Science has a sustainability problem- a lab uses up to 10x more energy and academic labs generated 12 billion pounds of plastic waste last year. Scientists want to do good in the world, but if they are not careful, they might be doing more harm.

What is The Problem?

Sustainability is the current zeitgeist and science has responded by inventing new green processes and synthesising new green materials. Sustainability depends on science. Whether one believes in renewables or nuclear, wants to engage in carbon capture or bioremediation, it is impossible to tackle climate change without employing science. However, these technologies did not come from nowhere. Modern science consumes extreme quantities of key resources (such as water, energy and plastic), which we cannot overlook.

As any scientist who works in a biotechnology lab can attest, they are addicted to plastic. In the quest for sterility, safety and efficiency, labware has switched to a very convenient material – plastic. A plastic test tube comes wrapped in plastic; held in a bag with the other test tubes which is also wrapped in plastic; within another larger bag or box of test tube bags; and placed in a larger box, with plastic packing material, for shipping. And, most, if not all of this material is single-use and dumped into biohazard waste disposal facilities. This waste is autoclaved (decontaminated at high temperatures) and then incinerated at high temperatures. 

Likewise, every chemistry bench (of which a lab has multiple) is equipped with a fume hood, which siphons off dangerous gases. Each one of these hoods uses as much energy as three and a half households! Bubbling away in these fume hoods are toxic reactions that require single-pass cooling, which is the scientific equivalent of a continuous cold shower. The technique consumes 2 000 gallons of clean water per reaction. Considering that each floor has multiple fume hoods running multiple reactions, each lab building has multiple floors and each research and development campus contains multiple buildings, the costs become staggering.  

Even astronomy labs are not immune. Modern astronomy requires extreme hardware, such as large radio arrays and supercomputers, which have extremely high carbon footprints. One lab, the Max Planck Institute in Germany, found that they emitted 18 tonnes CO2e per researcher per year, with 150 researchers on the team.

What is Green Lab?

Green Lab (or Sustainable Lab) is a movement advocating for research and analytical labs to become more sustainable. The goal is to encourage academic, industrial and analytical labs to examine their operating procedures and optimise for the smallest possible environmental footprint.

Sustainable Lab actions are not only good for the environment, but also make business sense. Beyond the raw monetary savings, they reduce risk from future legislative changes, bring institutions in line with customer demands and develop a good culture for employees. 

Why is This So Difficult?

The problem is that Sustainable Lab practices are not taught in traditional education and aren’t prevalent in scientific culture. It requires educating scientists and changing the way science is done. 

Scientific procedures are passed on from one generation to the next. This leads to a set of standard practices and conventions, concerning everything from refrigerator temperatures to sterilisation methods. While many of these conventions could use revision for the modern day, scientists do not have the time to examine every tradition in extensive detail. Deviating from the norm could introduce more doubt (perceived or actual) into one’s experiments. 

Green Labs require scientists to step back from their high-paced research world, and analyse everything that they have ever been taught, every procedure and every assumption, to see where changes can be made. 

This is easier said than done. Often the protocols are so ingrained that scientists do not even realise that they can make changes. An excellent example is the temperature of laboratory freezers used to store biological samples. The earliest ultra-low temperature scientific freezers, the type used to store the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, were only able to get to -60°C, which is roughly the minimum acceptable standard. However, with better refrigerant technologies and improved insulation, freezers were able to achieve -70°C. These extra 10 degrees were a meaningful improvement because they ensured that opening the freezer door would not ruin samples. 

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science labs

Ultra-low temperature freezer, a “-80” (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

However, the 1980s saw more advances, and the -80°C freezer was born. Adoptions were slow at first because labs could not justify the increased cost. However, years of marketing made their mark, and over time -80°C freezers became the norm. Some labs even set their freezers at -86°C! Today, an ultra-low temperature freezer is known simply as a “-80.” 

The stored biological molecules have not changed significantly, but there is an erroneous belief that lower temperatures are definitely better. The Green Lab movement actively encourages labs to relax their lab freezers back to -70°C, which provides an energy savings of up to 30% and increases the life of the freezer. However, the suggestion is often met with intense resistance. A freezer stores a scientist’s life’s work and increasing the temperature to save some energy, is seen as a move too risky for most to make.   

Another problem is that unsustainable lab methods are generally given a pass. Science happens in the initial stages, where the chances of success are lowest. Therefore, it is often considered inefficient to worry about sustainability. Why work on saving water in an experiment, if it probably won’t even work? It is thought that, since scientists are only doing that reaction once, twice, or a hundred times at small scale, the environmental impact is low. They believe it is more important to get the technology out fast and to worry about sustainability when it gets produced at manufacturing scale. Essentially, scientists are passing the buck onto the process engineers downstream.

Unfortunately, most engineers do not have the same depth of science education as scientists – after all, they studied engineering. Even if the engineers care about sustainability, they will work on reducing the carbon footprint in areas they understand, such as the cleaning and sanitisation procedures of the manufacturing equipment. Unless it impacts their work, engineers will never pause a manufacturing start-up and send a reaction back to the lab for sake of sustainability. The unsustainable methods coming out of research and development labs can perpetuate through to production. 

Once a scientific method is validated, the scientists then publish their work in journal papers. As mentioned earlier, those methods get passed on and get repeated hundreds of thousands more times. Sustainability in the lab matters. 

What Should Be Done?

Getting started is easy. There are many simple ways to be more sustainable in the lab. These include:

These may sound obvious, but are surprisingly rare in labs. Laboratories are highly-specialised, risk-averse environments. For every step, scientists will need to invest some time educating themselves. For example, before turning off a piece of equipment, they may need to check the manual or contact the manufacturer. Another is breaking down and understanding pre-made lab testing kits to look for alternatives. Since every lab is different, even the simple actions may require some trial and error. But once a good change is found, the benefits can be multiplied by sharing these good practices with colleagues.  

Although the above actions are a fantastic start, they will not be enough to align scientific research with the goals promised in the Paris Agreement. Although sustainability is everyone’s responsibility, dedicated effort and money needs be allotted to decarbonising labs. A full Green Lab program is complex and requires a large amount of time and expertise to design and implement. It should not just be added to the end of a scientist’s job description.

Further encouragement for Green Lab programmes need to come from upper-level management, universities, governments and funding bodies. A serious Green Lab programme should assemble a specialised team with deep understanding of science and lab processes to develop an action plan that includes audits, tracking, targeting, benchmarking and reporting. Green Lab also requires drastic culture change. Everyone from the newly-hired lab technician to the senior lab manager needs to be open and willing to do things differently. They need to learn to take smart risks and everyone needs to do their part. 

Thus far, universities have been leading the way starting Green Lab programmes. Students consider sustainable science as their “moral obligation” and bring a wealth of enthusiasm and new ideas to the movement. Industrial labs have been slow to follow, and it is time for companies to step up.