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How to reduce your lab's environmental impact

by on 5th of June, 2008 in Organization & Productivity

Maybe I'm wrong, but I tend to think that people are attracted to biological research because of an interest in nature and the noble desire to make the world a better place.

Those ideals are often stripped away in the realities and demands of working life – it turns out that it's not so easy for one person to save the world, and you have to be more interested in Nature than nature to be successful. But I've always found it a bit paradoxical that from those eco-aware origins, we end up working in labs that generate vast amounts of waste and consume a lot of power.

Of course, much of this waste and consumption is unavoidable but there are a lot of ways that we can reduce the environmental impact of our labs by improving our practices. Here are 12 ways to start with:

1. Hold completed overnight PCR reactions at 10°C instead of 4°C. It won't affect the product, but it will save a considerable amount of energy.

2. Replace falcon tubes with re-usable 50mL glass bottles in experiments that don't require you to centrifuge the contents.

3. Close or switch off the fume hood. Fume hoods use vast amounts of power and the amount they consume is proportional to how far they are opened.

4. Buy reagents from on-site stores / freezer programs where possible. Does your BamHI really need to be chauffeur driven to you? On-site stores transports reagents in bulk, which saves fuel.

5. Find out if there are greener alternatives to the reagents you use. MIT's "Green alternatives wizard" will help.

6. Buy service contracts for your equipment. That shiny new HPLC/spec/PCR machine looks great but 10 years down the road it's going to be land-fill fodder if it's not looked after. An annual service contract will prolong the life of your equipment, reducing waste, and keep your lab ticking over more reliably.

7. Recycle. We've told you about electroporation cuvettes and DNA columns – what else can you recycle in the lab?

8. Donate surplus equipment like computers to local schools, community groups or Freecycle.

9. Label lab equipment that can't be turned off. That way people in the lab know they are free to turn off un-labelled equipment overnight or over the weekend.

10. Use non-mercury thermometers. Alcohol/glycol or digital thermometers are just as good.

11. Keep an up-to-date inventory of your lab's chemicals to avoid duplicate orders.

12. Order only the amount that you need. How often have you bought a chemical only for most of it to languish on the shelf for years?

What are your ideas for reducing waste in the lab? Tell us in the comments.

About the author: Nick Oswald
I started Bitesize Bio on a Macbook on my kitchen table in 2007 while in my 7th year of working as a molecular biologist in biotech. My aim was to share the know-how that I had acquired from the school of hard-knocks in the lab, so that others could learn from my mistakes and small victories. Nowadays my mission is to facilitate the gathering of hardcore know-how from whole spectrum of bioscientists and share it here on Bitesize Bio to create a super-mentor that any bioscientist can turn to for much-needed guidance.

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10 thoughts on “How to reduce your lab's environmental impact”

  1. bala says:

    Your post reminds me of something that we used to follow in our previous lab in India, where we a NGO collected surplus and used laboratoy equipment from labs and donated them schools that did not have the monetary background to purchase the equipments.It definitely took care of the unused stuff that we had lying around in the lab!

  2. bottleman says:

    Nick, I think you're totally right about people's motivations. An interest in the basic workings of nature is bound to either come along with or generate concern about nature.

    The way this plays out in the workplace, though, can vary. It can, like you said, get lost in career demands. Or it can get lost another way — I used to work at a big-name environmental research facility which was just in sheer energy terms really wasteful, and I think most of the researchers knew it — but on the other hand the fact that we were engaged in a "noble cause" seemed to satisfy people and justify all sorts of silly waste.

    I don't think scientists have done nearly enough. But they do have one thing that should make it so much easier for them than for a member of the general public: an ability to analyze things logically and figure out where reforms really make sense. The general public equates "greening up" the house with changing light bulbs and using the correct shopping bag ("paper or plastic?"), both of which are really trivial reforms, when transportation and housing represent something like 2/3 of their resource use. But the general public likes them because they are visible and immediately comprehensible.

    Scientists should be able to get beyond those emotional impulses and work this issue out analytically. Any real effort in the lab (IMHO) has to start with figuring out the basic budget of materials and energy. Now I know that's not easy, but even a first stab approximation would be illuminating. (When energy figures are not available, perhaps budget could be used as a proxy for this first stab.) I imagine you'd find out that your institution and its building, not your lab activities per se, are the biggest contributors to your impact, but that's just a guess.

    I'm not saying that any of your fine suggestions are the scientific equivalent of "paper vs. plastic?" shopping bag conundrums. But to make sure, we would really need to pencil it out. :)

  3. Avatar of Nick Oswald Nick Oswald says:

    Bottleman – thanks for that great comment.

    I think a materials and energy budget is a fantastic idea – I'll look into how best I could do this and maybe write an article on it.

  4. Tomasz says:

    Re-using your gloves is also a great antiwaste practice. I didn't realy think about it until my mentor mentioned it to me, afterwards I was shocked how much of my own waste I was able to reduce…

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  6. Lindsey says:

    A couple more ideas:

    PCR reactions: doesn't seem to be a difference if you hold at room temp overnight instead of 4 or even 10*C (anywhere from 15-25*C depending on your room). Products are all fine in the morning.

    Talk to your rep who sells pipette tips. Some will collect the old boxes or trays (for the refillable kinds) and recycle them. We are still working on some of the companies as only a few actually do this.

  7. Jode says:

    I've heard the glove re-use thing myself, and I think it's a bad idea.

    If you are wearing the gloves to protect you from your experiments, then you can re-use them as long as you can do it safely – don't touch the outside, don't blow them right-side out with your mouth, ect ect. Personally, I don't think I've ever actually seen somebody doing this properly.

    If you are wearing your gloves to protect your experiment from you (DNase, RNase, protease) then you have to change them often or they are useless. No other way around it. I'm all for saving the lab money and reducing waste, but I firmly believe this isn't the place to do it.

  8. Avatar of Paula Bezerra says:

    Hi Nick,
    I found your article very interesting, particularly after I read "Lab Stuff I Wish I Could Use in my Kitchen" by Emily Crow. She made interesting observations, but some not so environmentally friendly, like using Parafilm instead of other plastic wrap in the kitchen. Well, I avoid plastic wraps as much as possible! But how about the other way around? How about re-using stuff that you would otherwise throw away at home in the lab? In my lab and many others, people have the habit of autoclaving microtubes in beakers covered with aluminum foil, which creates a lot of waste. I decided to start using glass jars I would throw away at home, like mayonnaise or coffee jars that have a metal cover. They are perfect for autoclaving, keep your tubes protected, are free, and eliminate the need to use aluminum foil!

  9. Avatar of sameerbau says:

    well…this is what we do in our lab:
    1.use 2-200ul pipettes for taking out 2ul rather than 0.5 -10ul pipette.
    2.have a permanent etbr dealing glove set..is taken out whenever we cast/handle an etbr stained gel.after use,its put back in the same packet.
    3.have a permanent glove set for setting up pcrs, and also for taking out tips while filling the tip box.
    4.reuse old chemical containers used as dicards.or better..if they once carried some liquid n are made of glass..after thorough cleaning, they are used for storing stock solutions.
    5.washed tips n eppendorfs are used for undergrad trivial demonstration experiments.so is twice casted agarose.
    6.PAGE sealing carried out using binder clips and agar,which is again reused.rather than using tapes.
    7.reusing alumunium foil.

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