How Green Is Your Laboratory?

How green is your laboratory

From single-use plastic to ultra-cold freezers, labs produce a ton of waste and energy. According to Harvard, a lab uses more than three times as much electricity per square foot as an office. Plastic waste from labs amounts to five and a half million tons per year, equal to the weight of 67 cruise ships.

If you work in a laboratory of any kind, now is the time to be mindful about your waste, water and energy use. Designing a greener lab may seem like an impossible task due to the amount of resources, but it’s possible. Here are a few tips on how to make your lab more sustainable.

Recycle disposable plastics

Single-use plastics are a problem in every industry, but recycling them is a great help.

Of course, recycling single-use plastics is easier said than done in a lab. Many plastics contain hazardous chemicals. Contaminated plastics can’t be in a standard recycling bin. You’ll need to talk to a specialist about how to recycle these products.

Some manufacturers have take-back programs to help labs repurpose products. Many universities have systems for labs to donate materials to other researchers. Investigate Freecycle options in your area.

Replace plastic with glassware

To reduce the consumption of single-use plastic, use glassware whenever possible. For non-sterile applications, buy reusable glass pipettes and buffer concentrates.

Decades ago, plastic replaced glass in laboratories because of its affordability. Now, given what we know about the harmful effects of plastic, many labs are switching back to glass.

Glass is more expensive than plastic, but is much higher quality. Even high-quality plastic deteriorates faster than glass. You will also save money by not throwing it away.

Shut the fume hood sash

One of the most significant drains on energy is an open fume hood sash. When the sash is open, it works to pull air into the hood while pumping in reconditioned outside air. It’s one of the biggest inefficiencies of any lab. When the fume hood isn’t in use, keep the sash closed. The airfoil sill at the base of the hood will still pull air in even with the sash closed.

Keeping the fume hood sash closed is a simple solution but will save a significant amount of energy.

In 2005, Harvard University started the ‘Shut the Sash’ Campaign. Since then, they’ve reduced fume hood usage by 30%, saved an annual $240,000, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 300 tons.

Hang signs around the laboratory to remind personnel to close the sash when it’s not in use.

Power everything down when not in use

Powering down equipment can make a big difference in energy consumption. Whether it’s your computer, lab equipment, or lighting, turn it off when it isn’t in use. This will also help prolong the lifespan of your equipment.

Unplug appliances that aren’t in use to avoid using phantom energy. Appliances take in power when they’re plugged in, even if they aren’t turned on. If bulky appliances are inconvenient to turn off, plug them into a power strip. Then, you can flip the off switch when leaving for the day. It will also prevent your equipment from frying in a power surge.

While you can’t turn a fume hood off, there are steps you can take to make sure that it isn’t exhausting as much energy.

  • Turn off the occupancy switch when it’s not in use.
  • If the hood doesn’t have an occupancy switch, reduce the exhaust on weeknights and weekends (or when the lab isn’t in use). 
  • If you have a fume hood that is no longer used, have it locked and decommissioned so that air no longer flows through it.

Make powering down equipment a habit and encourage your colleagues to do the same. Try placing “turn off” stickers next to light switches and equipment. It isn’t possible to turn off some lab equipment, but it’s still an effective way to save energy.

Order from sustainable suppliers

If you’re serious about making an impact, order materials from sustainable suppliers. Of course, there can be downsides of sustainable suppliers, such as price. But the benefits far outweigh the cost.

There’s no way to completely avoid using plastic in a laboratory. Consider transitioning your laboratory to products made from bioplastics. Manufacturers design these to break down in landfills. Choose products from companies that use biodegradable plastic.

Replace hazardous chemicals

Rethink your hazardous waste purchases. Research newer and less toxic methods to achieve the same results. They’re often cheaper too.

Check your freezers

Freezers are essential for storage, but they use a huge amount of energy. Second only to fume hoods, a lab’s cold storage is likely the next biggest consumer of energy. Ultra low-temperature freezers (-80°C) consume a lot of energy and are a large investment. A single ultra-low freezer on average uses ~8000 kWh, enough to power an entire house for about 9 months. 

My Green Lab and the I2SL began The Freezer Challenge to promote best practices in cold storage management, such as:

  • Removal of unneeded, unwanted, or non-viable samples from refrigeration units
  • Reduced costs associated with maintaining refrigeration units.
  • Improved researcher access to laboratory samples and reagents.
  • Development of cold storage management that supports energy efficiency and maximizes space.

Since 2017, Freezer Challenge participants have saved a cumulative 14.2 million kWh.

Only invest in freezers that are energy efficient. Research the life expectancy of your new freezer so it can be a part of your laboratory for many years to come.

Maintaining equipment needs to be a part of your laboratory checklist. Maintaining your freezers ensures that they will function for as long as possible. This means one less freezer ends up in the landfill. Improperly-maintained equipment requires more energy, so you’ll reduce your laboratory’s energy usage.

Check the seals and replace them as needed to prevent the loss of cold air. Defrost the freezer on a regular schedule.

If you don’t need a whole freezer, consider sharing the freezer with a neighboring lab. That way, you aren’t powering two half-empty freezers. Not only will you only need to provide power to one freezer, it will use less energy to stay cold with more items in it.

Location is key when it comes to reducing energy usage. Don’t place a freezer near a heating vent or in direct sunlight. Keeping the room temperature low will help the freezer last longer and use less energy.

Another way to cut costs is to turn the temperature up on freezers. Increasing the temperature can reduce energy use and prolong the life of a freezer.

Dispose of hazardous chemicals

Dispose of all hazardous waste. While labs can’t always control the amount of waste they produce, they can make sure to dispose of it the right way.

You may need to dispose of waste in a recycling or trash bin, sharps container, or medical waste box.

The EPA regulates chemical waste through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Never flush chemicals down the drain- you will risk contaminating drinking water.

Do not use fume hoods as waste disposal mechanisms. Many fume hoods have traps or scrubbers to collect waste solvents, toxic vapors, or dust. But, these are only meant for small amounts of materials at a time.

Adjust equipment settings where appropriate

You can adjust equipment to reduce its power output. Perform an assessment of equipment power ratings and consider reducing them where appropriate. Provided this doesn’t interfere with day-to-day operation, it’s an excellent way to save energy.

Maintaining your green lab

One of the best ways to maintain lab equipment is to perform regular maintenance. That way, no matter how big your laboratory, you can stay on top of issues and ensure they’re fixed.

There are steps every lab can take without compromising the quality of experiments.