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How Researchers Are Bringing Sustainability to Scientific Discovery

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As industries across the board seek new and creative ways to protect the planet, traditional laboratory practices can offset these critical efforts. Research is advancing exciting areas of science at an unprecedented pace, but the disposable materials, powered equipment and shipping associated with experiments, sample storage and transport of reagents contribute to high energy consumption and significant waste.

To help fight the climate crisis, ecologically minded scientists are adopting innovative strategies and solutions that make sustainability and reduced environmental impact a part of the research journey. By changing their processes and embracing new industry standards, labs are charting a path to discovery while helping to keep the Earth, and its inhabitants, healthy.

Labs are tackling plastic use and energy consumption from the inside

A 2015 study estimated that the world’s biomedical and agricultural science laboratories were generating more than five million metric tons of plastic waste every year. Clinical research involving the expanding area of biological therapies, for example, relies heavily on single-use plastics to reduce the risk of product contamination. While single-use plastics are key to sterility in the research of lifesaving treatments, environmentally conscious scientists and laboratory managers are finding ways to reduce the overall impact of plastic use. Lab teams are increasingly recognizing the value of green strategies addressing waste, including recycling programs and incorporating reusable products whenever possible without compromising a study’s integrity.

Powered equipment also serves as a significant source of environmental strain within labs. In particular, expanded research involving temperature-sensitive formulations has recently increased the need for freezers capable of maintaining samples at -80° C for continuous long-term storage, lasting years or even decades. Sample cooling and storage units will likely need to run nonstop to maintain tight condition control, but the simple practices of turning off lights and powering off non-essential equipment when not in use can greatly lower a laboratory’s overall energy consumption.

Opting to source materials from more local suppliers is yet another way labs can reduce their environmental impact. Shorter shipping distances equates to lower CO2 emissions, and could potentially offer the added benefit of faster, more efficient delivery.

If every lab across the world instituted these types of small changes in day-to-day operations, the effort could lead to a large, positive impact on the environment in total.

Industries that support research activities are shifting toward eco-friendly solutions

Industry partners outside the lab are helping to promote more environmentally friendly research by making energy-efficient equipment and eco-friendly supply chains a greater area of focus. Developers of research instruments and consumables can advance sustainability efforts through the entirety of a product’s lifecycle, beginning with the sourcing of materials and continuing to manufacture through disposal at end of life. Reagent and equipment manufacturing processes, for example, are increasingly subject to zero-waste policies while being powered by renewable energy sources.

Manufacturers of cooling systems are addressing labs’ high energy demands by producing more efficient ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers that are produced sustainably and require less energy to cool and operate. These product enhancements and new technologies can reduce energy consumption by ULT freezers to approximately one-third of what older systems required. Similarly, manufacturers have developed energy efficient centrifuges that use carbon fiber rotors. These rotors are more durable than metal counterparts and can be repaired instead of replaced for an extended period of time, leading to less waste.

Reagents and equipment suppliers are also changing shipping practices to promote sustainability, focusing on using recycled and recyclable packaging where possible. Shipments to labs are more regularly coming with instructions for how researchers can properly handle materials for recycling, repurposing or disposal at end-of-life once contents have been unloaded.

Altogether, these industry changes are empowering labs to make more eco-friendly choices without drastically rethinking their lab processes.

Dedicated resources are helping scientists make decisions centered around sustainability

To facilitate environmentally sustainable decisions in the lab, dedicated groups are helping scientists navigate the environmental impact of their resource options and identify ways to cut waste, energy usage, and other climate crisis culprits in the lab. My Green Lab, for example, is a non-profit organization with a mission to build a global culture of sustainability in research. Through environmentally focused programs, My Green Lab encourages researchers to rethink the traditional ways of working and determine more sustainable alternatives, collecting data to track trends associated with new strategies along the way.

One way My Green Lab is promoting Accountability, Consistency and Transparency (ACT) in research is by implementing the ACT Environmental Impact Factor Label. This informative marking brings a new level of environmental transparency to purchases by listing key sustainability metrics and providing clear, third-party verified information about the labeled products.

Across all areas of science, focused initiatives, innovative technologies and increased awareness of the environmental impacts of traditional lab practices are allowing researchers to make sustainability a priority. With greater adoption of eco-friendly policies and practices by labs and manufacturers alike, the laboratory research community can reduce plastic waste, lower energy consumption and play an active role in healing the planet to provide a cleaner, healthier future for all.