By Becky Chambers Hennessy, contributing writer
Scientific research leaders are taking a long look in the mirror. They see their laboratories as home to beneficial scientific breakthroughs, in areas from epidemiology and the coronavirus to climate change and greenhouse gases. They’re also recognizing them as resource-intensive spaces with enormous carbon footprints.
It’s an irony that’s not lost on a growing number of research scientists around the world who understand the need for sustainability in the lab. But, as with all significant change, “there is still a misconception that incorporating sustainability into lab work is going to come at the cost of scientific integrity,” said Rachael Relph, chief sustainability officer at My Green Lab (MGL), an organization dedicated to building a global culture of sustainability in science through a suite of internationally recognized programs.
That’s where the nonprofit MGL and other groups with similar missions come in. The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Federal Energy Management Program estimates that scientific labs use far more energy and water than typical office buildings — anywhere from three to 10 times more, according to various experts. Labs also generate some 5.5 million metric tons of plastic a year, comparable to 220 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty, according to sustainable biotech firm Genova Inc.
“Assuming that half of all American laboratories can reduce their energy use by 30%, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the nation could reduce its annual energy consumption by 84 trillion Btu,” said Relph. “This is equivalent to the energy consumed by 840,000 households.”
Lab sustainability initiatives aren’t just good for the environment, they provide a significant return on investment, cutting lab operation and utility costs and freeing up resources.
Raising the bar through green collaboration
In 2021, Argonne National Laboratory’s Energy & Water Reinvestment Program earned the DOE’s Sustainability Award for its collaboration with the Infrastructure Services Division and Office of the Chief Financial Officer to reduce the lab’s operating costs and meet energy and water goals. In 2020, Argonne had completed 23 energy and water conservation projects that led to saving about $184,000 — a 10-year annual high.
Case studies indicate a potential cost savings of 20% to 40% for research labs that employ energy-efficient design strategies compared to standard lab practices, according to the DOE’s Better Buildings Smart Labs Accelerator. MGL programs, created in collaboration with multiple organizations, are widely viewed as a global standard for sustainable lab practices.
MGL programs include green chemistry in R&D and curricula; energy-efficiency opportunities for lab equipment through the Center for Energy Efficient Laboratories (CEEL); a global online My Green Lab Ambassador program; and one of MGL’s central programs, the International Laboratory Freezer Challenge, co-sponsored with the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL) and running for its sixth consecutive year starting in January 2022.
Another key MGL program is the ACT Environmental Impact Factor Label, dedicated to Accountability, Consistency and Transparency in energy and water use, packaging, disposal and other areas. A desktop audit is conducted in collaboration with SMS Collaborative and manufacturers in areas such as energy and water use, packaging and disposal. ACT-labeled products address the need for third-party verification of the environmental impact of the products they use, Figure 1.
There’s also the My Green Lab Certification, MGL’s flagship program for promoting laboratory sustainability best practices. This program is recognized by the United Nations Race to Zero campaign as a key measure of progress toward a zero-carbon future. To date, MGL has certified more than 700 labs worldwide across various sectors, including academia, government, hospitals, pharma and biotech.
Getting certified through My Green Lab
One international participant in MGL’s certification program is biopharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. The company had achieved ISO 14001, 15001 and other external certifications. In 2020, It collaborated with MGL to put in place green lab programs across its research sites worldwide.
The programs at AstraZeneca includes less visible targets, such as timer plugs to shut off equipment after hours and electronic pipettes for calibrating records across its Cambridge sites in the United Kingdom. That move is projected to save 6,400 sheets of paper a year. “It’s about asking everyone in our labs to have a sustainability mindset in everything they do,” said Pernilla Sörme, AstraZeneca green labs project lead, global sustainability.
“Our accreditations are testament to how quickly this program can result in positive change in how we manage energy, water, waste and chemicals across our laboratories,” Sörme said. AstraZeneca has committed to zero carbon emissions by 2025 and being carbon-negative across its value chain by 2030.
MGL’s certification program now serves as a key indicator of progress for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change High Level Climate Champions’ 2030 Breakthroughs campaign. The program will assist pharmaceutical and medical technology companies in reaching the goal of a zero-carbon world by 2050.
While growing numbers of organizations are opting for MGL certification, others are following their own established programs and certification. In academia, it’s often cited that campus labs consume twice to two-thirds of a school’s energy relative to total campus space. Among universities with their own long-running programs to improve the sustainability and safety of their labs is Cornell University, based in Ithaca, N.Y.
Obtaining certification via independent programs
Cornell’s labs span 3,200 different rooms on its Ithaca campus. They comprise about 20% of the square footage and account for 44% of its energy consumption, according to Cornell. The university’s Climate Action Plan serves as the overarching blueprint for carbon neutrality by 2035.
This ambitious sustainability goal leverages the campus as a “living lab,” a place-based incubator for sustainability across campus and in coordination with city and other initiatives. Cornell’s Green Lab Program started in 2013 and seeks to help with the global challenges of climate change by co-creating innovations locally — down to the individual lab level.
Because lab science is diverse, each lab at Cornell has unique needs. As such, lab leaders address sustainability at each participating lab with a focus on engaging students in applicable green initiatives. “All of our lab programs are designed to build sustainability knowledge and skills,” Cornell Sustainability Engagement Manager Kimberly Anderson said. “The goal is for students to carry what they’ve learned about best practices, green technologies and more into their future careers.”
Much student engagement started with Cornell’s Green Lab Certification program some 10 years ago. Lab teams follow a guide and checklist for adopting a variety of green practices, benchmarking current standards and setting goals for improvement. Among the most energy-intensive equipment at research labs are chemical fume hoods, used to capture airborne contaminants and remove them via an exhaust system. Asingle typical fume hood uses more energy than three average homes, according to the EPA.
Cornell’s Ithaca campus is home to 1,700 fume hoods. Key to their correct use is keeping the sash closed when they are unattended or not in use. The university’s comprehensive Laboratory Ventilation Management Program (LVMP) relies on multiple campus and other partnerships to ensure safe and sustainable ventilation systems. LVMP has saved more energy than any other behavioral program at Cornell’s Ithaca campus, Laboratory Ventilation Specialist Ellen Sweet said.
“The types of science that a green lab program is geared toward is that which has chemical emissions that are controlled, in part, with mechanical ventilation, and those with rooms that have high heat and plug loads,” Sweet said. “Addressing these concerns can have the most impact on direct costs. The other areas of focus are water usage as well as green chemistry, which addresses the purchase, storage and use of chemicals and more,” Figure 2.
Other lab sustainability initiatives abound. For example:
- ACS Green Chemistry Institute: The American Chemical Society’s flagship institute works with a global network of green chemistry advocates to promote sustainability through application of principles of green chemistry in science, education and industry. Its offerings include education, training, hazard assessment and other tools.
- Labconscious: New England Biolab’s program is an open resource of market and vendor program options to consider before disposing of electronics, gloves, shippers and other reusable or recyclable lab waste.
- LEAF Project: University College London’s (UCL) Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF) is a collaborative tool designed by the sustainability team at UCL. LEAF recognizes the strong link between reproducible science and sustainable science, and is supported by the national peer-led U.K. Reproducibility Network.
- Smart Labs Toolkit: I2SL provides a toolkit for achieving safe and sustainable labs. Developed by multiple contributors, it includes results of best practices and lessons learned from the DOE’s Better Buildings Smart Labs Accelerator.
Choosing a green lab lifestyle
To start a green lab program, experts suggest identifying the biggest environmental offenders, such as fume hoods and ultra-low temperature freezers. Also, collaborate to help build a comprehensive program and share awareness. Take it from MGL: “We were formed to unify and lead scientists, vendors, designers, energy providers and others in a common drive toward a world in which all research reflects the highest standards of social and environmental responsibility.”
“The United Nations has declared this the decade of action — the 10 years that are most critical for us to address the causes of climate change if we are to avoid the worst impacts. In many ways, the scientific community is at the forefront of climate change — many in our community are working to directly address this challenge through research and innovation,” said MGL’s Relph. “At the same time, there is a growing awareness that science alone will not save us, that we, as individuals need to take an active role in making sustainability part of our every day.”