Practical tips to make your lab more sustainable

If you’ve done bench work in a cell biology lab in the last 10 years, you’ve almost certainly used a product called a mini-prep kit to purify plasmid DNA from a bacterial culture. Depending on how many samples you have, it can take a while, and it’s kind of boring: pipet, spin, pipet, spin. Maybe because it’s boring, when I do mini-preps my mind usually wanders. Over the years, I started to read the standard protocol more like this:

Pellet bacteria in a plastic microcentrifuge tube. Resuspend pellet in Buffer 1 using a plastic pipet tip. Add buffer 2 using a plastic pipet tip. Mix. Wait. Add Buffer 3 using a plastic pipet tip. Mix. Spin. Add supernatant to plastic column in a plastic receptacle tube. Spin. Dispose of plastic microcentrifuge tube. Add wash buffer using a plastic pipet tip. Spin. Add wash buffer using a plastic pipet tip. Spin. Dispose of plastic receptacle tube. Place column in new plastic microcentrifuge tube. Add elution buffer using a plastic pipet tip. Wait. Spin.

After the final spin, I am always left with a small mountain of plastic tubes and pipette tips. This observation spread my attention to the large amount of consumable, one-time-use items that we use in the lab every day.

How many pipette tips do you go through? Photo by Retama

Of course, these items are essential to research. They are part of what allows us to work with the rigor and care critical for accurate and well-controlled experimentation. Reagents and experiments have to be pure, defined, and uncontaminated, and it is costly, useful, and energy efficient to keep them that way. Even with this knowledge I still feel guilty about the ecological impact of my research and wonder if there is more I could be doing.

About a month ago, I saw a tweet about a Sustainability Summit being held by a nonprofit called My Green Lab. I was excited! First, the fact that this initiative exists is evidence of what I already knew: many members of the scientific community actively consider how their work (not just their brilliant discoveries) impacts the world. Second, my schedule was clear and the event was nearby.

I found myself unable to get away the day of the event; , however, the meeting was live-streamed, and I watched from my desk. Erika Daley, a Program Manager for My Green Lab, was the first speaker, and she laid out some facts about the problem: lab spaces use approximate 5X the energy as office spaces per square foot of space, produce an estimated 12.1 billion pounds of plastic waste worldwide, a single –80 (or ultra-low temperature, ULT) freezer can consume as much energy as a house per day, and a fume hood burns the equivalent amount of energy as 1,733 gallons of gasoline every year.

Yikes! Every lab I’ve ever worked in had at least one –80 and one fume hood. I think this as I began frantically taking a mental tally of number on the floor of the building was I sitting in.

Next, she talked about the top five most impactful things you can do to make your lab more sustainable. Yes! I thought, Right to the point:

1) Cold storage. Because ultra-low temperature freezers use so much energy, focused action here can make a big difference. If the temperature of a –80 can be raised 10 degrees to –70, it can reduce energy consumption by 30-40%. When you buy a new ULT freezer make sure you buy one that is energy efficient, and all labs can maximize the use of their total freezer space by keeping a searchable electronic inventory (google docs, quartzy, etc.).

2) Turn off equipment that’s not in use. Pretty simple, but not necessarily a common practice in my experience.

3) Green chemistry. This one I understood less (unlike Erika, I’m not a chemist by training), but the general idea is to manage chemical waste by using the safest and most sustainable practices possible (more here and here).

4) Shutting the sash of the fume hood when not in use saves energy by lowering the fan speed and the volume of air exhausted.

5) Installing low-cost aerators on faucets decreases water consumption. They cost less than $5 and can decrease water usage by 50-70%.

Some of these practices, such as buying an energy efficient freezer and installing aerators, if implemented in new labs, would make a lasting difference without ever being noticed or thought of again. Others, such as closing the fume hood and practicing low-waste chemical hygiene, require a change in researcher behavior.

This is where the second talk by Ellen B. Garcia, a graduate student from the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech, came in. Her story started with changing her own behavior and the behavior of her research group, and then it spread to other labs across campus. Through a persistent grassroots effort and creative problem solving, she organized a green lab movement at Virginia Tech that led to the implementation of recycling, reuse, and low energy usage programs in labs across campus. She also described talking with biological supply company representatives, and purchasing products specifically that would reuse and recycle the solid waste from their products. Her story of personal advocacy and the change she embodied was an inspiring reminder of the impact a single, motivated individual can have on a seemingly insurmountable problem.

From Tonya Randell, a Program Manager at More Recycling, I learned that recycling is more complex than I had imagined and that there are increased challenges associated with recycling items used in laboratory science. As you can imagine, items that have been used with potentially harmful substances should not be recycled in a form in which they could potentially harm individuals who might come into contact with them. Some of the plastics we use in the lab also pose a recycling challenge: they can be structurally and chemically modified to resist heat and degradation. Many items we use for molecular biology (such as those in my mountain of mini-prep plastic) are too small for conventional recycling because the first step in the process passes the materials to be recycled over a giant mesh. That means items such as pipette tips would fall through the mesh and end up in a landfill. But many everyday items in our labs can be recycled: shipping boxes, printer cartridges, and styrofoam boxes and peanuts, for example.

If you’re interested in learning more about what you can do and the efforts of My Green Lab, their website is full of helpful information. Also, check your university for an existing lab sustainability program; my institution had a certification program I hadn’t previously heard about. If you have a hot tip about reuse, recycling, or sustainability practices you use in your lab, please share in the comments below.

It is easy to feel helpless with the global environment appearing to fall apart around us. However, I was reminded this week that scientists should be leaders in modeling behaviors that conserve energy and reduce waste. As cell biologists, we work to reveal secrets of the incredible biology provided by our one and only earth, and it’s important to remember we can simultaneously strive to save it.

Disclosures: I have no affiliation with My Green Lab. I paid a modest registration fee ($15) out of pocket to attend the Sustainability Summit that occurred on October 15, 2018.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Jenny Heppert studies the cell biology of host-microbe interactions. She is currently a postdoc with Heidi Goodrich-Blair at the University of Tennessee. Twiiter: @hephephooray