Turn your lab green to reduce the impact of research on the environment!
Written by Isabelle
As global citizens, we are all making a grand effort to limit and reduce our environmental impact in our day-to-day life (e.g. buying local products, recycling & reusing, cycling instead of driving, printing less, and reducing water and electricity consumption). We implement these small individual acts in our lives in order to save our planet. However, as scientists, we struggle to reduce our own research’s carbon footprint. Here, we will go through some of the most common ways in which research has a negative impact on the environment and provide suggestions to reduce it.
Travel & research
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the main source of carbon emission from scientists was travel. In some extreme cases, travel accounts for 50% of the total emission calculated for some research institutes. Why do scientists travel so much? Mainly, to attend scientific conferences all over the world. Historically, conferences were organised to allow for faster sharing of important results; at a time when communication was done through journals by post and the only way to read articles was in print. Nowadays, articles are published much faster and are available online shortly upon acceptance. Thus, conferences, meetings, and symposia have become more of a platform for connecting with other scientists in the field by meeting them in person. Even though participation in such events is important for the spread of scientific and technical knowledge and the facilitation of scientific collaborations across borders, scientists should start thinking about measures to reduce their research carbon footprint that stems from travel.
To begin with, we could choose to attend less long-distance meetings or attend more meetings online instead, and more carefully select the meetings to attend in person. Since the start of the pandemic, virtual meetings have become commonplace to keep the scientific community actively connected in a time of travel bans and lockdowns. Switching to virtual events can help to decrease carbon emissions due to air travel while still allowing scientists to discuss their science and exchange ideas. Admittedly, one important aspect that may be lost in a virtual environment is the social aspect as many scientific collaborations were born in a more relaxed atmosphere, such as over a cup of coffee or at social events. To maintain this important human aspect of scientific interaction, we should strive to find the right balance between in-person and virtual meetings. Additionally, we should implement hybrid events whereby parallel regional events are virtually connected with each other. In this setting, attendees could just take the train to their regional conference centre, reducing their carbon footprint in comparison to flying. For example, in 2010, the “Signs of Change” conference was unprecedented as a low-carbon conference model by using high-definition dedicated video links between six conference centres in New Zealand (www.signsofchange.org.nz).
Saving energy in the lab
Research labs consume a lot of electricity to power specialized equipment. For example, to work with live organisms and house them at their optimal conditions, the machines that control the temperature and/or humidity of the environment need to be constantly running. The same goes for the many fridges and freezers in which we store our samples and reagents. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, ultra-low temperature freezers (i.e. freezers operating at temperatures between -40°C to -80°C) can use as much energy as an average household does every day, which is about 20 kWh. Thus, it is extremely important to take proper care of these freezers by checking that the freezer door seals properly when closed, moving freezers to a cooler location, sharing freezers with neighbouring labs, and defrosting the freezers regularly. It is also possible to set ultra-low temperature freezers to -70°C instead of -80°C to reduce energy consumption by 30% and prolong the life of the freezer while having no biological impact on your samples. To promote energy saving and efficient cold storage options, My Green Lab and the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories launched a freezer challenge (www.freezerchallenge.org). In this challenge, you can earn points simply by taking actions related to good management practices, temperature tuning, cutting-edge practices, and retirement and upgrade of equipment. Winning labs and organizations receive an award for their efforts in reducing their environmental impact and have their names and picture published in the scientific journal Nature.
Most labs are also equipped with fume hoods for handling dangerous chemicals. Left open, fume hoods can consume as much energy as 3.5 households since energy consumption by fume hoods is related to the volume of air flowing through them, which is modulated by the height of a movable sash. Therefore, shutting the sash when not in use will help to save energy.
Plastic in the lab: reduce, refill and recycle
Scientific research generates a lot of plastic waste due to the need for accurate, repeatable results and sensitive work. To avoid cross-contamination and interference between different experiments, most consumables are single-use only and are then discarded, such as pipette tips, sample tubes, Petri dishes, syringes, etc. In 2014, an estimate of 267 tonnes of plastic waste were generated from the bioscience department of the University of Exeter alone, and when extrapolated to about 20,500 different institutions worldwide could equate to around 5.5 million tonnes of lab plastic waste generated. (Nature 528, 479 (2015)). To reduce the amount of consumables discarded, we could start by using refillable tips-racks. When possible, scientists should use autoclavable glassware instead of plastic; glass vials, tubes, and pipettes can be further treated to remove traces of heat-resistant nuclease enzymes that affect experiments with nucleic acids.
Scientists should push for biotechnology companies to develop more sustainable products, with less packaging and more recyclable plastics. Some manufacturers are fully aware of the importance of good environmental practices for the laboratory and in their manufacturing processes. For example, Starlab is developing a sustainable program to create alternative products which are more environmentally friendly; a new generation of pipette tips that saves up to 40% of plastic used in production compared to our older tips, and trays for centrifuge tubes made of cardboard instead of polystyrene. They are also reducing packaging waste by eliminating bags when possible. Other suppliers of life-science products (e.g. ThermoFisher or Millipore) also have sustainable programmes that the scientific community should support.
Digital pollution in the lab
Science also requires a lot of IT and informatics. Many equipment are controlled by computers: microscopes, UV chambers, electrophysiology set-ups, behavioural monitoring systems, mass spectrometers, etc. All these computers are generating data which are then copied onto local servers and/or external hard disks. To minimize server requirements and number of external disks, it is important to decide how crucial is the data and the number of copies needed. If the data is outdated, don’t forget to delete it. Furthermore, the life of our research data can be extended, by sharing it with other scientists; saving time, samples, and reagents.
Like many other professionals of the modern world, scientists communicate a lot via email. Each email sent emits 4g of CO2 and an attachment adds another 50g of CO2. To reduce the carbon footprint, we could unsubscribe from mailing lists and remove attachments from email chains (e.g. when replying to an email conversation). Keeping emails in the inbox also contributes to digital pollution: the storage of an email emits 10g of CO2/year. Consequently, erasing spam mails and unnecessary emails is key to reducing carbon emission. While attending a virtual meeting, turning off the camera whenever possible can further reduce gas emissions by 90% (Obringer et al., 2021).
14 tips for a greener lab
Clearly, the research sector needs to reduce its carbon footprint along other sectors to strengthen the bond between science and society in the fight to reduce our impact on the environment. As a quick summary, here is how we can reduce the carbon footprint of our research life in 14 steps:
More and more people in the scientific community are aware of the need for actions to reduce negative environmental impact, thus, a growing number of green initiatives and programs have started at Harvard (US), MIT (US), Max Planck Institutes (Germany), College de France (France), and IMB Mainz (we already talked about it here) amongst others. It is important that more scientists develop an awareness of the importance of the challenges that will arise due to climate change and modify their practices for a sustainable future.
Written by Isabelle Arnoux; Edited by John JJ Fung. Featured Image: NGC/Design.