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Inside the Lab Laboratory management, Regulation and standards

Turning Over a New LEAF

Awareness about environmental sustainability is growing rapidly of late. Historic increases in energy prices have highlighted the importance of improved insulation – and motivated individuals, companies, and institutions to reevaluate what mitigation measures might be feasible. Beyond energy, the impacts of consumerism and consumption have been quantified – and they may be our greatest challenge yet. There are also increasing efforts to consider and address our dwindling biodiversity. As the world becomes more willing to address climate change, we have inevitably started to look beyond our homes and into our workplaces. For some jobs, the actions available to mitigate environmental impacts might be more feasible, but in the laboratory, it isn’t quite as straightforward.

Laboratory facilities are in great demand, with high costs reflecting their energy intensive nature. A single ultra-low temperature freezer can consume more energy than the average UK home, and that doesn’t take into account the energy required to ventilate laboratory spaces. Clinical and diagnostic labs – just like many research facilities – are increasingly reliant on single-use consumables. Diagnostic labs can present further challenges compared with research labs because, typically, they will perform fewer processes but at a much greater volume. The processes are often tightly regulated – particularly when they relate to the health of patients.

So what can be done to address these issues? And how can laboratory staff increase their sustainability efforts? Currently, staff are – for the most part – expected to figure it out on their own. Unlike health and safety requirements – which are standardized and easily accessible – environmental standards do not exist for diagnostic labs. 

To start, we need to bring people together. The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare has created a network for sustainable clinical/diagnostic labs, with representation from across the UK. This network allows us to come together over common challenges, and quickly seek out solutions. The network also provides case studies which highlight new solutions that provide practical guidance for labs to share and learn from. But how can we ensure that such learnings are fully integrated into the labs? I would argue that the answer lies within frameworks – similar to how we manage health and safety. 

At University College London (UCL), I have helped to create and manage the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF), which is a certification in the sustainability of laboratory operations. It incorporates all of the idealistic protocols that a lab can take to reduce their impact on the environment. Initially designed for our own research labs, LEAF’s quick growth has proven how our sector wants to make active change. Since 2021, over 2,000 labs have registered from over 90 institutions in 15 countries, and LEAF has become the most widely used certification for “green labs.” LEAF also contains purpose-built calculators that allow users to estimate the impacts of their actions. 

By engaging with the wider community, we have also realized that there are other specialists seeking sustainability guidance, including technical staff working in animal facilities, commercial labs, computational labs, and, of course, diagnostic and clinical labs. We have launched new versions of LEAF to address these areas, and we are currently piloting a version specifically for diagnostic labs. Pilot participants include NHS sites and several commercial diagnostic laboratories. At the end of summer 2023, the course will be completed, and we will adapt LEAF based on the feedback we receive and offer it to the sector by the end of the year. 

Our new version of LEAF for diagnostic labs will not remain idle. For example, we have seen that clinical labs face great challenges in introducing reusable consumables. In recognition of this, Eppendorf have released new biobased material in their single-use microtubes. At UCL, we have conducted life-cycle assessments of single-use consumables, and included Eppendorf’s new product to measure the extent of carbon reduction. Equally, we have engaged with diagnostic labs to see if they would make the switch. If the outcomes are positive, we will alter LEAF’s criteria.

As LEAF has expanded, we have learnt the importance of community and engagement – we must share sustainability efforts and responsibilities. If you’re interested in making your lab more sustainable, create a “green group” or simply make sustainability a top priority in an existing group. 

Although we don’t exactly know how to achieve net-zero emissions in the laboratory, momentum to address the problem is building. Networks, new research, and programs like LEAF are starting the conversation and, though much work needs to be done, a more sustainable future is finally in sight. 

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About the Author
Martin Farley

Sustainable Laboratory Manager, Sustainable UCL, University College London, UK.

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