3 Reasons to Implement a Lab Sustainability Program

Sustainability has been a topic of increasing interest in recent years, with regulatory bodies and consumers alike demanding rapid prioritization and implementation of sustainable workplace practices. This is true of all industries, but a particular emphasis is placed on life sciences, higher education, and healthcare given their historically high use of chemicals, plastics, and other single-use materials.

Labs across the nation use a staggering amount of various resources—power, water, chemicals, and more—for efficient and effective research and production. The integrity and sterility these spaces demand mean that lab workers often stick to those processes proven to work, even if that means sacrificing sustainability.

Lab Work Is Demanding

Researchers innovate and make strides in key scientific areas, including within healthcare as well as life and physical sciences. In all such forms, lab workers save lives, support the research and development of new diagnostic procedures, analyze healthcare and environmental samples, and create new compounds and materials that continue to revolutionize our world. Lab staff are often aware of their responsibility to uphold the high laboratory standards that protect global human, animal, and environmental health.

The very nature of experimentation, however, is challenging and all-encompassing for researchers and lab staff. They are often very busy, or intensely focused on their work—meaning environmental sustainability typically takes a backseat.

Given the nature of research, lab experiments can frequently be very long—at times lasting weeks, months, or even years. Or large sample sizes may be required to be processed rapidly—staff at clinical labs may analyze thousands of samples a day. At one point, for example, Penn Medicine reported analysis of 12,000 to 15,000 samples each day! Often, those performing crucial lab tasks are simply too busy to also engage in the complex and time-consuming work of implementing sustainability best practices.

Naturally, lab staff members worry that they will be unable to prioritize their life-changing, vital research while simultaneously concerning themselves with the broad and overwhelming challenge of implementing sustainability best practices. Not to mention that lab sustainability is a team effort—and colleagues may be slow to change what has worked for them for many years.

Labs Are Resource-Intensive

On top of this, labs are extremely resource-intensive. This amplifies the need for sustainability program implementation, as the whole goal of operational sustainability is to reduce resource dependence and/or find new alternatives for necessary resources that have a lesser environmental impact.

Which can be challenging in a field that requires so many, sometimes single-use, resources to operate. Healthcare lab work saves lives, for example, but relies on single-use plastics to ensure sample sterility and integrity. At Harvard University, labs were found to account for about 44% of the University’s total energy use while making up only 20% of the space.

In the same sense, all laboratories generate waste and consume abundant amounts of energy to ensure equipment is constantly ready for use at a moment’s notice. According to My Green Lab, a non-profit committed to increasing lab sustainability, labs consume 5-10 times more energy than office spaces and generate 12 billion pounds of plastic waste every year.

Especially in fields that require precision, lessening the burden of resource-intensive processes can be extremely daunting. Coupled with busy researchers, this could mean that sustainability program implementation is never prioritized in any meaningful way.

Lab Sustainability Benefits

That’s not to say that lab workers are unaware of the importance and need for further adoption of sustainable practices, however—it’s just that it can often be particularly difficult to balance sustainability and high-quality research. There are widespread benefits to green and sustainability lab practices, though—such as increased safety, improved brand image, streamlined procurement and operations, cost savings, and sustainability goal achievement, among others—so it’s beneficial to implement these practices for long-term success.

The reasons for this are many and powerful. Many governing bodies are pushing strongly for operational sustainability program implementation, enforced with fines for noncompliance. To remain compliant and avoid these fines, lab managers must consider the role of sustainability within their worksites and put a plan in place to prioritize it.

If compliance isn’t enough of a motivator, studies have shown that sustainability programs can help reduce operational costs and save money in the long run—the less energy and water are used, the less your facility will spend on these costs; the less waste is generated, the less waste will need to be paid to be disposed of. In fact, labs at Agilent Technologies, a leader in the life sciences industry, found cost savings and sustainability goal achievement from improvements to informed procurement. The American Chemical Society (ACS) suggests that better procurement and upstream sustainable waste disposal strategies could result in cost savings as well.

Indeed, labs that don’t explore sustainability within their operations miss out on the abundant benefits.  

3 Major Lab Sustainability Benefits

While it is true that there are challenges to lab sustainability implementation, there are also many benefits. In addition to the benefits outlined above, lab sustainability program implementation can achieve:

One: Resource and Cost Savings

More sustainable practices can result in resource savings as well as decrease related spend. Some of the resources that can be saved with an efficient sustainability program include:

  • Energy: Labs require near constant energy use, as machines are almost always on and ready for use at a moment’s notice. This energy typically comes from burning fossil fuels, which in turn pollutes the air, causing health hazards to humans, animals, and global ecosystems.
  • Water: Labs cycle through vast amounts of water, particularly in single-pass cooling systems which alone use around 13,000 gallons of water a year or autoclaves that can use up to 90 gallons of water per cycle. Pumping this water into the lab requires energy to retrieve and reduces the planet’s natural supply of fresh water.
  • Waste: Labs produce a lot of waste—academic research labs are thought to generate some 5 million tons of waste yearly. Generated waste can be cardboard from shipping materials, expired or spent chemicals, or even plastics. Plastic waste is a prominent pollutant that can emit harmful gases if sent to the landfill. The chemicals that lab staff use daily can be detrimental to the planet when improperly used or disposed of. 
  • Excess spend: The more energy and water used in a lab, the more is spent on these resources and the less waste is generated. Consuming more resources than are needed—and paying for the disposal of excess waste—means that organizations lose money. Implementing a lab sustainability program can reduce operational spend, saving money in the long run.

Two: Increased Trust and Sustainability Mindset

Recent chemical spills, such as the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, have eroded public trust for organizations that handle hazardous materials. The public needs to trust that your facility will operate safely and effectively to prevent events that can harm the environment or human wellbeing. Labs can earn trust and goodwill by implementing a sustainability program, proving to the community that environmental and social health is top of mind.

This is one of the more meaningful benefits to sustainability program creation—changing employee and community mindset when it comes to environmental protection. Enacting plans to reduce the generation of hazardous waste, lower the carbon footprint of a lab's day-to-day operations, and decrease the consumption of water and energy can facilitate a more positive relationship between a lab and the people who live near it.

Three: Improved Collaboration

Sustainability program implementation requires cooperation and coordination throughout an organization. Success requires sharing opinions, being open to energy- and waste-trimming ideas, and allowing give and take. Collaboration is needed among various stakeholders to create solutions to sustainability problems, a sentiment that is echoed from the long-standing scientific tradition of peer support and review.

Going through this process will enable greater communication with peers both in-house and at other academic, clinical, and research institutions—promoting greater scientific research capabilities. The result is an organization and operation that is eco-friendly while simultaneously being more sufficient, cost-effective, productive, and more capable of adaptation.

Meeting Lab Sustainability Challenges

The challenge of lab sustainability is here to stay—but it’s becoming more and more within reach. Balancing high-quality work with sustainability practices demands innovative and creative solutions as well as new procedures and programs. It will require exploration of new processes, technologies, methods, and ideas while using materials that are healthier for you, your surrounding community at large, and the planet.

Commitment to sustainability program implementation will result in a gradual shift toward a culture of sustainability, of collaboration, and of savings that will help strengthen the program—as well as the lab and greater community—overall. 

My Green Lab is committed to helping labs across the world obtain these benefits. They can certify your lab, giving you the peace of mind of knowing you are cashing in on the benefits described above and being as sustainable as possible given your specific circumstances. Interested in the ways that Triumvirate Environmental can help you work through the My Green Lab certification process? Contact us today 

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