They may do good science, but research labs produce lots of garbage. By some estimate, the plastic waste generated by biology labs in one year weighs the same as 67-cruise ships.
Laboratory waste may not be the biggest contributor to the global garbage mountain, but many scientists are reevaluating common research practices because of climate change. As a result, a growing “green labs” movement has emerged that works to improve sustainability in research laboratories.
“As a former neuroscientist, I was always really frustrated by all the plastic waste in lab,” explains Alison Paradise, co-founder and executive director of My Green Lab, a non-profit organization that motivates research labs to improve sustainability. Many labs rely on single-use plastics for their daily activities.
Conservation has been a lifelong commitment for Paradise. She started working in a pharmaceutical research lab in high school. Even then she would bring single-use plastics home from the lab to recycle.
Curtailing plastic waste isn’t the only problem facing labs that want to go green. Paradise was surprised to learn that labs consume a disproportional amount of energy. For example, Harvard and Dartmouth report that labs occupy 20% of campus space, but use approximately 40% of total energy; and UC-Irvine labs use five-times more energy per square foot than a typical office space.
A major energy sink is the ultra-low temperature freezer, which stores precious protein, nucleic acid and bacterial samples. Ultra-low temperature freezers typically operate at -80°C. One freezer can use as much energy as an entire home, says Green labs coordinator at UC-Riverside, Delphine Faugeroux.
A 2009 Stanford study reported that its 2,000 ultra-low temperature freezers cost $5.6 million per year to operate and released 3,600 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Energy waste from freezers can be reduced with a few easy strategies, but implementation can be tricky. “[Scientists] are very concerned about their samples,” Paradise explains. Protein samples can take a week or more to prepare, and generating these samples can be costly.
Many scientists have inadvertently adopted the mantra “the-colder-the-better,” partly because enzymes are less active in the cold. However, freezers weren’t always set to -80°C. Samples used to be stored at -70°C before manufacturers could achieve -80°C.
“A lot of people have forgotten that [ultra-low temperature freezers] used to be set at -70°C,” Paradise says. “In fact, I was taught to call them ‘-70s’.” More data will help put scientists at ease, and the results of a long-term study by researchers at the University of Edinburgh testing sample viability at -60°C, -70°C and -80°C should help resolve the issue.
Freezers are not the only energy-sink in labs. Many pieces of equipment operate 24/7 even though they are not actively used. Most scientists—especially those working at the bench like graduate students or postdocs—never see a utility bill for the lab, which makes it difficult for them to fully grasp energy usage.
Chemical fume hoods, which provide a space for scientists to safely handle certain chemicals, also consume a lot of energy. Universities are launching “Be Good in the Hood” or “Shut the Sash” initiatives to reduce costs and save energy by motivating scientists to close the hood’s movable window. Harvard found its “Shut the Sash” initiative saved $200,000 per year and more than 300 metric tons of CO2.
Institutional and industry support for research sustainability is growing. Brenda Petrella, former lab sustainability manager at Dartmouth College, began a research recycling initiative that collected 750lbs of plastic, an estimated 4,000 plastic containers, in its first three-and-half months.
Industries supporting scientific research are beginning to offer recycling options too. Lab supplies that require refrigeration are shipped in Styrofoam coolers. Multiple Styrofoam coolers accumulate in any given laboratory during the course of a week. Sigma Aldrich provides free shipping for U.S. customers who want to return their polystyrene coolers. The program reduces CO2 emissions by re-using coolers for multiple orders.
UC-Riverside offsets the cost of energy-efficient purchases through a green revolving fund, where the money saved gets reinvested into the fund. Scientists use this resource to buy energy-efficient equipment including energy-efficient ultra-low temperature freezers and LED lights. Plant biologists use artificial lighting to help plants grow in a laboratory setting. LED lights provide a quick return on investment producing savings in less than a year after purchase according to Faugeroux.
Paradise believes incorporating green lab practices into grant funding could change the conversation. “We’ve been trying for a long time to work with the National Institutes of Health to build sustainability into the funding process, because that would tip the scale toward making labs more sustainable”, says Paradise. My Green Lab developed a certification program for institutions across North America, and Paradise hopes this type of certification will be used to affect federal grant funding. “A lab that is conserving resources ought to be rewarded with more funding.”
Anna Hatch is a molecular biologist and science writer in the Washington D.C. area. Follow her on Twitter @AnnaHscientist