Greening Your Laboratory
How sustainable choices can save both the planet and your budget
Andy Evans | | 10 min read | Practical
In a former life, I was an equipment salesperson.
At the time, my focus was on selling premium brands – but my clients were interested in lower-cost items. It’s understandable for laboratories to focus on cost savings, but I noticed that many of them were purchasing the same equipment over and over again. I wondered: Is the cheapest equipment really a bargain – or do you get what you pay for?
My investigation began with ULT (-80°C) freezers. A good ULT freezer will cost you about £300 ($350 )a year to run in the UK, give or take a little to account for door opening. A cheap one can cost you double that amount! I brought that information to one of my clients – the University of Birmingham – and, within a year, we’d set our first framework agreement for ULT freezers. It was clear that spending a little more money at the outset led to significant cost savings over time. And that principle sits at the core of my work as a laboratory sustainability consultant. In short, I help labs simultaneously minimize both their running costs and their environmental footprints.
Lower costs, greener planet
Can the two coincide? We hear from a lot of labs that they’d like to “go green,” but can’t afford the expense. One of the big misconceptions about sustainability is that it’s “extra” – something new to think about in addition to their usual purchasing criteria. In fact, sustainability means looking at every single cost in the lab and its knock-on effects – and then communicating those costs to the people who control the purse strings. Much of the time, the people who pay for utilities and running costs would contribute to a more sustainable option if they knew it was available. I work with all three levels of laboratory operators: the scientists at the coal face, the people in procurement, and the people responsible for paying the bills and managing the buildings and facilities. If you want widespread sustainability that has a real impact, you have to work with all three types of people in mind.
Recently, I think people have become more conscious of what they’re buying. As a result, they’re realizing that sustainable equipment tends to last longer and be easier and safer to use. And that, in turn, leads to a willingness to invest a little more upfront in an item with a longer lifespan and lower running costs. A laboratory requires up to 10 times more energy per square meter of space than an office building, so the next generation of green-minded researchers and administrators is focused on bringing together those two key goals – cost consciousness and environmental friendliness.
Waste not, want not
The average lab’s most wasteful practices might surprise you.
One of the key areas of wastefulness involves cold storage malpractice. Many laboratorians don’t keep an inventory of what’s in their refrigerators and freezers – not even a simple label like, “Shelf 2: Reagents” or “Shelf 3: Waste.” Without an inventory, door opening times increase, and so does the unit’s energy consumption and its running costs. Another factor that is often overlooked is ice buildup. The longer the door is open, the more ice builds up in the unit – which both limits the available space for samples and means the device itself may wear out faster. Finally, many labs still have fridges and freezers without precise temperature control – just a dial that goes from one to five. With no temperature display, your devices may be colder than necessary, which can negatively impact not only energy consumption, but also sample quality and viability. Cold storage is low-hanging fruit for most labs as far as “greening” goes.
Fume hoods are another area in which simple practice improvements can yield huge gains. During audits, I’ve found that over 90 percent of fume hoods are left open when not actively in use – and a single fume hood can use thousands of dollars worth of electricity per year! In a building with dozens or even hundreds of fume hoods, imagine the expense.
Even the smallest gestures can lead to huge savings. Most laboratories own at least one dry block heater, which is usually kept somewhere between 37 °C and 100 °C. We’ve measured the energy consumption of these kinds of units. Would you believe that, if you leave one on at 90 °C, it consumes more energy than a 100-liter -20°C freezer? Just by switching off a single dry block heater when not in use, you could make significant savings.
There are two easy ways for labs to become more sustainable. One is to apply best practice at all times in every way possible; the other is to become educated with respect to identifying and procuring the greenest options. Once labs can implement these two improvements, the sky’s the limit.
How are laboratorians supposed to “go green” when we have no standards for energy efficiency? At the moment, almost all of the data on equipment performance is provided by the manufacturers themselves – and regular use in real-world settings often yields quite different results. People buy equipment in good faith, emboldened by marketing material that assures them they’re choosing a green product – a phenomenon known as “greenwashing” (see below). It’s easy to make a product look green – which is why we need standards to ensure that it actually is green.
Not only that, but we need standards that address the practical needs of science and medical professionals. We don’t just need to know how much energy a piece of equipment uses; we need to know how it works for us. If you open your freezer door and withdraw a tissue sample, how long does it take the internal conditions to recover from that door opening? If you work in a busy clinical laboratory, that door might open and close every few minutes – so what effect does that have on your energy consumption? How does it affect your samples? You may have bought a “low energy” device – but what have you sacrificed for that low-energy designation?
The great greenwash
If I were issuing one word of caution to laboratorians choosing new equipment, it would be, “Beware of greenwashing.” It’s one of the biggest threats to sustainability in the lab. Remember that, no matter how a manufacturer presents data on their equipment, it’s always marketing material – and there are always marketing tricks. For instance, they might compare their devices with older ones that are no longer competitive, rather than with actual competitors. They might use words like “eco-friendly” without providing evidence. They might use green colors or imagery to lend impact to their messages and make people feel good about buying their products. Always ask for independent verification of manufacturer-provided data – and, if possible, test the equipment yourself.
There are always new products coming out, which means my work is never done.
First, someone will identify a sustainability problem with a product they’ve been using for years (or even decades!). Invariably, a manufacturer will produce a more environmentally friendly version. For a year or two, that’s the only green version available – making it an attractive prospect to buyers. Eventually, because of loss of revenue, other manufacturers will bring out similarly “eco-attractive” products – and they all start fighting over the “green dollar.”
At this point, we begin to see things like greenwashing pop up in advertising. We see manufacturers manipulate their product data to give a good impression of sustainability – even if the information is not entirely accurate under real-world conditions. There’s no point in buying something that saves energy, saves water, or reduces running costs if it’s not fit for purpose for science. Why buy an affordable freezer with good energy efficiency data, if you can’t open the door more than once a day because the temperature is too slow to recover?
Learning from past mistakes
I did some work for an institution who gave me a “wish list” – they told me what kinds of devices they needed and it was my job to locate the best possible products for their purposes and give them a short list of choices. For instance, they wanted a list of the top 10 under-bench -20°C freezers, the top 10 ULT freezers, the top 10 fume hoods, the top 10 safety cabinets…
I made my recommendations based on a variety of factors: energy efficiency, temperature, performance, warranty, service, and so on. For the most part, they went with my top choices – but, for ULT freezers, they did a last-minute about-face. They found a freezer I hadn’t recommended that promised extremely low energy consumption and purchased 50 units at a fantastic discount. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before all of the freezers began alarming on a regular basis. Why? The researchers needed to go into their freezers more than once a day – and they weren’t returning to -80°C quickly enough because that’s what had been sacrificed to achieve those low energy consumption figures.
Within the first year, all 50 units had failed at least once. Ultimately, because appropriate cold storage is so important, the institute invited multiple manufacturers to submit their units for testing under real-world conditions. They’ve now replaced all of their original freezers with the ones that “won” their test!
Thankfully, there are a lot of good products out there that perform as promised in the lab – but this is a good illustration of why standardization is so essential.
A dangerous phrase in science (and life) is, “We’ve always done it this way.” People often default to the cheapest option – understandable, given many labs’ limited funds – but it’s important to be aware that the lowest purchase price rarely translates to the lowest ongoing costs. I use the analogy of a computer printer. When you buy a printer, you spend less time thinking about the price of the device than you do considering the cost of the ink or toner. Why not apply that principle to everything you buy?
Fortunately, once people are more aware of the options, they do change – and I see it happening more and more. Now, there are schemes and accreditations to encourage people to go green. Funding bodies are starting to ensure that applicants’ equipment wish lists include sustainable products. It makes sense – if you’re investing thousands or even millions of dollars into a laboratory, you’ll want to know that they are only spending that money once. You want them to buy equipment that is efficient, long-lived, future-proofed, and has lower running costs. And that includes consumables, where applicable; you want them to be affordable and readily available. That way, you know the money is being used wisely.
Ask the experts
In the past, I’ve asked people to write their own sustainable procurement questions. I’ve had researchers from universities, research organizations, private institutions, even the British Antarctic Survey share their thoughts – and what I’ve found is that some of the best, most insightful questions come from people who haven’t worked in procurement at all. That may seem counterintuitive at first, but these are the people who have all of their research needs and cost factors and compromises in their heads. They can see the potential impacts of their choices much more easily than someone who isn’t familiar with their laboratory or their projects.
Every lab is different. A team of histopathologists will have vastly different requirements to a team of analytical chemists. Basic sustainability principles – energy awareness, carbon awareness, and so on – don’t change, but the details – and how you prioritize them – do.
How do you identify the main cost of a particular piece of equipment? For some, it’s energy consumption; cold storage and drying cabinets are good examples. For others, it’s consumables. A water purification system, for instance, will likely cost more in filters and hoses and wastewater removal than it will in energy – so you have to focus on those expenses. My job isn’t just to choose equipment for labs, it’s to help those labs learn how to make their own equipment choices. It’s a great feeling to meet someone in the morning who has never written a product specification and, by the end of the day, see them not only writing like a professional, but teaching others to do the same.