What are “Sustainable” Practices in the Lab?

Sustainable labs prioritise energy-efficient equipment and policies, but what does this mean a laboratory setting and how can you get started?

In recent years, sustainability has moved from its origins in environmental science to become a key aspect of various sectors, including research laboratories. Laboratories in all fields are resource-intensive settings where energy consumption, waste generation, and chemical use are typically high and often quickly changing. Adopting sustainable practices in research labs not only contributes to environmental conservation but also often results in cost savings and enhanced safety.

But while having the aim of being sustainable is laudable the reality is that it can even be difficult to know what areas in a lab to look at and what a sustainable practice would even be. So for anyone looking to make their lab more sustainable or just understand sustainability here are 6 things to start thinking about.

1. Efficient Use of Energy

Energy consumption is one of the largest contributors to a lab’s carbon footprint. Implementing energy-efficient practices can significantly reduce this impact. Labs should consider upgrading to energy-efficient equipment, such as ultra-low temperature freezers, fume hoods, and HVAC systems. Instituting policies to turn off equipment when not in use and optimising the use of climate control systems can also yield substantial energy savings. Even simple changes like adding smart plugs to equipment can cut down on equipment left in ‘standby’ mode and leaking power.

2. Waste Reduction and Management

Laboratories generate a wide variety of waste, including hazardous chemical waste, biological waste, and general refuse. To manage waste sustainably, labs should focus on the principles of reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reducing the volume of disposable materials, using recyclable or biodegradable products, and ensuring proper segregation and disposal of waste are crucial steps. Furthermore, chemical waste can often be minimised through microscale experiments and recycling solvents.

3. Sustainable Procurement

Choosing suppliers and products that prioritise sustainability can have a profound impact. This involves selecting eco-friendly materials, chemicals with lower environmental impact, and equipment from companies that adhere to green practices. Sustainable procurement also encompasses purchasing in bulk to reduce shipping impacts and opting for products with minimal packaging. Several lab supplies companies now offer a range of green products with all of this in mind.

4. Water Conservation

Water usage in labs, especially in biological and chemical research, can be extensive. Employing water-efficient equipment and practices is essential. This includes fixing leaks promptly, using water recirculation systems, and adopting methods that require less water (not everything needs to go down the sink with lots of water). Simple actions like installing automatic shut-off valves can significantly reduce water wastage.

5. Green Chemistry

Adopting the principles of green chemistry is another effective way to enhance lab sustainability. This approach focuses on designing experiments and processes that minimise the use and generation of hazardous substances. It takes planning but breen chemistry practices not only reduce the environmental impact but also improve safety by reducing the exposure to toxic chemicals.

6. Employee Engagement and Training

Sustainability efforts are most effective when they involve all lab members. Regular training on sustainable practices, encouraging suggestions for improvements, and recognising efforts can foster an inclusive, environmentally conscious culture within the lab. Sustainability is a lot easier when everyone understands the goals and needs of a more sustainable lab.

Making research laboratories more sustainable involves a multifaceted approach that includes energy efficiency, waste management, sustainable procurement, water conservation, green chemistry, and active engagement of all lab personnel. By adopting these practices, labs not only contribute to environmental conservation but also enhance their operational efficiency and safety.

Matthew

Matthew has been writing and cartooning since 2005 and working in science communication his whole career. Matthew has a BSc in Biochemistry and a PhD in Fibre Optic Molecular Sensors and has spent around 16 years working in research, 5 of which were in industry and 12 in the ever-wonderful academia.

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