Skip to content

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.

Share this to your network:


  1. Lindsey on December 3, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    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.

  2. Tomasz on June 11, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    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…

  3. Nick on June 10, 2008 at 4:26 am

    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. bottleman on June 9, 2008 at 4:44 pm

    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. 🙂

  5. bala on June 7, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    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!

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll To Top