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Redefining Lab Practices To Prioritize Sustainability

A globe with scientists and sustainability-themed symbols and clouds surrounding it.
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Scientists around the world are becoming increasingly conscious of the environmental impact of their research, however, the path to adopting sustainable practices can be complex.

While some scientists may be uncertain about how to initiate or prioritize changes to counteract this footprint, others may not fully appreciate the broader advantages of implementing such changes.

Challenges such as a lack of understanding, insufficient accountability among staff, and a need for more encouragement and support can hinder progress. Addressing these barriers is key to fostering a culture where sustainable practices are the norm ‒ not the exception.

In this article, we explore ways scientists can adapt their day-to-day practices to reduce the environmental footprint of their labs. We also highlight expert advice, initiatives and case studies that support these changes and showcase their effectiveness.

Practical steps towards a sustainable lab

Laboratories typically use five to 10 times more energy per square meter compared to office spaces ‒ with fume hoods and ultra-low-temperature freezers being two main energy-intensive culprits commonly found in labs.

While scientists may not be aware of the energy and water usage that their research warrants, they are likely to notice their consumption of materials, such as single-use plastics in biological labs. It is estimated that laboratories worldwide generate approximately 5.5 million metric tons of plastic waste each year – the equivalent of filling 67 cruise liners

The University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) Green Labs Program, founded by Kathryn Ramirez-Aguilar in 2009, has found ways to effectively engage scientists and lab personnel in sustainable practices.

“While I was working in labs, I began to wonder if my research was truly helping more than it was hurting because of the large resource consumption. For the most part… solutions had not yet been developed to help researchers take action to reduce the environmental footprint of their research. I left the lab bench and gained the support of CU Boulder to start the program to try to address this issue,” said Ramirez-Aguilar.

The CU Boulder Green Labs Program aims to reduce the consumption of multiple resources, including energy, water, materials and hazardous chemicals in the university’s laboratories. It also advocates for the efficient and effective use of research equipment and lab space.

“Over the years, scientists have repeatedly expressed interest in diverting their waste streams from the landfill,” noted Ramirez-Aguilar. Given that this area has garnered a lot of interest from researchers, it has fueled the demand for eco-friendly plastic labware which some companies are stepping up to try to address.

Since the beginning, the CU Boulder Green Labs Program has also focused on enabling discussions with scientists on other key topics related to efficiency, including energy and water savings, and in more recent years, efforts have included the benefits of sharing equipment and the importance of optimized use of laboratory space.

Sharing instruments saves resources

“When scientists choose to share research equipment between labs then there are fewer instruments to purchase and maintain with research funding, thus saving researchers’ money. At the same time, less electricity is consumed and it’s a more efficient use of lab space ‒ which is expensive space to build and particularly energy-intensive because of ventilation needs,” said Ramirez-Aguilar.

She continues: “If facilities with directors are set up to manage the shared research equipment and users, then there is also significant time savings (which also equates to financial savings) and other benefits to be realized by researchers because now there is a knowledgeable director to help researchers with training and troubleshooting problems.”

In 2018, CU Boulder launched the BioCore Facility to streamline laboratory equipment sharing for three science departments on the campus. The program manages 90 shared pieces of equipment and over 60 researchers are utilizing the services across 18 laboratories. Since the program began, it has led to savings of approximately USD 3 million, attributed to the sharing and redistribution of resources.

The benefits of managed, shared research equipment

Figure 1: Key reasons why managed, shared research equipment benefits institutions. Adapted from a figure created by CU Boulder. Credit: Technology Networks.

Many other universities and research institutes have implemented similar initiatives. For example, the University of Cambridge’s Equipment Sharing Project allows members of staff and students to share > 4000 items across various universities, including the University of Oxford, Imperial College London, University College London and the University of Southampton.

Identifying quick wins to cut emissions

Lisa O'Fee, sustainability advisor at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), reiterates the importance of initiatives similar to those implemented at CU Boulder. She is working to embed sustainability in everything the ICR does, in its mission to “defeat cancer”. Launched in December 2022, the ICR sustainability action plan “Sustainable Discoveries” sets out how the ICR will respond to the environmental crises we face such as climate change and biodiversity loss. ICR is committed to achieving net zero by 2040, with an interim reduction of 42% in carbon emissions by 2030.

She describes some “quick wins” to reduce energy and carbon emissions: “Waste audits can identify if the correct waste segregation process is being adhered to and raise awareness. It’s important to look for opportunities for improvement, for example, new recycling routes and improved signage/training of staff. Sustainable procurement training equips scientists with the knowledge to select sustainable products ‒ those that can be reused, recycled, or are manufactured from recycled content.”

Energy monitoring to identify pieces of equipment that consume the highest amount of power is good to raise awareness and reinforce switching off if applicable. “Traffic light-coded switch-off stickers are also a good way to prompt scientists,” noted O’Fee.

She highlights one of the two energy-intensive culprits mentioned above ‒ the ultra-low temperature freezer: “Good practice in cold temperature storage is key to reducing energy consumption within the lab.”

Programs like the International Laboratory Freezer Challenge promote optimal use and upkeep of cold storage equipment. This contest, organized by two nonprofit entities – the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL), where Ramirez-Aguilar serves on the board, and My Green Lab – is free to enter and is designed to encourage laboratories to adopt best practices. Labs are scored on areas including: preventative maintenance, materials management, temperature tuning, retirements and upgrades, and cutting-edge practices.

The 2023 Freezer Challenge, in which almost 2,000 labs participated worldwide, resulted in an energy saving of 20.7 million kWh, equivalent to approximately 14,663 metric tons of CO2, which is over twice the CO2 savings achieved in the previous year's challenge. Based on the United States Environmental Protection Agency's Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, this amount is equivalent to offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from driving 36.9 million miles in an average gasoline-powered passenger vehicle or the annual CO2 emissions from 2,854 homes’ electricity use.

Calculating carbon emissions

Laboratories consume a significant amount of energy, so decreasing energy consumption can lead to proportional reductions in CO2 emissions. But, considering the diverse range of emissions associated with equipment, consumables and supply chain activities (Figure 2), it can be difficult to know how best to calculate, assess and alter a lab’s carbon footprint.

“It is much easier to calculate carbon emissions from Scope 1 and 2. Scope 3 emissions that are associated with purchased goods and services are more difficult to calculate and for the most part are calculated on a spend basis. A hybrid methodology is a much more accurate way to calculate emissions for the majority of Scope 3,” explained O’Fee.

Resources, such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol’s Technical Guidance for Calculating Scope 3 Emissions, are designed to help facilities evaluate their Scope 3 emissions.

Information on each of the carbon emission types: scope 1, scope 2 and scope 3.

Figure 2: Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. Credit: Technology Networks.

Adopting a life cycle thinking approach to lab equipment

While sharing and maintaining equipment is important, when it’s time to replace instruments, it’s vital to consider how energy-efficient they are. O’Fee believes researchers shouldn’t be afraid to engage with equipment suppliers and challenge them about the sustainability practices associated with their products.

She offers the following advice: “You could put together a sustainable supplier list and an accompanying questionnaire for the suppliers, requesting information on their carbon emission data, responsible procurement policy, and if they have any procurement framework or standard that they work to, for instance, EcoVardis or ISO 20400. Increasingly suppliers of lab consumables like plastics are giving information as to the type of plastic and amount within a product.” Using the associated emission factors, it is therefore possible to calculate the amount of carbon emitted.

There are clear connections between resource use efficiency in scientific research and cost savings or cost avoidance. Financial benefits can be achieved for both researchers and institutions.

“If lab members are buying more energy-efficient equipment or conducting their research in a way that reduces the use of energy or water, then there will be less energy and water consumption for the institutions to pay for,” noted Ramirez-Aguilar. 

The CU Boulder Green Labs Program works with scientists on financial incentives. Funding can be applied towards the cost of research equipment purchases if efficient equipment options exist and if lab members are selecting efficient equipment.

Ramirez-Aguilar elaborates: “We have been able to obtain funding to contribute toward the purchase of top energy-efficient ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers and energy-efficient biosafety cabinets, the addition of eco-modes to glove boxes and the purchase of waterless condensers to use in chemical synthesis.”

Promoting sustainable practices and sharing lessons learned

The insights and initiatives highlighted in this article underscore a pivotal shift toward sustainable laboratory practices. By embracing shared equipment, diligent maintenance and strategic energy management, laboratories not only reduce their carbon footprint but also pave the way for a future where research is synonymous with resource mindfulness.

The journey towards sustainability shouldn’t be focused solely on reducing emissions or saving costs ‒ it's also important to cultivate a mindset where every decision, from equipment procurement to daily operations, is made with sustainability at its core.

“We are not limited by the number of engaged laboratory scientists that want to do more. After all, I have found that researchers care and typically go into science because they want to contribute to society or the world in a way that will have a positive impact,” concluded Ramirez-Aguilar.

Useful Resources


About the interviewees:

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.

Lisa O’Fee, a biochemist specializing in drug discovery with a focus on oncology, has been part of the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) since 2013. In 2023, Lisa transitioned from the ICR's Division of Cancer Therapeutics to assume the role of sustainability advisor at the institute. In her new capacity, she has been pivotal in developing and implementing the institute's sustainability strategy. She coordinates several sustainability initiatives at the ICR, including the freezer challenge and My Green Lab certification for the laboratories.