Five simple steps to improve the ecological footprint of scientific labs
Scientific institutions could become more sustainable by saving energy, water and consumables, thriough the implementation of a circular economy infrastructure.
- Avoid single-use plastic when possible
Scientific institutions are estimated to generate over approximately 5.5 million tons of plastic waste every year (1), which corresponds roughly to the combined weight of 67 cruise liners. However, not all the single-use plastics are used for biohazardous samples that need to be incinerated. Often, plastic containers are used e.g. for aqueous buffer solutions that do not impose any health and safety concern, and are thrown out after after a single use.
Read more here about strategies on how plastic waste from scientific labs can be reduced, reused and recycled.
2. Shut the Sash
Fume hoods are estimated to be one of the most energy intensive equipment in scientific institutions. The Shut the Sash competition was initiated by Harvard University and observed an energy saving of 30%, which corresponds to annual energy savings of over $240,000 at $7/cfm and annual reductions of over 300 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions (2). It is simple: always close the sash after use or close it when nobody uses it.
3. Turn off equipment
This brings me to the next point: turn off equipment when not in use. This sounds straightforward, but many instruments are turned on 24/7 even though they are not in use. A way to not forget it is to have a person assigned to turn off non-essential equipment before going home.
4. Set -80°C freezer to -70°C
80°C feezers are commonly used in scientific laboratories to store various samples. However, these consume between 16–22KWh per day. This corresponds to roughly twice the average daily consumption of a UK household (9KWh/day)(3). While it is always worth to change old freezers with more energy-saving models, studies have revealed that turning the temperature down by -10°C can result in a significant energy saving of roughly 30% (4). However, it remains to the individual institutions to evaluate whether storage at -70°C may affect the samples negatively.
5. Implement ciruclar economy principles
Re-use and recycling of non-contaminated plastics is encouraged by participating in return schemes for tip boxes (5), polystyrene boxes (6) and gloves (7). Some companies have already started to rethink their design of packaging and labware, aimimg to reduce waste, but also have become more conscious to avoid mixed plastics that are more difficult to recycle (8,9).
Further, implementing decontamination processes for contaminated plastics could reduce incineration of plastic waste and may open up the possibility to re-use or to recycle these.
Any more suggestions? Please leave a comment. Thank you for reading this article and caring about the environment.
(5) Sustainability — STARLAB (starlabgroup.com)
(6) New England Biolabs (UK) Ltd — The NEB Shipping Box Recycling Programme
(7)The RightCycle™ Program | Kimberly-Clark Professional (kcprofessional.com)