The time of mindless consumption is over. We are running out of resources; we are polluting the environment. What does it have to do with your research? Research is one of the most resource-consuming, waste-producing human activities. But it doesn’t have to be. You can reduce the negative impact of your research without compromising its quality—and make your money go further.
What is Sustainable Research?
In general, “sustainability” means the ability to continue over a long time. Sustainable development (and research) is meeting the goals while sustaining the ability of natural systems to provide natural resources.  In a nutshell, stick to “the three Rs”—reduce, reuse, recycle.
Reduce the Environmental Impact
1. Cut Back on Travel
Conference travel has probably one of the most significant environmental impacts but is also one of the few perks of being a scientist. However, post-COVID, more and more conferences allow virtual presence. It may be vital to go to a conference in person when you are in your last year of your PhD or postdoc, but nobody cares about your presence if you don’t really have groundbreaking results.
If you do decide to travel, consider the environmental impact and choose the least carbon-intensive way. For example, rail travel is better than air travel, especially over short distances.
The same goes for the regular meetings with collaborators. A quick zoom call will save you money, reduce the carbon footprint to all involved, and save you the most precious, irreplaceable commodity of all—time.
2. Go Digital
When was the last time you bought an actual newspaper? If you can read your news and books digitally, you can certainly do it with scientific articles. Printed-out papers are usually only read once, and you will waste time organizing them—or going through a pile of them looking for one and ending up printing it again. Save on energy (electrical and your own), paper, and time.
3. Bulk Buying
A lot of carbon is generated post-production during goods movement. Make sure that you minimize it by using or organizing on-site reagent stores, for example. They also usually trade at a discount.
Consolidate orders, especially of the reagents that require dry ice shipping. Buy in bulk. On the other hand, keep track of reagents and don’t order much more than necessary; it’ll probably lead to waste.
4. Plan Experiments to Minimize Waste
Planning experiments in advance will save you time and the lab reagents, energy (yours and electric) and single plastic. Don’t make 100 ml of a PCR master mix if you only need to use 10 ml.
If you do use precast gels, they can be opened just before you are ready to run them, as a lot can happen with the samples before loading. In western blotting, you can blot several proteins from one membrane (stripping or cutting in two).
One hour of advance planning AND analyzing what went wrong the first time instead of blindly repeating the experiment saves three reruns.
5. Keep Chemicals in Order
Maintain a chemicals database, allowing a “use-and-replace” scheme to other groups and labs.
Ensuring the proper disposal of chemical, radioactive, and biological waste is also a part of being sustainable because it protects the environment and health of the population. 
6. Watch Your Energy Consumption
Labs had a lot of equipment that uses electricity, meaning they can be very energy intensive places. Here are some tips to help reduce the energy bills.
- Label the essential equipment such as freezers and incubators with “Do not switch off” signs. The rest is fair game.
- Put water baths on timers. If you forget to switch them off overnight, they will switch themselves.
- Don’t leave on standby any unused electricals—switch it off. This includes lab equipment and especially computers. You don’t need that empty incubator switched on in case you may have some plates to put in by the end of the week.
- Booting on a desktop takes minutes, so don’t leave it on overnight.
Maintain Fridges and Freezers
Fridges and freezers consume a lot of energy. Start by checking rubber seals that may be leaking. Defrost regularly as keeping the temperature in the freezer full of ice takes a lot of energy and increases the chance of the freezer breakdown. While defrosting, declutter. I bet you will find boxes belonging to a summer student from 2001.
Keep the materials and reagents at the highest possible temperature. For example, RNA, strain collections, and cell cultures go into –70°C freezer or liquid nitrogen. DNA and frozen bacteria will keep at –20°C. Overnight PCR reactions can be held at 10°C instead of 4°C.
7. Reduce Waste by Ignoring Best before Dates
Also, forget about the “best before” date in many reagents. Sterile media don’t become pumpkins overnight. Even biological reagents such as restriction enzymes don’t go off as fast as the manufacturers say: they err on the side of caution (and want to sell more reagents).
Modern molecular biology is a big consumer of the “virgin plastic” synthesized directly from oil. And the transport generates tons of plastic waste. How do we minimize this plastic waste?
8. Switch to Reusables
Single-use plastic can be replaced with reusable plastics or glass, such as glass pipettes for chemical reagents or glass tubes for membrane hybridization. You don’t need plastic bacterial loops to transfer microbe colonies from plate to plate—sterilized wooden toothpicks are much better. Table 1 highlights some of the common switches you can make.
Table 1. Reusable swaps for common single-use items
Pre-filled pipette boxes
Reuse boxes and refill manually
Plastic falcon tubes
Make your own
Plastic Petri dishes
Glass Petri dishes
Plastic weighing boats
Paper weighing boats
Making your own gels is another way to reduce virgin plastic waste from precast SDS-PAGE gels. Plus it is also an immediate saving of money, delivery carbon, and packaging.
9. Reuse ‘Single-Use’ Plastics
Did you know, that many ‘single use’ plastics can be reused? For example, plastic weighting boats you already have can be rinsed and reused if you use them for something simple as making buffers or microbiological media. Here’s some tips for pipette tips (bad pun intended) and microwell plates.
You can also reuse spin columns!
Cuvettes from non-staining samples are another obvious candidate, just give them a swirl in detergent, rinse in distilled water, and dry. Even cuvettes for electroporation can be reused, if cleaned properly.
Old tip boxes can be reused for more tips and for staining gels or blocking blots.
10. Reuse Reagents
Most primary antibodies can be diluted more and/or reused at least once (freeze milk + antibody mix after use).
SDS-PAGE running buffer can be reused up to 5 times without issue, as can Western blot transfer buffer.
11. Recycle packaging
The reagents usually come over-packaged, a little box inside a large box filled with plastic. Ensure that the packaging is recycled, starting from the cardboard boxes and ending with numerous wrappers.
If your institution doesn’t have a recycling scheme, prompt them to start one—this will help the environment and look good on your CV.
12. Recycle Old Lab Equipment
You can donate old equipment to schools and colleges. In the US, join “The Gumtree for scientists”—Rheaply.
Sustainable Research Summarized
There are plenty of ways you can be more sustainable in the lab, from reducing what you use to switching to reusables and more. You can also encourage others to be sustainable. Even an ivory tower will drown in the rising ocean. Check out our greener PCR article for advice on this common technique.
Join the Green Lab Movement.
Have any additional tips for sustainable research that we’ve missed? Leave us a comment below and help everyone be greener.
- Ligozat AL, Névéol A, Daly B, Frenoux E. (2020) Ten simple rules to make your research more sustainable. PLOS Computational Biology 16(9): e1008148.
- Borchardt JL. (2011) Use it or lose it. Lab Manager.
- Heda GD, Omotola OB, Heda RP, Avery J. (2016) Effects of Reusing Gel Electrophoresis and Electrotransfer Buffers on Western Blotting. J Biomol Tech. 27(3):113-118.