We've updated our Privacy Policy to make it clearer how we use your personal data. We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. You can read our Cookie Policy here.


Strategies for Sustainable Science at CU Boulder and Beyond

Cartoon earth surrounded by leaves, clouds, a lightbulb and a recycle symbol.
Credit: iStock
Listen with
Register for free to listen to this article
Thank you. Listen to this article using the player above.

Want to listen to this article for FREE?

Complete the form below to unlock access to ALL audio articles.

Read time: 7 minutes

The CU Green Labs Program plays a pivotal role at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) by helping to tackle the resource-intensive and expensive nature of its research laboratories. It achieves this by engaging scientists in sustainable practices and encouraging cultural changes to improve the efficiency of research processes. This initiative is not only transforming laboratory operations at CU Boulder but is also setting a precedent for sustainable research practices globally. Kathryn Ramirez-Aguilar, who established the program in 2009 and is an expert in sustainable laboratory practices, sheds light on some key strategies that have significantly influenced the way the university’s scientists and laboratory personnel approach environmental responsibility in their daily routines.

In the interview, Ramirez-Aguilar also elaborated on her involvement with the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories and discussed the role of research funders in furthering sustainability within a lab environment.

Laura Lansdowne (LL): Could you share the key strategies or initiatives that have been most effective in engaging scientists and lab personnel in sustainable practices at CU Boulder?

Kathryn Ramirez-Aguilar (KR-A): Our program has had great success with utilizing posters. We created these to share information on specific lab sustainability topics, raise awareness of the CU Boulder Green Labs Program and inform researchers about how to contact us (via information displayed at the bottom of every poster). At research universities, there is a turnover of students working in campus labs as they graduate.

Our goal is to establish a culture of sustainability in research while these individuals are still on campus before they transition to their next roles. The posters are strategically positioned in laboratory buildings where scientists will likely have time to engage with them, such as in lavatories and near microwaves in kitchenettes.

Other initiatives that have been particularly effective at engaging lab members include our lab-specific material recycling program and contests such as “Just Shut It” for fume hood sashes and the  International Laboratory Freezer Challenge.

Over the years, scientists have repeatedly expressed interest in diverting their waste streams from the landfill. The diversion streams established by CU Boulder Green Labs have effectively engaged scientists in our program and facilitated discussions on various efficiency-related topics, including energy and water conservation. For example, by setting ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers to -70 ⁰C instead of -80 ⁰C scientists can not only save energy but also extend the life of their freezers in some cases. By sharing research equipment (preferably where a manager oversees the resources)  it’s possible to provide more researchers with better and more inclusive access to equipment while also avoiding repeat equipment purchases.

Unnecessary equipment duplication not only results in increased electricity use but also requires more laboratory space to house the equipment. Given that lab space is energy-intensive due to its ventilation needs, optimized use of laboratory space is of utmost importance for energy efficiency in scientific research.

Leadership by researchers (on behalf of CU Boulder Green Labs) who are passionate about sustainability in research practices has helped to engage lab members through peer-to-peer interaction. It has also led to the creation of efforts such as the solvent recycling and reuse program, which was established and led by a chemistry graduate student. Lab members can volunteer to be eco-leaders for their labs or team leaders for their lab buildings.

LL: Can you tell me about the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL) and your responsibilities as a board member?

KR-A: I2SL is the first and largest international organization where professionals involved in the design, building and operation of labs come together to promote efficiency, safety and sustainability in research facilities. I2SL had its start as a US federal program by the US Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy to address the large energy consumption of laboratory facilities. It is now a non-profit organization, with an educational mission and participation from non-profit institutions/groups, federal agencies and companies that interact with laboratory research in various capacities.

I will highlight several I2SL initiatives that could be particularly relevant to those focused on green lab efforts:

  1.  Last year the I2SL Annual Conference and Technology Fair featured a Green Labs track from start to finish over multiple days and we expect to have the same again at the 2024 conference.
  2. n April each year, I2SL Education Week takes place. Attendees have the opportunity to participate in live virtual sessions or watch pre-recorded sessions on topics such as sustainable lab design, lab decarbonization strategies, efficient ventilation systems and green lab leadership. My Green Lab, another nonprofit with whom I frequently partner, also hosts a virtual summit each year in May or June.  
  3. The Circular Economy for Laboratories (CEL) Community of Practice webpage was recently launched. This is designed to encourage communication and collaboration between lab and campus sustainability experts, and their suppliers on topics such as the diversion of materials from landfills through reuse, recycling and reduction of materials.
  4. There are also several different I2SL working groups focused on specific technical topics and common sustainability issues that you can get involved in.

In addition to serving as a board member for I2SL, where I have the opportunity to give input on the direction that that the organization is headed and contribute as time allows to ongoing efforts of I2SL, I also chair the I2SL University Alliance Group (UAG) which is primarily composed of individuals interested in greening labs from universities but also from federal roles/campuses and nonprofit research institutions as well.

The I2SL UAG focuses on green lab topics and emphasizes the importance of connecting efficiency and sustainability expectations in the way research is conducted to the funding of research.

LL: What have been the most significant challenges you've encountered while promoting sustainability in labs and how have you tackled them?

KR-A: While certainly there are those labs that are more engaged in greening their lab operations than others, it is our experience that there are many scientists and labs that want to work with us on efforts for efficiency and sustainability in their labs. So much so that we have trouble keeping up.

Our most significant challenge is the constraints on our time as staff members of the CU Boulder Green Labs Program ‒ we are not limited by finding engaged laboratory scientists who want to do more. We are tackling our time limitations in various ways. Where possible, we empower interested researchers to take the lead in their laboratory buildings. Over time, we are chipping away at individual topics, one at a time, as well as focusing on systematic change and establishing processes that simplify the ongoing effort to achieve our goals.

For example, many of our laboratory departments at CU Boulder are now proactively inviting us to their new graduate student recruitment events and orientations each year, whereas historically we had to initiate contact to ask if CU Boulder Green Labs could be included. We also are currently piloting the My Green Lab certification as a way to have greater implementation of best practices in our campus labs.

LL: What emerging trends or technologies do you see playing a pivotal role in furthering sustainability within the lab environment?

KR-A: Two key areas of focus come to mind – the influence of research funders and the resulting advancement of equipment and supplies in response to sustainability expectations by funders.

1. Research funders: Increasingly it is being recognized that there is a need for granting bodies to encourage or expect efficiency and sustainability in the way research is conducted in connection with receiving grant funding. Research is contingent on funding, thus if those funding the science make it clear they are prioritizing environmental sustainability in research practices, it will lead to large-scale, widespread adoption of environmental sustainability in research. 

The I2SL UAG and My Green Lab have led the Million Advocates for Sustainable Science (MASS) effort, which is a call to action for science funders around the world to encourage sustainability in research.

Also, some granting bodies are beginning to show signs of taking action, for example:

  • UK Research & Innovation (UKRI): The UKRI Environmental Sustainability Strategy has a goal to “embed environmental sustainability across all our investment decisions” by 2025. The UKRI is also finalizing a Concordat for Environmental Sustainability of Research and Innovation Practice that “aims to gain agreement from all organizations involved in research or innovation activities on immediate and consistent long-term action to reduce and eliminate environmental impacts and emissions associated with R&I.”
  • Science Foundation Ireland initiated a Sustainable Laboratory Certification Pilot Programme in October 2023.
  • The German Research Foundation (DFG) issued a press release in June 2023 stating that “applicants for DFG grants must provide a concise account of sustainability aspects in their research process, including a succinct and comprehensible outline of any potential for reduction of emissions and use of resources as part of the materials submitted along with the project proposal.” DFG has also created a webpage of “Guiding Questions” which DFG says are to serve “as a source of inspiration".  Among many others, the site includes questions such as “Can providers be found that sell more energy-efficient products?” and “Is it necessary to purchase new equipment if existing or repairable equipment is available (e.g., in a neighboring working group)?”
  • The Wellcome Trust published a report by RAND Europe that provides an overview of the current initiatives focused on minimizing the environmental footprint of health research. “Progress on sustainable health research has been reliant on the goodwill of individual researchers. Wider research system actors, like funders, need to match the efforts of these individuals by providing resources and impetus for action. Without this, progress towards more sustainable health research will be stunted.” ‒ RAND Europe.
  • US Health and Human Servicesclimate action plan priority action #3 is to “develop language across the range of HHS grant-making programs and funding announcements to advance federal sustainability and climate resilience goals.”

2. Advances in equipment/supplies: Funder expectations for efficiency and sustainability described above will drive more sustainable solutions from companies developing/manufacturing research equipment and supplies. Already advances have been made to develop highly efficient ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers that use half or less than half of the electricity they used to use  (see Energy Star for the top efficient ULT freezers), but there are so many other types of equipment utilized in research that require advancements in efficiency. Additionally, there is a significant use of single-use materials in research that necessitates truly green/sustainable solutions for waste diversion. 

Kathryn Ramirez-Aguilar was speaking to Laura Elizabeth Lansdowne, Managing Editor for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee:

Kathryn Ramirez-Aguilar completed her PhD in analytical chemistry in 1999. She gained 15 years of research experience before shifting her focus away from the bench, dedicating her efforts toward enhancing the environmental sustainability of scientific research and addressing its influence on climate change more broadly. As well as managing the CU Green Labs Program at the University of Colorado Boulder, she serves on the board of the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL), acts as chair of the I2SL University Alliance Group (UAG), and heads the Bringing Efficiency to Research Grants initiative under the I2SL UAG, aiming to integrate efficiency and sustainability into US research funding.