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Global Sustainability: Lab Goals, Actions and Measuring Success

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Scientists around the world are increasingly aware of the environmental footprint of their laboratories, and many are adjusting the way they work day-to-day to offset this impact.

However, sustainability goals and practices continue to vary globally across industries – including pharma, forensics, food and environmental sectors. A recent global survey, conducted by Frost & Sullivan on behalf of Agilent, sheds light on analytical laboratories’ attitudes to sustainability as well as potential barriers they encounter as they make sustainability-related improvements.

In this Industry Insights interview, Agilent's Dr. Michael Frank discusses the safety and efficiency considerations that are fundamentally linked to sustainability and considers why more labs aren’t utilizing consulting services despite more than 50% of survey participants expressing interest.

He also highlights how Agilent is supporting the sustainability initiatives of its customers and the steps being taken to refine the company’s own operations to meet sustainability goals.

Laura Lansdowne (LL): The survey highlights efficiency and safety as two personal goals around the topic of sustainability. Could you delve deeper into these particular aspects?

Michael Frank (MF): Sustainability often goes hand-in-hand with cost-savings and efficiency gains.

Here are some examples:

  • The reduction of erroneous experiments immediately leads to less energy, consumables and other resource consumption and improves the efficiency and throughput of a lab.
  • Longer lifetimes and fewer breakdowns of instruments increase lab efficiency.
  • Smarter packaging that’s easily separable or can be reused to return old equipment for recycling increases efficiency.

Safety considerations can be intrinsically linked to sustainability. They can impact health, nature and the environment in which we work. Using less harmful materials, products that can be easily detached into their components for recycling, or simply less hazardous consumables like supercritical CO2 instead of acetonitrile, are common approaches to improve the sustainability of analytical labs, while also making them a safer place to be.

LL: According to the survey data, 90% of laboratories do not currently utilize consulting services for sustainability, despite 54% expressing interest. What, in your opinion, might be the reason for this?

MF: Sustainability as a topic for labs, while not new, has only started to be adopted widely in the last few years. It is understood that to date, labs have tended to rely on internal initiatives, training and education, rather than outsourcing to a consultancy firm.

Simply because of the nature of the work they do, labs have incredibly varied needs and requirements in terms of what they expect from these services to enable them to make efficiency improvements. Consultancy services in this area, therefore, must be very specialist. Other than My Green Lab, I would question how many existing consultancy services can meet these needs.

We saw in our recently published survey that labs are increasingly expecting vendors to help them achieve their sustainability goals. At Agilent, due to our extensive customer and lab knowledge, we understand these needs and can help them identify areas of inefficiency and improvement. We have developed specific tools for this purpose, such as Asset Performance Management, a data-driven approach to help simplify, optimize and transform the laboratory.

LL: Beyond consulting, in what ways can Agilent work with laboratories to support sustainability initiatives?

MF: Our customers’ challenges, including environmental considerations, are the drivers for our innovation. This stems from detailed thinking about everything – from our suppliers and materials to product innovations and careful packaging.

Increasing uptimes, reducing errors, reducing resource consumption, ensuring long lifetime of products, taking back and recycling packages and products helps labs around the world meet their sustainability goals. By using ACT (accountability, consistency and transparency) labels, we are transparent in our efforts, and through our partnership with My Green Lab, we are working to continuously improve our solutions and our operations.

Sustainability is woven into everything we do these days, including our communications.

In these modern, post-COVID-19 times, the majority of companies, including Agilent, are using a blended approach when it comes to face-to-face meetings and digital events. We are considering our customers’ communication preferences and the information they find pertinent to assess their instruments and measure their lab’s performance.

Agilent sees the ACT labels as a transparent way to inform customers about the sustainability aspects of a lab product. These are issued by an independent organization (My Green Lab), audited regularly and act like a nutrition label on food to inform customers about all aspects of a product’s life cycle. We plan to make these labels much more visible to our customers.

We also saw in the survey that customers expect vendors to communicate what they, as a company, are doing to improve their own operations and meet their sustainability goals. Agilent has recently published a new Environmental, Social and Governance report, something it has done for many years. This demonstrates Agilent’s commitment to reach net zero and the progress we are making year on year.

LL: Most laboratories are currently reducing emissions, water and energy consumption and improving waste management to minimize their environmental impact. What other approaches should be considered, and which of these is easiest to implement?

MF: Looking at an analytical lab, the instruments themselves represent a significant impact on the environment. The simplest starting point for a lab is to adopt the correct management and maintenance of instruments. This ensures they are able to make the best use of it. Increasing uptime and getting as much information out of a single analytical run as possible also creates a significant positive environmental impact.

One of my favorite examples is of a sophisticated 2DLC-IMS-QToF system used by one of our customers. In one run, they are able to create a huge amount of information, gain valuable insights on complex samples and the system can be operated more or less 24/7.

Besides that, holistic data collection combined with sophisticated data-mining tools, Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven, for example, might be able to reduce in general the need for certain analyses.

LL: What metrics are labs using to measure success?

MF: Sustainability metrics help inform lab managers about the efficiency of their lab. Typical measures we see include energy consumption, instrument uptime, number of failed analyses, total cost of ownership and waste generation, to mention a few. As stated previously, sustainability is about efficiency and safety, and sustainability metrics enable labs to make more informed decisions and input on areas to improve both these things.

LL: How do sustainability goals and practices vary globally?

MF: While it looks like sustainability is now firmly on the agenda of laboratories across the globe, the survey confirmed European countries (UK 86% and Germany 82%) were leading in their adoption of sustainability metrics.

However, we see that improving performance is a key service requirement for labs in the UK and China, with a higher number of labs in China (36%) relying on instrumentation data to measure their sustainability efforts. We are now starting to receive a rising demand for information about sustainability in other areas of Asia but with less strict regulations.

LL: How do industry perspectives differ when it comes to sustainability? For example, the survey results indicate that a lower percentage of forensics/drug testing labs have adopted sustainability metrics (72%), compared to other sectors (> 80%). What, in your opinion, might be the reason for this?

MF: I assume that in this result, we are seeing a difference between labs that use analytics as income vs. labs that need analytics to support other areas and have something totally different as a revenue creator. In the first case, time is money, and the focus is probably directed to other topics first. Maybe also because of the assumption that sustainability costs money, whereas I strongly believe sustainability can, and does increase efficiency and thus save a lot of money!

Dr. Michael Frank was speaking to Laura Elizabeth Lansdowne, Managing Editor for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee

Dr. Michael Frank joined Agilent in 2005 and has held different positions in pharmaceutical segment marketing as well as in the liquid phase separations division. He was appointed to his current role as associate vice president of global marketing of the liquid phase separation business in mid-2013. In his current role, he is responsible for the product management and marketing of Agilent’s liquid chromatography, capillary electrophoresis and dissolution products. 

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, but raised in Germany, Dr. Frank studied at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and at the Strathclyde University Glasgow, Scotland. He holds a PhD in Chemistry.