar item(s) spare. This may require the creation of a mailing list or database where such information can be requested/found. This applies to kits, chemicals, plasticware and any other reagent.
  • Reuse whenever possible, while respecting health and safety regulations.
  • Make sure people in your lab/area/department know the waste stream, and stress the importance of correct waste sorting. This will not only help sustainability, but since disposing of biological/chemical waste is much more expensive than regular/recycling waste, sorting it properly will typically reduce the costs of waste disposal.

Sustainable changes can also be taken a step further to the institutional level. The way we acquire a product and the way we dispose of it at the end of its lifetime is a main target for sustainability. Therefore, it is worth having a conversation with your procurement and facilities managers to discuss possibilities and understand how the system works in your research centre. For example, some pipette tip suppliers offer green alternatives and even the option to collect and reuse their tip boxes if a certain threshold is reached. Therefore, making an agreement with other labs/departments can be very beneficial in terms of cost and sustainability. In some cases, this may require the involvement of the purchase department. On the other hand, when it comes to waste stream, the facilities/waste management team is the place to go.

Energy consumption and carbon footprint

The second main issue in science sustainability is the reduction of our carbon footprint. The carbon footprint of scientific research has been the topic of several recent posts and articles, and it is mainly linked to lab operations and travel for work, such as flying for scientific meetings. On the lab operations front, a behavioural change is needed in several ways. Here, the two main sources of emissions are non-essential equipment and cooling systems management.

  • Non-essential equipment: The default setting for all equipment used intermittently (such as centrifuges, water baths, microscopes, etc. and also lighting) should be “OFF” rather than keeping it on “just in case”. For this, the use of timers may be implemented to facilitate the behavioural change required for such measures. Alternatively, this equipment can be turned off at the end of the day – a measure that should also apply to personal computers and lab computers, such as those connected to qPCR machines, plate readers or scanners. You can introduce these changes in your lab by talking to the lab manager, your colleagues one by one or whichever way you think may work in your lab. Don’t be discouraged by the resistance you may encounter; you are doing the right thing!
  • Freezer management: Ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers are a recurrent topic in sustainability. Setting the temperature to −70°C rather than −80°C can save up to 30% of the energy required. However, although a lot of research has been carried out to show that most samples don’t require −80°C, this is still a sensitive topic. It is interesting to note that until a few years ago, ULT freezers could not actually reach less than −70°C and this might make you wonder if anything other than pure marketing was the real reason for the change to −80°C. In any case, there are several alternative things that can improve the efficiency of ULT freezers and help save energy: organize them to avoid big empty spaces (use racks instead of drawers even if they are not used), scrape the ice once a week, make sure the door closes and locks properly, and defrost them regularly. This will not only save a lot of energy but will also increase the life of your freezer. This also applies to −20°C freezers and fridges. For these, you can fill up the empty spaces with ice packs.
Racks (right side) should be used over empty spaces (left ride). Photo by Marta Rodriguez-Martinez.

The second big cornerstone of carbon footprint linked to scientific research is flying. Although I will write in more detail about this in a coming post, here are some ideas you may want to consider. When possible, use alternative transport means, such as train or car when travelling to meetings and tell your colleagues about it. You might be surprised by how many of them will choose this option when it is presented to them as the first choice. Right now, amid the Covid-19 crisis, we have all seen how much easier than expected it is to attend virtual conferences. Although it is true that after-meeting drinks and coffee break discussions are a big part of scientific meetings, we should consider how much of this is really necessary in light of the climate crisis we are facing.

The importance of communication

Whether it is about carbon emissions or waste management a crucial step is to start the conversation. We need an organized way to pass on the information of what can be done, how to do it and how to spread the word. You may be surprised how many people around you share your concerns and are willing to help make your institute more sustainable. Teamwork is an essential tool for research sustainability, not only because more solutions can be found through discussion, but also because one can often feel discouraged in this fight and having moral support around you is vital.

For the implementation of sustainability measures, information is key, and it is so for two reasons. First, many people are not aware of the impact of their actions or the more sustainable alternatives available; this is why talking to your peers is essential to spread sustainable habits in the lab (and at home). Second, before implementing anything new in your lab/department/institute, make sure everyone knows about it, otherwise the resistance faced will shock you. Scientists are creatures of habit: we like things the way they’ve always been, so if you change them, you had better tell me why!

Until we manage to bring sustainability onto the priority list of scientific research operations and achieve a standardisation of sustainable practices (much as they exist now for health and safety regulations), it is up to us to decide how we conduct our research. Although this is not an easy road, don’t feel discouraged: it is the right road, and you are not alone!


Top image of post: by anncapictures from Pixabay 

Marta Rodríguez-Martínez

Research Scientist, EMBL

Research scientist in genome and cancer biology and expert in science sustainability