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Sustainability in the lab: How to make your science greener

Climate change is perhaps the biggest issue the planet is facing at the moment. With the oceans reaching a record high in temperature last month, sustainability practices to combat global warming are at the forefront of people’s minds – in all aspects of life. From ditching plastic straws to plastic bag levies in supermarkets, avoiding the use of one time and short-lived consumables is key to a healthy and happy planet. But how does this translate to the lab, where sustainability has famously been difficult?

In this feature, we take a look at the importance of sustainability in the lab, and the practices you can employ to ensure a happy and eco-friendly environment.

The problem

Anyone who has had even a brief experience in the lab will know how much plastic waste is generated from the most basic of experiments. With constant changing of pipette tips, extensive use of disposable Eppendorf tubes and regular glove changes, laboratories are responsible for over 5 million tons of plastic waste each year.

And it doesn’t stop there. High-powered equipment can guzzle electricity, leading to a massive drain on energy. Additionally, gallons of water may be needed to maintain the work of the lab each day.

But with so much vital research hinging on the maintenance of this technology, how can we begin to tackle the ongoing problems of waste and sustainability?

Plastic usage

Probably the most waste in a laboratory setting comes from the high number of single-use plastics. In a biological setting, this typically comes in the form of disposable pipette tips. While the most basic advice could be to reuse where possible, in most experiments the need for precision and contamination avoidance are too important to even consider this option. This means that tips must be changed after each use, and some scientists report using hundreds of tips in a day! To compound this issue, the tips are usually not recyclable due to contamination with potentially harmful materials.

So, what is the solution? While we’re unlikely to get to a point where pipette tips can be fully sustainable, some labs are now reverting back a few decades to the use of cleanable, glass pipette tips for experiments. Additionally, many scientists are moving away from the use of one-time plastic petri dishes and other lab stables, to easily cleanable glass versions. Why don’t you take a look at some of the potential options to employ this technique in your lab?

The effects of using so many pipette tips don’t end there. With so many tips being used in quick succession, the boxes that they come in also contribute to a significant proportion of plastic waste in labs – some scientists have reported that this equals around 80% of their waste! To combat this, there are now recycling schemes for pipette tip boxes and labs can even choose to recycle their own boxes in-house by receiving tips in a larger container and decanting into old boxes and autoclaving on-site for sterilisation. If on-site options aren’t feasible for your lab, check out some recycling options here.

Case Study  – A sustainable PCR

The COVID-19 pandemic led to widespread use of PCR tests. Already a staple in the lab, PCRs are known to generate a significant amount of waste. Typically, a kit can only be used once, and the exponential increase in demand during the pandemic led to a shortage of resources.

To combat this issue and tackle waste, a team of researchers from Switzerland developed a method to recycle primers and nucleotides from used PCR kits by depolymerising the DNA strands. The technique resulted in a 75% success rate and showed that it is possible to directly recycle these materials to combat waste and lack of resources.

Mind the electric bills!

Soaring energy costs have been at the forefront of the cost-of-living debate in recent months. However, we still see extremely high consumption in laboratories. In fact, it is thought that a lab uses more than ten times the amount of energy of an office-based workplace.

Of course, ultra-low temperature freezers, that must be permanently switched on to preserve samples, and high-powered centrifuges are a non-negotiable aspect of the scientific field, but what can you do to cut down on your consumption?

Aside from the obvious ideas of switching equipment off when you don’t need to use it, some suggest carefully considering which reagents you need and don’t need. By emptying out your fridges and freezers, you can increase energy efficiency and even create space that you could share with the lab next door – if you like them, that is! Additionally, consider whether your samples actually need to be kept at the traditional -80°. Some reagents may survive at a slightly lower temperature, a small change that could significantly improve your energy efficiency! In fact, a number of labs have now signed up to My Green Lab’s Freezer Challenge, which sees scientists housing their reagents at -70C. Research has shown that many chemicals and other resources do survive well at this temperature, and this small change could cut freezer-related energy consumption by 40%! To take this even further, studies are currently being conducted to test if even higher temperatures are feasible.

An example of labs adopting a breakthrough energy efficiency method is at Princeton University. The Minus 80 scheme has been adopted by a number of labs, wherein scientists will be alerted if the freezer drops to below or rises above -80° – dropping too low can be an unnecessary waste of energy, whilst rising too high can put samples in jeopardy. By alerting scientists to these errors in a timely manner, they can be easily rectified.

There are a number of other small changes you can adopt to make the lab eco-friendlier. To keep the energy costs of using a fume hood as low as possible, simply shutting the sash as much as you can whilst still maintaining your necessary range of movement can significantly reduce waste. Likewise, dropping the holding temperature of PCR machines and keeping timers on this type of equipment to ensure timely retrieval off samples can make a big difference. Likewise, moving from using water baths to bead heat baths can not only save energy but also water waste.

Green chemistry

A slightly more intense method of waste reduction – that may not be applicable to everyone – is the adoption of ‘green chemistry principles.’ Developed in 1998, the guidelines suggest adopting practices and procedures where the least waste and the least hazardous materials are required. Figure 1 below outlines the 12 rules of green chemistry.

Figure 1: Image describing the 12 principles of green chemistry. Taken from Trombino et al., 2023.

Whilst these principles primarily refer to chemistry, many of them are applicable in a biological setting; particularly the guideless related to waste and avoiding hazardous products, the latter of which can increase a lab’s capability to recycle. Many labs across the country are now adopting these principles and institutions are educating their staff on the guidelines. For example, the American Chemical Society provides resources to help with implementing the rules in your workspace.

Not sure of the alternatives to hazardous chemicals? Check out this handy resource from Beyond Benign. A common example is the use of SybrSafe and GelRed instead of ethylene bromide in agarose gels.

Eco-friendly at the source

Of course, sometimes it may not be possible to make these changes yourself. That’s why it can be equally as important to obtain your products and reagents from sustainable companies. A number of well-known manufacturers worldwide are now striving to become more eco-friendly, meaning that your raw experimental reagents can be purchased guilt-free. Some examples of vendors adopting eco-friendly practices and committing to sustainability are Eurofins Genomics, Thermofisher, Roche and many more! Moreover, when ordering reagents and equipment, consider if you can share deliveries with nearby labs.

Necessary evils

Despite the importance of sustainability and measures to tackle climate change, there will always be some unavoidable procedures that must persist for the betterment of human health and fundamental research into the intricate networks of life itself. Without some unsustainable practices, research would halt; we would not be able to use high performance computers, run large centrifuges or pipette liquids from one tube to another. So, whilst we should all be striving to make savings where we can, ultimately, the impact that each individual lab may have is small. That said, when we all work together, we can achieve great things – if you’re running a lab and wondering if adopting sustainable practices is worth it, then think about what would happen if everyone implemented just one of the above principles.

If we all work together, we can make the world a better and healthier place, not just through the research outcomes, but also through the processes used to get there. 

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Life sciences / Recycling / Sustainability