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Eco-nutrition Label for Labware Could Make Science a Greener Place To Be

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In science, being green can be challenging and recycling not always possible, or at least not made possible. Large quantities of disposable plasticware for example may head for clinical waste incineration or decontamination and landfill rather than entering the recycling process. Polystyrene is widely used, in the form of packing and insulative boxes, for shipping reagents, equipment and samples and is notoriously challenging for recycling efforts. The production of some reagents can have a significant environmental impact. And then there is the equipment itself which can be incredibly power hungry.

One not-for-profit organization have introduced a vendor neutral environmental impact factor labeling scheme – ACT (accountability, consistency, and transparency) – similar in many ways to the food nutritional labeling scheme we are used to seeing on our supermarket shelves. The aim? To provide information about the environmental impact of manufacturing, using, and disposing of a product and its packaging, making it easier to choose safe, sustainable products in the laboratory.

We spoke to Allison Paradise, founder and until very recently CEO of My Green Lab, about the ACT initiative that they have developed and how it is helping to make the laboratory a greener place to be.

Karen Steward (KS): Could you tell us about what the ACT labeling scheme is and how it works?

Allison Paradise (AP):
The ACT label is an eco-label for laboratory products developed by My Green Lab. Focusing on accountability, consistency, and transparency, the ACT label works like an eco-nutrition label, providing third-party verified information about the environmental impact of a product and its packaging.

KS: What prompted the scheme’s inception?

The mission of our non-profit organization is to create a culture of sustainability through science, so we are inherently interested in providing information to our community that will help them choose safer, more sustainable products. In 2016 we started to hear from scientists, laboratory facility operators, product manufacturers, and procurement specialists all over the world that there was confusion over whether a particular lab product was “sustainable”. We realized there simply wasn't enough information in the market to develop criteria for what it means to be a sustainable lab product, but we could provide data on the environmental impact of a product to assist people in making a more sustainable choice. And with that, the ACT label was born.

KS: How has the scheme been received by both scientists and consumer organizations, and manufacturers?

The ACT program is one of our fastest-growing programs. Manufacturers are finding the ACT label to be a great way to communicate their commitment to product transparency to their customers. Going through the ACT label audit process is also a great way for companies to learn about opportunities to reduce the impact of their own products. Because of this, we had over 100 ACT-labeled products in our database within six months of launching the program. We now have nearly 250 products in the database, with an estimated 300 more in the queue to be added before the end of the year.

Scientists and procurement specialists are also readily adopting the ACT label into their purchasing decisions. Over 40 organizations, from universities, to government agencies, to global biopharma companies have incorporated the ACT label into their procurement systems and policies.

The ACT label has received a leadership award from the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council, and several organizations and manufacturing companies have received an award for leadership in sustainable procurement for their participation in the ACT program from the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL).

KS: What have the greatest challenges been in implementing the ACT labeling?

One of the greatest challenges has been raising awareness of the ACT label. There is a cost to manufacturers for labeling their products as an extensive audit is required, and many companies are only willing to invest in the program if they feel that it is something their customers want. Therefore a lot of our efforts have been focused on letting people know that the program exists, and that if they want to know more about the environmental impact of a product they purchase, or plan to purchase, they should explicitly ask to see the ACT label. The more companies hear people asking for ACT labels, the more labels we will have.

Increasing the number of labels is critically important to get us to a place where we can make a determination on whether a product is “sustainable”.

KS: Food nutritional labelling, to which this is paralleled, is mandator in many countries. Do you think there is a danger the worst offenders will just not label their products unless ACT labeling is mandatory?

Fortunately, ACT labeling does not have to be mandatory in order for it to be effective. Companies that pursue the label demonstrate leadership and a clear commitment to transparency. They signal to their customers that they are willing to disclose information about the environmental impact of their products, and by doing so, they also create an opportunity to have a conversation with their customers about how they are improving their sustainability.

Over time, companies that choose not to label their products will send a different message about their commitment to transparency, leaving doubt in their customers' minds about the environmental impact of their products. Companies that choose not to ACT label products will signal to the market that sustainability is not a priority, which, if they are the worst offenders, will be true.

Of course, our preference is for all manufacturers to participate in the program and to join us in transforming the life sciences industry. Since we make recommendations for improvement during the audit, participating in the program is a great way for companies to identify opportunities for improvement and make meaningful changes to their products and packaging before they can be accused of being unsustainable.

KS: How do you foresee that the adoption of ACT labeling is likely to change the laboratory landscape in the future?

I have no doubt that the ACT label program will transform the laboratory product market into a paragon of sustainability. Our work with ENERGY STAR in the U.S. has demonstrated the power of eco-labels - most major ULT freezer manufacturers have taken steps to reduce the energy consumption of their freezers as a result of the ENERGY STAR program. ACT has the potential to reach well beyond ENERGY STAR, to affect all lab products and their packaging around the world, starting at the top of the supply chain. With the advent of ACT we're already starting to see more companies take steps to design their products to be more energy efficient, to source their packaging materials from renewable resources, and to implement take-back programs for products and packaging at their end of life. We're also starting to see scientists request information about the environmental impact of the products they're purchasing and to switch vendors when they find out that another supplier has a commitment to sustainability.

Allison Paradise was speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.