Lab Sustainability: A Chance for Change
Is laboratory sustainability “Mission: Impossible” – or an opportunity to evolve?
Elke Schneider, Bernadette Prosser | | 6 min read | Practical
The global population, which exceeded eight billion people in 2022, continues to increase – and to age. Every one of those eight billion people requires resources to survive, including greater access to healthcare. At the moment, although population growth is much higher in developing countries, resource consumption and pollution are greater in developed countries – and the gap between the two has increased exponentially. The focus of sustainability is to reduce this inequality and provide a basic standard of living for Earth’s inhabitants. Protecting resources, limiting energy consumption, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to protect our climate are paramount among efforts to improve sustainability.
Sustainability means different things to different people. Some may focus on preserving humanity (and, by extension, the planet on which we live); others view the protection of nature as its primary goal. Still others take a hands-off approach, trusting that changing market forces will be sufficient to avert an environmental crisis. Regardless of your personal approach, it’s clear that there’s a need for the healthcare industry to reduce the environmental impact of clinical laboratories – making pathology and laboratory medicine more sustainable.
Moving toward sustainability
Healthcare delivery has a significant environmental impact. Hospitals operate around the clock and have large environmental footprints. Ways medical care affects the environment include:
- generating large quantities of solid and liquid waste, often considered potentially infectious by law
- using material that may be hazardous, including polyvinyl chloride, diethylhexyl-phthalate, cleaning solutions, batteries, metals in electronics, and mercury in medical devices and equipment
- consuming large amounts of energy, thereby generating significant greenhouse gas emissions
- consuming large amounts of water and subsequently generating wastewater
Worldwide studies have shown that the typical diagnostic laboratory uses more energy and water per unit area than the typical office building, even though they are not explicitly mentioned as a high-energy consumer within the hospital in most evaluations (1)(2). Given these realities, laboratories must be sensitive to the importance of adopting good environmental practices. Many such practices require a change in the culture and mindset of the lab, the hospital, or sometimes even the wider healthcare industry. Continuing education and training are important in successfully implementing good practices and, because both the changes and the necessary learning cost money, management support is vital.
Regulatory requirements and guidelines at the global and local level aim to minimize diagnostic labs’ ecological footprints. The goal of such guidelines is to continuously enhance the environmental performance of laboratory equipment and products and enable labs to meet sustainability requirements. Guidelines drive a strong culture and commitment to ensuring the safety of people and the environment, driving environmental strategy within the diagnostics industry. As a result, everyone – from manufacturers to end users – must work together to maintain high standards for legal compliance and ensure continuous improvement.
Optimizing your ecological footprint
Regulations and guidelines continue to increase in number and complexity – and some even have conflicting requirements. Major challenges include identifying what labs can do to establish a greener approach, how the healthcare industry can support labs in doing so, and how to holistically measure impacts and improvements.
There is still only a rudimentary understanding of how sustainability guidelines can apply to diagnostics laboratories and equipment. Consumer-focused regulations for sustainability are not directly applicable to lab equipment because product development processes for this type of specialized equipment require many years to ensure product integrity and reproduceable, accurate results. Modifying existing products to meet sustainability requirements is rarely an option, leaving new product development as the only alternative – a long-term approach to an immediate problem.
Sustainability Guidelines for Labs
Some examples of national and regional guidelines and requirements
- The European Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine published guidelines in August 2022 to help laboratories implement sustainable practices. They offer concrete recommendations in four main areas: waste management, green chemistry, energy conservation, and water conservation (3).
- The UK government’s Social Value Model, including net zero emissions requirements, as outlined in Procurement Policy Note (PPN) 06/20, has been adopted as part of National Healthcare System (NHS) England’s new sustainability guidelines and applied since April 2021 (4).
- In vitro diagnostic (IVD) products must be compliant with FDA, EPA, REACH, IVD Regulatory RoHS, and other regulations to ensure a high degree of sustainability.
New sustainability requirements and goals for reducing our environmental footprint are opportunities for behavioral change – and sometimes also opportunities to reduce costs by reducing resource consumption. Additionally, businesses that adopt sustainability requirements and can demonstrate measured reductions in their environmental footprints may also gain attention in the healthcare industry, where many healthcare providers are actively scoring competitive tenders against environmental performance criteria.
Eco-design improvements made as part of new product development can contribute to a greener and more sustainable clinical lab economy by incorporating environmentally conscious technologies and concepts while improving the clinical value of diagnostic products.
Steps for actively managing a product’s ecological footprint throughout the complete product lifecycle include:
- Identifying significant environmental considerations for the product.
- Selecting and implementing design criteria to meet improvement targets.
- Reducing or eliminating hazardous substances and minimizing water and energy consumption.
- Performing ecological lifecycle assessments across all lifecycle phases from design, development, manufacture, and use to end-of-life treatment.
- Complying with sustainability standards and regulations.
Clinical laboratories – and the wider healthcare industry – can make a significant contribution to combating climate change and achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Doing so will require a mid- to long-term focus on sustainability, including financial investment. Effective training and the engagement and support of senior management (5) are both necessary for all stakeholders to embrace the opportunities a sustainable future presents.
Top Tips for a Sustainable Lab
- Search for potential resource savings, such as installing low-energy LED lighting, changing to equipment and processes that reduce water use, or optimizing air conditioning.
- Engage consultants to advise on a smooth transition to a greener lab.
- Consider new IT solutions as part of new lab equipment contracts to streamline lab processes.
- Eliminate the use of plastic tubes for aliquots.
- Implement more environmentally friendly equipment, such as instruments that use less water or automatically switch to standby mode when not in use to save energy.
- When possible, choose vendors who are actively reducing their environmental footprint for production, supply, and packaging.
- Include local and global guidelines in tenders whenever possible.
Driving Sustainability in the Diagnostics Industry
- Improve supply chain and shipping conditions to increase transparency and reduce the environmental footprint of shipping waste.
- Offer wastewater management and treatment solutions to meet regional and local regulatory requirements for liquid waste effluent and improve labs’ environmental responsibility.
- Set sustainability targets for new product development that comply with global regulations and standards.
- Implement monitoring and analysis programs for international regulations and standards and collaborate with stakeholders and authorities to ensure maximum benefit.
- Improve packaging for in vitro diagnostics products to reduce the amount of packaging material and move toward a circular economy.
- Improve the sustainability of equipment suppliers’ manufacturing sites through adoption of strong key performance indicators, such as reduced energy and water consumption or fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
- Reduce the use of polystyrene shipping containers by replacing them with larger, eco-friendly, reusable containers for transporting products to warehouses worldwide.
- Choose environmentally friendly and lower carbon-emitting ocean freight over air freight.
- Support green initiatives in individual laboratories and hospital systems.
- JB Lopez et al., “Reducing the environmental impact of clinical laboratories,” Clin Biochem Rev, 38, 3 (2017). PMID: 28798502.
- K Bawaneh et al., “Energy consumption analysis and characterization of healthcare facilities in the United States,” Energies, 12, 3775 (2019).
- EFLM, “EFLM Guidelines for Green and Sustainable Medical Laboratories” (2022). Available at: https://bit.ly/3ONnWF1.
- NHS England, “Greener NHS” (2022). Available at: https://bit.ly/3UxfZFf.
- Siemens Healthineers, “Sustainability Report 2022” (2022). Available at: https://bit.ly/3VVshb7.