Labs rack up big energy bills and produce a ton of trash. Many are trying to become more eco-friendly

Scientific labs produce a ton of waste: plastic pipette tips and the plastic racks that hold them, plastic foam coolers that house chemicals and cells, surplus solvents that expire in storage. They also rack up big energy bills: special freezers keep experiments cold, high-tech vents keep air clean, and dedicated machines keep equipment sterile.

But a growing number of universities and other scientific institutions are making a point to be more mindful about their waste and water and energy use. And experts who help labs become more sustainable say the idea is increasingly gaining traction among researchers looking for ways to reduce their environmental footprint.

“This conversation and this movement around laboratory sustainability is really exploding, and it’s really exciting,” said Rachael Relph, the chief sustainability officer of My Green Lab. The nonprofit, which scores and certifies labs for their sustainability, has also developed eco-friendliness labels for common lab products and launched an annual challenge to curb energy use from lab freezers.

There isn’t good data on how much waste labs produce or how much energy and water they use. In 2015, researchers at the University of Exeter published a letter in Nature estimating that the 280 bench scientists in the university’s bioscience department generated 267 tons of plastic in 2014. They applied that number to the more than 20,000 institutions worldwide doing biological, medical, and agricultural research — by no means a precise calculation — and estimated that labs produced as much as 5.5 million tons of plastic lab waste in 2014.

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And while universities and drug makers have made strides in making other spaces more sustainable, labs have remained “the last frontier,” Relph said. They’re highly specialized places with deeply engrained standards — the freezers are at a certain temperature, the experiments use certain solvents, the equipment is sterilized a certain way.

“It’s easy to see in office spaces that you should be using double-sided printing or setting up recycling bins,” Relph said. “A lot of those actions are comparatively simple to the things people see when they walk into a laboratory.”

Labs use far more energy than a typical office. They require specialized humidity control, a high level of ventilation, and use large equipment that often keeps running on nights and weekends. Quentin Gilly, a coordinator in Harvard’s lab sustainability office, said that labs account for about half of the energy use on campus — but only 20 to 25 percent of the square footage.

My Green Lab is helping scientists and lab managers spot ways to reduce their waste, cut down on energy and water use, and switch to more sustainable chemicals and products. And some universities have started taking lab sustainability into their own hands, forming offices dedicated to helping scientists and lab managers adopt more eco-friendly practices. There are more than 80 universities and scientific companies with a green lab program, up from less than 10 just over five years ago, according to My Green Lab.

“More and more people are taking a step back, looking at what they’re doing, and saying, ‘Is there a better way?” Relph said.

Some of those steps are relatively simple, like shutting the sash on a fume hood, a ventilated machine in which researchers conduct experiments to limit their exposure to hazardous substances. Essentially, “shutting the sash” requires a scientist to just pull down the window — or sash — on the front of the fume hood when they’re not using it. That cuts down on the air flowing through the device, which in turn cuts down on energy use.

It sounds simple, but it can have an outsized impact. Hundreds of researchers at Harvard participate in the university’s monthly “Shut the Sash” fume hood competition that comes with a strong incentive: free pizza for one lab a month that met its fume hood energy use target. Gilly said the university is saving between $200,000 and $250,000 a year on energy just by having more fume hoods shut when they don’t need to be open.

Gilly said the university’s next big push is to analyze the ventilation in its labs. The air that’s circulating in labs is far more ventilated than the air that’s in an office. In some situations, Gilly said it might be possible to safely lower the amount of ventilation in a lab to reduce energy use.

Another popular way labs are cutting costs and waste: turning the temperature up on freezers.

“Cold storage [can be] one of the biggest energy impacts in a laboratory,” Relph said. My Green Lab hosts an annual challenge to get labs to defrost their freezers, clean out and consolidate samples, and tweak the temperature from -80 degrees to -70 degrees. In many cases, it’s safe to store samples at a slightly warmer temperature. That temperature increase can significantly reduce energy use — and can prolong the life of a freezer.

There are a slew of other ways that labs are becoming more sustainable. Many universities have also set up a system for labs to donate their leftover chemicals, materials, and equipment, which other researchers at an institution can then use. Some encourage scientists to run their dishwashers and autoclaves more efficiently.

“There are always little things they can change,” said Elicia Preston, a lab manager at Penn Medicine who is leading a campus-wide effort to make labs more green.

Trash and recycling remain tough issues to tackle. Because many plastics are contaminated with chemicals, most labs can only recycle paper products. But some manufacturers have started take-back and recycling programs to make it easier for labs to repurpose the products they’ve used. Corning, which makes a range of products used in labs, runs a take-back program to recycle some of its products.

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MilliporeSigma, which manufactures chemicals and other lab supplies, lets customers return plastic foam coolers and chemical containers. MilliporeSigma has also worked to repurpose the more difficult-to-recycle plastic products used in science. After being sterilized, the plastics are turned into plastic lumber that can be used in decking, speed bumps, and park benches.

“We looked really early on at the strategic place where we could have an impact from a sustainability standpoint,” said Jeffrey Whitford, head of global corporate responsibility at the company. Since the program started in late 2015, MilliporeSigma has recycled more than 3,300 tons of single-use plastic from biopharma.

The programs signal the growing interest in sustainability among scientific supply companies. There’s a business incentive for them to do so: As more scientific institutions evaluate their eco-friendliness, they’re looking to work with manufacturers who have similarly made sustainability a priority.

“This is a win-win situation. It’s good for business and it’s also good for the environment. And that’s just smart business,” Whitford said. More than 40 percent of MilliporeSigma’s customers list sustainability as a buying criteria, he said, and many potential customers ask the company to fill out surveys on the eco-friendliness of their products as they evaluate their own product use.

MilliporeSigma now offers hundreds of eco-friendly alternatives to common lab chemicals and reagents and has created a tool that helps labs evaluate the environmental impact of their products. They also offer customers a sustainability dashboard that evaluates how efficient their orders are when it comes to packaging and shipping and calculates their recycling levels.

“We’re really starting to use technology to aid in making better choices,” Whitford said.

Often, when Whitford talks with customers about sustainability, the conversation starts with packaging. But the scope of sustainability efforts needs to be much broader, he said — from the chemicals scientists use to how they can run their experiments differently.

“The impact that this industry can have is huge, he said. “Once you turn that lightbulb on, it’s amazing to see where the conversation goes.”