Making Your Lab a Greener Place

Life science research labs can be energy- and resource-intensive places, with the annual cost of running a lab estimated to be around four times that of a comparable commercial building. As we strive to balance minimizing our environmental impact with pushing technological boundaries and making new discoveries, it becomes clear that we have to begin to change the way we operate.

Sadly, the greener path is frequently deemed to be costlier one, but it certainly doesn’t have to be! Small changes carried out by many people can yield big results. It’s not about covering your building in solar panels and generating your own personal energy supplies, but rather reducing needlessly wasteful behaviors in the lab. Did you know that just by switching off fumehoods when not in use you could save over $3000 per year per hood?!

Here are some helpful tips to start making your lab a greener place.

Five steps to save money and energy:

1. Switch off

Here is a fairly straightforward suggestion, but one we’re all guilty of not doing: switching off both equipment and lights when we’re not using them. It’s easy to forget, but thankfully easily resolved. While we’re switching things off, why not turn off the computer when you leave the lab at night, and make use of “sleep” or “energy-saving” mode for when you’re away from your desk for more than a few minutes? These little energy savings quickly add up.

2. Chill

Most of us make use of fridges and freezers on a daily basis. However, when those freezers are running at ‒80°C, leaving the door wide open while we rummage around is wasting a lot of energy! Instead, organize your samples so that you can quickly find those that you need regularly, and clear out any obscure tubes (you know the ones I mean, the ones you labeled eight years ago). This will make space in your storage facility and help you to keep that door closed.

3. Rinse and repeat

We discard a scarily large amount of consumables when working at the bench, from microcentrifuge tubes and pipet tips to coverslips and lens wipes. In order to minimize the environmental impact, think carefully about recycling. In addition to the usual glass, plastic, and paper items, some companies provide environmentally conscious lab kits that come in recyclable packing, so try to buy from these if you can.

4. Clean chemistry

A lot of the chemicals we use in the lab are hazardous to health and therefore difficult to dispose of. As a result, some of the bright folks over at MIT have developed the Green Chemical Alternatives Purchasing Wizard, a database that allows you to look for greener and more environmentally friendly alternatives to your usual chemicals. Take a look sometime.

5. Stay on top

Going green is not a one-off event. Instead, you need to stay on top of new developments; exciting new technology is being devised all the time, and it’s your responsibility to make use of these tools in order to keep your environmental footprint to a minimum.

Water is a good place to start

A good place to begin down your path to a greener lab is to think about the most commonly used technologies and tools in the lab. One such area would be the world’s most important solvent, water. Considering that many scientists use water in some form or another during most of their work, thinking about how to use it effectively makes a lot of sense:

  • Many of us need high-quality, pure water to be available throughout the day and thus our water systems are going to be running most of the day! So why not make use of purification systems with low energy consumption components and power-saving features for when not in use? This new generation of purification systems will definitely save on energy and reduce bills.
  • At other times, we don’t necessarily need to use Type I+ ultrapure water; are you carrying out HPLC or are you making up a fresh stock of buffer solution? Learning which level of purity you require is a great way to only use ultra-high purity for those applications that require it.
  • Speaking of waste, try to reduce it as much as you can. Consider making use of periodic recirculation tanks that will allow you to keep large volumes of pure water, without the large energy costs.
  • Finally, cut down on the amount of consumable components wasted where you can by taking advantage of water filters and deionization cartridges specifically designed to be recycled.

Go green

Quite simply, a substantial amount of energy consumption can be avoided. With an array of companies working hard to provide labs with environmentally conscious or recyclable materials, there’s little excuse not to do our part and embrace these new technologies. By doing so, we can help to reduce the impact—not just on our budgets, but also on the environment.

Jim Keary is Laboratory & Process Manager, Elga LabWater;

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