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The carbon footprint of science: How can we 'go green' in our labs?

We have just started a brand-new decade and have already been bombarded with the news of tragic and upsetting environmental disasters taking place across the globe. You will already be aware of the staggering numbers of lives, both human and animals, lost in the recent bushfires in Australia.

Alongside this, we have many people taking up challenges such as ‘Veganuary’ and pledging to shift to more eco-friendly habits. We are moving in a promising direction, but the rate of climate change is getting faster and faster, and many of us want to be able to do more in our daily lives to reduce our carbon footprints.

Eco-unfriendly labs

As scientists, we have a challenging, but very rewarding job. Unfortunately, modern labs have an obscene carbon footprint. On average, a lab uses approximately four to five times more energy than an average work place of the same size.1

Unfortunately, this negates the positive impact we strive to have on the planet. The equipment, reagents and plastics we use every day use a huge amount of energy and generate an enormous amount of waste. However, from a data perspective, many of these items are arguably a necessity for generating high quality outputs. Outside work, many of us are conscious of reducing waste by limiting use of single-use products; plastic being the most obvious. We might feel guilty about using plastic straws or disposable water bottles, so why do we not have this mentality in our labs? A large part of the reason is because we justify these habits to save time and money.

So, what is the biggest problem?

Some of the largest energy users in labs are −80°C freezers and fume hoods. These freezers use about 20kWh per day. This might not sound like much, but it’s 65× more energy than a regular household freezer. This energy usage significantly increases if freezers are not defrosted regularly. Fume hoods are another culprit; one fume hood uses the same amount of energy as three homes!2 Closing hoods when they are not in use can significantly reduce this output. In terms of waste, plastic and chemicals are a huge problem. The University of Exeter calculated that their Bioscience department alone, made up of 280 scientists, used enough plastic to make 5.7 million 2-litre bottles in a single year. They have scaled this up to reveal that in 2014 the total plastic waste from the global, ~20,000 research institutions, was approximately 5.5 million tonnes.3 Unfortunately, the lack of lab recycling results in most waste going to landfill or incineration.

What can you do?

Figure 1

At the Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation at the University of Glasgow, we have set up an eco group to try to reduce our energy usage and waste output by introducing sustainable lab initiatives. We conducted an energy audit and found that over an average weekend, our building uses the equivalent amount of energy that a small house uses in a year. On an average day, most of this energy is consumed by centrifuges (see figure 1).

This is a ridiculous amount of electricity usage that could be immediately reduced by turning computers and lab equipment off when they are not in use. At the recent British Society for Immunology Congress, we displayed a poster detailing some of the green initiatives that we use (take a look at #BSI19). Here are some easy changes you can make to reduce your lab’s carbon footprint:

  • Does your lab have a recycling bin? You can recycle clean (uncontaminated) plastics (e.g. rinsed media bottles, unused plastics), glove boxes, plastic and paper wrapping, tip racks and packaging. Tip boxes are also recyclable, though many suppliers offer a collection scheme. Make a friendly poster that clearly shows what can and cannot be recycled to make sure lab recycling bins don’t get contaminated. It’s a good idea to add recycling to lab inductions.
  • What equipment can be switched off? Label equipment with different coloured spots to reflect these rules​
  • Use of electronic lab notebooks instead of paper with free software such as OneNote. This not only replaces paper notebooks and the space needed to store them, but also improves data management.
  • How can you make your institute’s events more sustainable? Encourage staff and students to use reusable coffee cups and bottles rather than single use cups. Ask catering to use crockery only. Don’t print programmes or provide handouts; electronic versions are best.
  • How can you reduce single-use plastics in the lab? Use glass where possible – make reagents in glass. Buy essential plastics from suppliers who use less packaging. Can you reuse ice packs and polystyrene boxes or set up a scheme to return them? Many companies have recycling schemes.
  • Do you share chemicals with other labs in your building? Chemicals are often supplied in kg and litres resulting in a large amount of waste. It’s estimated that chemicals alone make up 80% of unused reagents in labs.4
  • Can you increase the temperature of your −80°C freezer to −70°C? Doing this will save the energy equivalent of £300/ year per freezer and reduce the cooling demands of the building’s air conditioning units. Defrosting your freezer regularly will also save on energy consumption.​​

Most of these ideas were based on initiatives from other fantastic eco groups at other universities which you can find on Twitter: @My_Green_Lab, @UoBGreenLabs,  @GreenLabsBham, @LEAFinLabs

Small steps, big difference

A good first step is to find out how much energy your lab actually uses so you can set economic targets. Lots of universities have sustainable programmes to conduct these audits. Audits involve assessing different aspects of the lab such as cold storage, waste systems, chemical storage and making sure there are systems in place when buying reagents and equipment to choose the most sustainable option. Nature has a useful quiz for assessing your lab’s footprint5 and be sure to read the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF).6 

These small changes can make a big difference when adopted properly; however, there is only so much that can be improved without opposing health and safety guidelines, and other departmental/university policies. Our eco group was interested in finding ways to recycle more of our lab waste. This became very challenging because most of the waste is contaminated and therefore needs to be autoclaved and subsequently sent to deep landfill (which is safer that regular landfill) or incinerated (for higher risk waste). We came up with the idea of recycling plastics after they’ve been autoclaved. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go ahead with this because the risks of putting potentially hazardous waste through the recycling chain was too high. Contamination issues prevent uptake of many other schemes including TerraCycle®’s glove recycling programme.7 Because of these issues, it’s definitely best to reduce, replace and reuse, with recycling being the last option. Ideally, funding bodies should be promoting sustainability by including green lab practice as a necessity for grant applications.

Greener conferences

It’s worth mentioning that green research practices should extend outside of the lab. As scientists, we are travelling all the time. Travel to conferences contributes to a large proportion of the carbon associated with the life sciences sector, which can be reduced by taking trains, rather than flying, where possible. At the University of Glasgow, we estimate that 20% of the university’s carbon footprint is associated with business travel. It’s worth considering whether you can conference call rather than attend a meeting to reduce travel. The conferences themselves generate a lot of waste through printouts, food and drinks packaging and electricity usage. At the recent BSI Congress, the BSI decided to ditch plastic holders for name badges and encourage delegates to bring reusable water bottles and coffee cups. This is a brilliant step in the right direction, and hopefully BSI Congress 2020 will make even better green improvements.

Doing our bit

ECOgroup for the University of Glasgow, Institute of Infection, Immunity & Inflammation. (L-R) Julie Martin, Caitlin Duncan, Kym Bain, Gavin Meehan, Madeleine Cunningham, Colin Crawford, Rhona McGonigal, Danielle Smyth.

It is clear that many scientists care about the environment, but we could certainly do a better job at raising awareness of the large part we play in global carbon emissions, and therefore why we need to be taking these issues more seriously. The best advice I can give is to get as many of your colleagues involved as possible; more people equals more recycling and less waste.

If the environmental angle doesn’t work, try to highlight that reducing energy usage directly reduces costs and saves money. Running a fume hood 24/7 costs ~£1650 per year, and the University of Dundee estimates that turning off unnecessary equipment for two weeks would save £40,000. Even using a reusable coffee cup can save you money! Follow us on Twitter @ECOgroup_III to learn more, and to find other groups who are setting examples of fantastic green lab practice.

Kym Bain
Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, University of Glasgow
Twitter: @ECOgroup_II