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How to reduce your lab’s environmental impact

How to reduce your lab's environmental impact

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 or old microscopes 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.

For more tips, tricks, and hacks for getting your experiments done, check out the Bitesize Bio DIY in the Lab Hub.

10 Comments

  1. sameerbau on February 28, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    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.

  2. Paula Bezerra on May 13, 2010 at 3:19 am

    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!

  3. Jode on December 4, 2009 at 7:01 am

    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.

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