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research lab management software

Sustainability in research labs

April 11, 2022

With sustainability becoming an increasingly critical issue the efforts to reduce the environmental impact business operations create have escalated, and laboratories are no exception. Although we have previously discussed ways to make your lab greener in one of our blogs, we are re-examining the topic as many advancements and improvements have since happened.

To date, the majority of the efforts in research laboratory sustainability have been aimed at reducing the impact made by physical factors in research. While this is important to address, there are other areas to address when trying to improve the sustainability of a research laboratory. Changing the way research is conducted as well as the way scientists think about sustainability is crucial to achieving impactful results.

This blog will introduce the major issues with lab sustainability and outline some ideas on how to ensure you minimize the environmental impact in your research facility. 

Reducing

While ensuring sustainable practices is important for any business, studies have shown that laboratories consume 3-10 times more energy than a regular non-lab area. Due to their high airflow rates, energy-intensive equipment and multiple other factors, they are shown to consume more energy per square foot than any other sector. This proves how important reducing energy and water usage is for places like research labs and why we need to start addressing the problem as soon as possible.

Even though reducing energy usage is something that plays a huge role in minimizing your environmental impact, it is not the only area where labs should aim to decrease usage. Avoiding unnecessary use of plastics is a crucial element for any lab, as pipette tips, tubes, gloves and any other plastic items used add up to a massive amount of waste.

In 2019, a PhD student challenged herself to collect all the plastic she uses throughout the day and it added up to a total of 230g - reflecting into 60kg of plastic waste created by a single person in a lab environment a year. Reducing the amount of waste that is produced in the first place is perhaps the best way to improve the sustainability of your lab. Research facilities should try to opt for products that will have less waste.

Although not all suppliers are the same,  many now offer to recycle laboratory waste like used chemical containers and plastic foam coolers. One example of a recent product that has been developed with sustainability in mind is the Stericup E - MilliporeSigma noticed that their sterile filter was a ‘piece of single use plastic’ and decided to improve upon the design. This resulted in 25% less plastic and 20% less packaging than the traditional Stericup.

Recycling

Having waste management processes in place as well as taking advantage of recycling programmes available is a good way to improve your labs’ sustainability efforts. A report from 2016 showed that the two biggest applications laboratories were looking to implement were solar/wind power use (13%) and on-site waste management (12%). While these are relatively traditional methods, they are still an excellent way to advance your labs’ operations.

To make it an easier start, many suppliers offer a service where they can take the packaging or worn-out equipment back to recycle it. However some significant innovations have been focusing on creating less waste at the start of the product’s life. Using single-use tools made from compostable materials is a great way to introduce recycling without any big changes. 

Reusing

Another great way to decrease your labs’ environmental impact is reusing tools such as flasks and beakers, opting for reusable glassware or compostable single-use tools over disposable ones. While many labs worry about contamination, others, such as teaching labs, might have less of an issue with reusing materials like weighing boats and flasks.

To help decrease the amount of plastic waste generated by labs as well as solve the contamination worries, a company called Grenova created a pipette tip washer that can take pipette tips that are intended to be single-use and wash and sterilize them to be reused multiple times. Tools like this help labs reuse pipette tips, reducing the amounts that end up in biohazardous waste. Decontaminating plastic enough to be reused is one of the most impactful solutions in decreasing plastic waste created by research facilities around the world. 

Sharing

While this is not yet a common practice, sharing equipment and consumables in a few labs within or outside of an organization not only helps the labs be more sustainable, but also improves utilization. Having a decent inventory system in place can help free up space, avoid overspending and also make sure items that can be borrowed from another lab in the same institution are not being purchased. Much like sharing consumables to avoid them going to waste, sharing less frequently used lab instruments is a great way to ensure your equipment is not sitting idle and you are not wasting money on an exact same instrument that can be found in a building next to you. It might seem difficult to achieve, but with the right setup you can easily be sharing access to equipment even remotely.

If sharing equipment or consumables does not work for your lab - try sharing ideas. With the variety of online communities and networks available it is very straightforward to consult with your peers and discuss the sustainability initiatives they have implemented in their labs. 

Improving

Using new, innovative technology can go a long way in improving the lab processes. Newer instruments usually consume much less energy than outdated ones.  Fume hoods are well known for being the most energy-intensive instrument in many labs with -80C freezers being the second highest energy consumer. With new solutions, the energy consumption for these instruments can be reduced. For example, motors, controllers and airflow all play big parts in how much energy is consumed by a fume hood, and all of these can be upgraded. Newer, updated fume hoods are more energy efficient due to the way air flows through them, which, along with night setback modes available in new instruments, has a significant impact on energy consumption.

Adopting research lab management software like IoT solutions can help have oversight of workflows, usage and running costs thus helping make informed sustainable decisions. An important step in fostering innovation in laboratories is going paperless by adopting ELNs, booking systems and inventory management tools. Improving productivity levels and quality of results are some of the additional achievements that can be reached by adopting IoT solutions.

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