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Inside the Lab Laboratory management

Building a Greener Lab

Karen Tait

Dean McLean

The global healthcare system accounts for more than four percent of global carbon emissions, with developed countries contributing closer to 10 percent of national emissions, according to the World Economic Forum. As an industry that focuses on the health and well-being of individuals worldwide, the responsibility of conducting this work in the most sustainable way should weigh heavily on all stakeholders. 

Laboratories require energy-intensive equipment, such as ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers, and use single-use plastics for safe sample collection and supply as well as sample transportation. But there are tangible ways in which service providers and their partners can build a culture of sustainability in laboratories globally. My Green Lab is a non-profit organization that has developed a global certification recognizing lab providers who exemplify a strong commitment to practicing sustainable science. Understanding the integral role labs can play in reducing carbon footprints, the certification is recognized by the United Nations Race to Zero (carbon) global campaign as the international gold standard for lab sustainability best practices.

For any lab service provider, it takes conscious effort to change the mindset of how lab operations have traditionally been performed and what steps may be needed to inspire improvements that can be replicated through its laboratory sites. Though it may seem like a difficult feat to initiate more sustainable lab practices, lab service providers must keep in mind that even small steps in the right direction are adding to the combined impact they make toward sustainable operations. From water conservation, reducing power consumption, choosing energy efficient equipment, to employing strategic travel policies and enhancing recycling efforts, opportunities to play an active role in going greener in labs run the gamut and are feasible to plan and execute. Here, I share just some of the ways lab providers can take steps to improve their environmental impact.

Shifting to renewable source-based electricity 

Plug load equipment, including high-power technologies (fume hoods and ULT freezers) are needed to support lab services. These critical lab components may have to run continuously or for long periods to ensure safety and quality standards are upheld, adding to the energy usage. 

However, it is possible for lab service providers to create an operational plan that helps their teams make intentional shifts to reduce energy consumption per site, including the integration of renewable source options as appropriate. For example, introducing a simple-to-follow traffic light system can help encourage lab teams to decrease plug load consumption: 

  • Green labeling means the equipment can be turned off after every use. 
  • Amber or yellow labeling means equipment can be turned off at the end of every shift. 
  • Red labeling equipment means it must be left on at all times.

Involving laboratory staff in identifying opportunities to make sustainable choices in everyday processes and sharing the positive impact on the overall site’s energy consumption creates a culture of empowerment and a sense of collective accomplishment. Some lab providers also take part in broader industry-level initiatives to promote best practices and behaviors internally. The International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories and My Green Lab co-coordinate an annual international freezer challenge to create friendly competition among industry stakeholders to enhance sustainable methods of cold storage management. Through the 2022 Challenge alone, participants across the globe have helped save more than 6,700 metric tons of carbon dioxide through better management, emphasizing the collective difference individual efforts can create. 

Lab teams can develop schedules to ensure lab equipment is cleaned regularly to maintain optimum operating conditions for energy usage. Replacing filters for cold storage units, closing fume hood sashes when not in use, and effectively using freezer space can help save energy as well. Also, occupancy sensors can be installed through lab sites to detect the presence of movement to implement energy-saving modes in equipment.

Lab equipment and technology vendors can also play a role in elevating the importance of operational sustainability. By working with vendors who offer energy conservation models, lab providers are immediately reducing their footprint without compromising on the equipment needed to service customers and their patients. Integrating equipment, including lab-grade refrigerators and freezers and lighting products, that have passed the strict Energy Star energy efficiency criteria set by the US Environmental Protection Agency or US Department of Energy is one way to ensure this.

Reducing lab waste 

To avoid contamination, single-use plastic supplies – gloves, tubes, lab kit packaging and more – are essential; however, this can have a toll on a lab’s environmental impact. Advocating for innovative ways to reduce waste in this area will help lab service providers enhance sustainability. A change toward less reliance on single-use plastic takes several steps from business decision-makers. For example, in terms of supply purchasing, lab leadership may consider reusable lab equipment (for example, washable personal protective equipment to steer away from disposable lab coats for visitors or reusable/refillable pipette tip boxes and dry ice packaging) and the use of glassware (for example, glass bottles and petri dishes) when possible to reduce the need to reorder one-use plastics, which also provides cost-saving benefits to labs. 

Also, just as labs are prioritizing the reduced use of plastic, so are equipment and other supply vendors. Suppliers are offering reusable cardboard cryoboxes to reduce waste. Glass slides stored at room temperature can remain in these boxes, which last for several years. 

But reduced plastic use doesn’t stop at smaller items – it’s also an option for larger, tech-enabled equipment used in labs, such as advanced sequencing systems. For example, Illumina’s NovaSeq X Plus sequencing system not only allows for large-scale sequencing workflows, but it is also designed to do so while minimizing plastic mass by 50 percent and packaging waste for reagents by 90 percent.

Creating an organizational culture focused on sustainability 

As the landscape evolves, lab providers are putting a spotlight on building organizational cultures that strive to provide high-quality lab services while also monitoring environmental impact. Making a collective difference requires commitment and motivation from each team member to do better and be a part of the solution. 

Having a clear organizational plan that empowers team members at every level to know that their efforts, no matter how small, are contributing to the overall sustainable change the organization aims to achieve is essential. At the same time, setting goals and providing appropriate guidance, time and opportunities for participation within lab teams helps foster a culture of sustainability. In short, sustainability must become a key focus for all. And this focus should extend beyond the organization to the broader industry, where academia plays a role in helping scientists gain a better understanding of sustainable changes and related benefits and where regulatory agencies set forth guidance and policies to help push change forward across the board. 

Not only are sustainable lab practices key to reducing carbon footprint and more, they should also be considered a business imperative that aligns across the full spectrum of stakeholders, including lab customers, suppliers, and team members. For some providers, it is important to attract and retain new scientists – many of whom are increasingly engaged in sustainable practices; in this regard, a culture that emphasizes sustainability can help. The culture has to motivate these experts to continue making sustainability in the lab a priority. As such, it is important to continuously explore new processes, technologies, methodologies, and ideas from all stakeholders to reduce the lab’s environmental impact.

Though each provider’s sustainability may look different, we must unite in the goal of finding environmentally-friendly ways to advance science in labs that ultimately improve patient healthcare. 

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About the Authors
Karen Tait

General Manager, Central Laboratories for EMEA at Q² Solutions

Dean McLean

Director, Environment, Health and Safety at IQVIA

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