Improving sustainability in the research lab

improve sustainability research lab
Fume hood stickers remind users to shut the sash when they finish an experiment to improve lab sustainability.

Last fall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a special report describing the devastating impacts of increasing global temperatures, including wildfires, food shortages, and the complete loss of coral reefs by as early as 2040. As a member of the scientific community, but also simply as a human, I find the human contributions to climate change terrifying. We must make deliberate efforts to live more sustainable personal and professional lives to mitigate the climate crisis. I easily incorporated a bamboo toothbrush, reusable shopping bags, and a stainless-steel straw into my daily routine. But my daily routine also consists of using multiple pairs of nitrile gloves and single-use plastic conical tubes, and storing countless samples at -80 degrees Celsius. I cringe at the thought of using a plastic fork when it’s Food Truck Thursday on campus, but often don’t think twice about the number of plastic tubes I use in a single experiment. I think it’s time for us as scientists to do what we can to reduce our contributions to plastic waste and nonrenewable energy consumption, not only in our personal lives, but also to find ways to improve sustainability in the research lab. And I know many other scientists agree.

As graduate students and postdocs, we may not have a say in the efficiency of the equipment purchased or installed in our labs. However, we are capable of optimizing how we use that equipment to create more sustainable labs. With guidance from the nonprofit organization, My Green Lab, and sustainability resources from universities around the country, we can all improve our lab practices to drastically reduce energy consumption and waste generation. Here are some simple ways you can adjust your lab practices to make sustainability a part of your professional life.

Close the fume hood sash

The fume hood, essential to many labs, can consume as much energy as 3.5 households each day, according to My Green Lab. You can help to reduce substantial energy consumption by shutting the sash on the fume hood any time you are not actively using it. Raising the sash increases the amount of air moving through the hood and therefore boosts the exhaust fan speed, using considerably more energy than when the sash is closed. By simply shutting the sash immediately following experiments, you can make your lab more sustainable. To enhance sustainability in its labs, Brown University has incorporated “Shut the Sash” fume hood stickers and alarms that alert lab members if the fume hood sash is left slightly open. You can post stickers or signage on the fume hood in your lab to remind yourself and your lab mates to close the fume hood sash any time it’s not in use. Studies show fume hood stickers effectively lead to energy savings.

Maintain your freezer

Another major energy consumer is the ultra-low freezer, branded the “minus 80” in most labs. Preventative maintenance of your freezer maximizes its energy efficiency. According to the Harvard Lab Sustainability Guide, good maintenance practices include checking and cleaning door seals, changing filters, cleaning exposed coils, and defrosting the unit at least once per year. Inventories and maps of freezer storage further reduce energy consumption by allowing you to find your samples quickly with minimal temperature fluctuation within the unit. You can also talk to your PI about temperature tuning. Ultra-low freezers set at -70 degrees Celsius instead of -80 consume up to 40% less energy. Considering freezers set to -80 degrees use about as much energy as a single-family home every day, the energy savings resulting from increasing the temperature by only 10 degrees is massive. The International Laboratory Freezer Challenge provides a list of samples successfully stored at -70 degrees Celsius as well as publications to address appropriate storage temperatures of different sample types, so you can make sure temperature tuning is feasible for your samples (and have better evidence to convince your PI to give temperature tuning a try).

Use glassware instead of single-use plastic

Consider which of your protocols require the use of sterile plastic tubes, flasks, or plates and which protocols allow for the use of glassware instead. I recently realized my lab used plastic conical tubes to store certain buffers for no reason other than a habit passed down from one lab member to the next. These buffers are just as effectively stored in sealable glass bottles. Plus, glass is nonreactive, making it an even better choice for long-term storage of buffers. By making a simple switch to glassware instead of plastic for certain protocols, we can reduce the amount of plastic waste contributed by labs.

Reduce glove changes when possible

Gloves are a staple in the lab, and we tend to go through several pairs a day. Sometimes we must change our gloves to avoid contamination of our samples or due to biohazardous waste. Other times, we take a break during an incubation or PCR and dispose of gloves that do not present a hazard to ourselves or our samples. In these cases, I’ve found removing my gloves and placing them next to my experimental setup allows me to pick up right where I left off after a break without wasting a pair of gloves. I also keep a spray bottle of ethanol near my lab bench, so I can clean my gloves periodically during experiments rather than needlessly changing them. Reducing unnecessary glove changes is an easy way to decrease excess waste production in the lab. Terracycle even offers glove recycling for those unavoidable glove changes.

Efficiently use autoclaves

When you use the autoclave, My Green Lab recommends consolidating your loads to maximize water and energy efficiency. Just as you wouldn’t set the dishwasher at home to run if you only loaded two bowls, don’t run an autoclave to sterilize only two flasks. Consider setting up an online schedule with neighboring labs to sign up to autoclave similar items together. Autoclaves are unavoidable energy consumers in the lab, but we can maximize the amount of materials sterilized with each use and minimize the overall number of cycles run, ultimately reducing energy consumption.

Reduce office waste

Lab waste isn’t limited to conical tubes and pipette tips. Office supplies like paper and pens further add to the waste generated in research labs. Instead of printing every journal article you want to read, try reading them on electronic devices. When you do need to print a paper, print double sided or with two pages per sheet to reduce the paper usage. You can also create a common folder in your lab for all printed papers to be deposited for lab members to read. This limits the number of times the same article gets printed in your lab. Other office supplies, including pens, markers, and staples, can be recycled through Terracycle, limiting the amount of waste entering landfills.

Although the current levels of energy consumption and waste production in the lab may seem inevitable, we can make positive changes in our daily professional lives to drastically lower energy use and minimize waste. Take a look at your existing protocols. Are there practical changes that can be made to improve sustainability without compromising the experimental design? Take a look at your cold storage. Are there items that could be stored at -20 degrees Celsius instead of -80? Talk to your administrators about implementing “Shut the Sash” and glove recycling initiatives throughout your whole department or institution. These simple changes won’t singlehandedly solve the climate crisis, but together we can reduce the detrimental effects of lab waste and nonrenewable energy consumption on our planet.

About the Author:

Jami Conley Calderon is a PhD student in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Central Florida. She studies the role of mutant dynein in the peripheral neuropathy Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease type 2O. Email: Twitter: @JamiLynnCC