How software can drive your lab to a sustainable future


What is a sustainable lab?

There’s an ever-growing trend to ‘do our bit’ to save our planet, which has extended to scientific laboratories. Labs might not take up much space, but they consume an enormous amount of resources. While the initial switch to more sustainable procedures can be inconvenient for scientists, conducting their experiments, living and working sustainably cuts overall operating costs.

So, what exactly does lab sustainability mean?

To be classified as sustainable or green, a lab should mindfully consume resources such as water, electricity, and energy, and recycle any waste generated, where possible, to reduce its carbon footprint. Implementing these measures means the lab transforms into a greener working environment, operating at an increased level of safety and productivity, and ultimatelyat a reduced cost.

Why focus on sustainability in your lab?

It’s all in the stats

Scientists and other lab personnel are becoming more aware of how their behavior in the lab impacts their environment. Studying data on the subject reveals that just small changes in equipment interaction, sample handling, and waste management, can save a lab thousands, if not millions, of pounds a year. Focusing on certifying a lab as sustainable tackles climate change, ensures healthier personnel and liberates funds for further research.

Whether life science or chemistry lab – the amount of energy used by ‘the basics’ is significant.

Lab Energy Conversion

Reducing the lab’s carbon footprint

First, we must identify what elements make a lab unsustainable and where there is room for improvement. The main pressure points are refrigerators, chemicals, lab instruments, fume hood cupboards and, predictably, plastic waste. Let’s look at each of these in further detail.

Cold storage takes its toll on the environment (and your budget)

Refrigerators and freezers are essential equipment but vastly resource-intensive. Simply raising ultra-low freezer temperatures from -80°C to -70°C can greatly impact energy savings without affecting samples. Studies have shown that proteins, bacteria and viruses are generally safely stored at -70°C and the reduced energy consumption can extend the freezer’s lifespan.

Cleaning out and defrosting the refrigerator/freezer regularly, and keeping track of expired samples with an inventory tool, also lowers its running costs. This was demonstrated by the CDC, who participated in the Freezer Challenge, raising their freezer temperatures to -70°C, thus saving 367,400 kWh/year in energy, and categorically emphasizing the value of incorporating sustainability.

Putting sustainability into practice yields results

Freezer Challenge 700x448 1

Taking away the chemicals

Chemicals are expensive and contribute to a dangerous environment. Understanding the toxicology of substances and reagents used in the lab is the key to determining its impact on our surroundings. By exchanging regular chemicals for benign alternatives, a laboratory can reduce the risk of hazardous exposure and minimize the environmental effect simultaneously.

Green chemistry also touches upon more environmentally-friendly approaches to biodegradable plastics, medicine, computer chips, and paint.

For example, consumer goods companies Proctor & Gamble, and Cook Composites and Polymers, replaced paint resins and solvents derived from fossil fuels with a mixture of sugar and soya oil. Now, their paint contains 50% less volatile hazardous substances and are less harmful to the environment 
and those using them.

In addition to reducing the risk of toxic exposure, choosing 
to incorporate green chemicals in a lab saves enormous amounts of energy. Safety regulations around using hazardous substances means that the air in the laboratory must be circulated, filtered and exchanged for fresher and cleaner air. With less toxic chemicals produced, the air exchange rate can be reduced, potentially saving the lab millions of dollars per year in electricity and facilities costs.

Don’t underestimate your ‘energy-greedy’ lab equipment

Servicing lab instruments such as chilled centrifuges and ovens can lengthen lifespans and keep equipment optimized for your work. And, of course, not forgetting to turn off devices once you’re done using it. However, due to the nature of scientific experimentation, instruments like water baths, lasers and even computers need to be ready for use at a moment’s notice. This can make conserving energy challenging.

Fortunately, there is a solution.

Outlet timers turn off equipment for the night and start them up again in the morning. Set properly, timers can keep temperature-controlled instruments at the suitable temperature – ready to be used by the first scientist working that day. According to Lab Manager, investing $10 for an outlet timer can save $100 a year in electricity (Paradise, 2017). It’s a small amount but when you add up all the outlets that your lab equipment is plugged into then the saving is not so insignificant.

Power Consumption 700x235 1

Do you really want sky high electricity bills for your lab?

Installing submeters is a sure way to know how much electricity your lab is using. Collecting data over time can reveal behavioral changes and facilitate data-driven decisions to reduce the lab’s electricity consumption.

To make your lab greener, install LED bulbs where possible, and turn off computers and lights when not in use, including UV lights in biosafety cabinets, after an hour or less. It’s a simple matter of sticking a note on the instrument to remind researchers to power down the equipment after work, reducing energy costs and risk of overnight fire.

Fume hoods are a major contributor to energy usage

Personnel use chemical fume hoods to safely work with hazardous substances in chemistry and biology. But just one fume hood devours more energy than three full households every single day. What consumes this amount of energy is the ventilation system inside the hood as it circulates large volumes of air.

The air flow can be reduced in certain types of fume hoods by lowering a sash inside, which forms a barrier between the hood and the rest of the lab environment. It is raised when in use and should be lowered once the work is completed, ensuring employee safety.

Non-profit organization, My Green Lab, reported labs that adjusted the air flow resulted in energy savings of more than 40%.

Plastic vs glass the perpetual debate surrounding labware

Choosing plastic labware (specifically, polypropylene) over glassware can be advantageous. But at first glance, plastic beakers and test tubes appear to be the sub-optimal choice between the two.

While it’s true that certain types of plastic can’t be recycled and take up to a millennium to degrade in nature, this isn’t necessarily the case for equipment made for daily lab work.

Polypropylene is recyclable and ticks all the boxes for lab safety – non-cytotoxic, durable, resistant to thermal shock, shatterproof, and lightweight.

Glassware, on the other hand, is delicate and much heavier. Weight is an important consideration; it impacts the amount of fuel used to transport items from the manufacturer or supplier to the lab. The heavier the cargo, the more fuel is burned to get it where it needs to go. It also takes more energy to produce glass in comparison to plastic, thereby adding to the carbon emission levels and expanding the lab’s footprint.

An item’s fragility is also worth thinking about. Glassware is made from borosilicate glass, designed to withstand corrosive chemicals, contaminants and drastic changes in temperature. But it can still shatter when dropped and, in addition to needing to replace the broken equipment, the contents released could expose lab personnel to hazardous or toxic materials and require proper clean up.

Furthermore, items prone to breaking must be transported with a generous amount of cushioning to ensure it’s delivered in one piece, generating more packaging waste. Lastly, borosilicate can’t be recycled – it goes into a landfill.

Single-use systems – greener but still controversial

As the name suggests, these systems for biopharmaceutical manufacturing are used once and then disposed of. Initially, this doesn’t appear to be environmentally-friendly, but single-use systems and sustainability go hand in hand. How? They don’t require the same amounts of high purity water and heat used to clean and sterilize traditional stainless steel.

However, properly disposing of biohazardous components can be tricky. Options available include incineration, landfill, waste-to-energy, or recycling. Lab personnel typically autoclave objects that have been contaminated with biological material before they are buried in a landfill, which, again, requires heat and large quantities of water.

Waste-to-energy, where burning the plastic produces electricity, has been the preferred solution over the last few years. But not all labs have these services close-by, and some waste-to-energy facilities don’t accept biohazardous items.

Which one you end up implementing will depend on the unique situation and position of your lab: budget, management, and location, are all factors.

Other strategies to make a lab more sustainable include efficient building design, collaborating to share resources, and tapping into renewable energy to power day-to-day running of operations.

The challenges of making a laboratory sustainable

Implementing change management strategies is a good place to start but driving towards sustainability presents numerous challenges.

While a lab manager can switch out suppliers, install new technology, or roll out further lab regulations and guidelines, employee engagement and co-operation are equally important to yield substantial savings. This means taking small steps, such as turning off instruments and equipment after use, closing the freezer door as soon as possible, and autoclaving equipment in larger batches to reduce water consumption.

Tackling these challenges takes cooperation.

Another challenge is reassuring scientists that changes geared towards sustainability don’t affect their samples negatively, a fact that data can support. By comparing the bioavailability of samples stored at -70°C and -80°C over time, the resulting data can prove samples stored at -70°C are just as viable.

For optimal cold storage management, there need to be behavioral changes around sample organization within a freezer. All clinical items require clear labelling; if personnel are not sure what it is, it’s basically unusable. Also, researchers should refer to guidelines on sample life and retention. Once substances expire, they need to be disposed of correctly and the newly-vacated freezer space used economically.

Disposal and recycling can be another hurdle

There’s a misconception that materials and equipment discarded from a lab are all hazardous and therefore not safe to recycle. This can make finding a company that will recycle lab plastics difficult, as waste is mostly segregated by hand.

External companies are aware the waste is from a biopharmaceutical lab, but that is the extent of their knowledge.

Whether an item is hazardous or toxic, they have no idea. Education can help to spread the word about labs demonstrating high levels of compliance with regulations surrounding waste.

Within the lab as well, it’s important to guarantee there’s no confusion when it comes to recycling. And where there is room for uncertainty, such as in a tissue culture room, there shouldn’t be a recycle bin to prevent errors and biohazardous waste accidently contaminating the stream.

Tweaks in equipment and recycling can make a huge difference in the lab, but deciding between plastic labware and glass, in an effort to be more sustainable, affects staff and their daily routine as well.

Above all, migrating towards making laboratory practices more sustainable takes a committed and lab-conscious team. A good way to gain staff participation and drive success is through motivating competitions such as the Freezer Challenge and reward mechanisms. These initiatives also provide opportunities for different labs to have the same goals and collaborate on a project.

Solutions include collaborating with suppliers to minimize lab waste

University scientific labs such as MIT, Harvard and the University of Washington, are at the forefront of laboratory sustainability. With advanced programs in place that can offer inspiration, it’s worth remembering external companies can also lend a helping hand in handling waste.

For example, certain suppliers provide recycling services for the end user – STARLAB’s pipette tip racks are recyclable and can be collected to go to a recycling facility.

Promega received an award for its involvement in a program designed to recycle non-hazardous yet essential lab materials such as gloves, masks and safety eyewear that would have otherwise gone to a landfill. Instead, they were used as raw materials for eco-friendly durable consumer products. They also have a program in which labs can send back their Styrofoam waste.

Outdated tools mean vital data are disconnected or inaccessible

Scientists everywhere will be familiar with the pains of using a paper notebook to document their experimental data. Paper-recorded data is often inaccessible, easily corrupted, and frequently indecipherable. Moving towards a paperless option removes these blockers in research and enables labs 
to reduce expenses.

Such was the case for North Carolina State University, who decided to buy electronic lab notebooks, avoiding $30,000 worth of paper-based purchases in one year.

Supporting and advancing experimental research with technology is increasing across the world. Digital capabilities offer access to services, including virtually modelling experiments and processing vast amounts of data generated from tests.

However, these systems require a lot of operating space within a laboratory, cooling mechanisms, and updates, all of which can take a toll on the lab’s carbon footprint.

Software’s contribution to sustainability

The above aren’t issues encountered with cloud-based technology

Along with providing, in some cases, unlimited data storage and regular software updates, taking your R&D organization into the cloud saves on much-needed space and energy bills. Information is easily accessed, and in a secure and sharable format, encouraging collaboration between, and across, scientists, departments and organizations.

Software can also make a difference through the gathering of data from instruments and the surrounding environment, compiling it so that scientists and lab managers can run their labs more efficiently and, in parallel, work their way towards a carbon-neutral lab.

Another factor in the benefits of software is: a proper inventory that works with the lab and its functions. Having a clear idea of what is available, how much of it, and in what condition, reduces over-purchasing and ordering duplicates. Not only is this cost-effective for the lab, it also has a significant environmental impact – less refuse, more recycling, and mindful purchases.

Our 3 Key points

  1. To sum up, tweaking the lab’s equipment and procedures to be more sustainable benefits the environment as well as lab personnel health, all while containing operating costs. Technology plays an increasingly big part in implementing sustainability, by streamlining processes across the lab and monitoring instruments and reagents to produce analytical reports.
  2. With an integrated electronic lab informatics system, you can combine all these advantages into a single system and make informed decisions for maximum impact towards ROI.
  3. To find out more about how our software can help make your lab more sustainable and cost efficient, get in touch with us today.

If you’re looking for a piece of technology to help you optimize your efficiency in the lab and cut down on costs, look no further. At IDBS, we offer intuitive software for scientists at the bench – capturing and maximizing data usage, managing inventory, and facilitating collaboration.

If you are interested in optimizing your lab? Talk to one of our experts today

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