Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Eco-Friendly Research Labs

Image result for science lab
Environmental & Science Education
Reduce Reuse Recycle
Edward Hessler

The things I don't think about or notice that make us less eco-friendly to the planet as well as good neighbors are legion. Here is another: the contribution that scientific laboratories make to pollution, locally and globally. However, it is a place where individuals and institutions can make a difference.

Megan Thielking writing for STAT provides a glimpse. "Scientific labs produce a ton of waste: plastic pipette tips and plastic racks that hold them, plastic foam coolers that house chemicals and cells, surplus solvents that expire in storage. They also rack up big energy bills: special freezers keep experiments cold, high-tech vents keep air clean, and dedicated machines keep equipment sterile."

There aren't a lot of data yet but Thielking points out that a letter in Nature, researchers at the University of Exeter (UK) made this estimate: 280 bench scientists in only the bioscience department "generated 267 tons of plastic in 2014. Extrapolated to the world, a heroic calculation, this meant that these kinds of "labs produced as much as 5.5 million tons of plastic lab waste," the same year. 

Laboratories in some colleges and universities are becoming more mindful of their environmental footprint. One organization that provides green services, is My Green Lab, a "non-profit, which scores and certifies labs for their sustainability." This organization has made one of the green practices an international competition "aimed at implementing best practices in cold storage management." This can include a cycle of defrosting, storing only essential samples in suitable quantities and increasing storage temperatures.

Harvard University introduced another competition, a monthly "'Shut the Sash' fume hood competition that comes with a strong incentive: free pizza for one lab a month that met its fume hood energy use target." This has led to "saving between $200,000 and $250,000 a year on energy just by having more fume hoods shut when they don't need to be open." Nothing was said about carbon footprint of pizza and how the boxes were managed at the end, though.

One of those interviewed for Thielking's story was Jeffrey Whitford, head of global corporate responsibility, Millipore Sigma, who noted that "more than 40 percent of (their) customers list sustainability as a buying criteria." These conversations start, as you would guess, with packaging. "But," Whitford notes," the scope of sustainability efforts needs to be much broader--from the chemicals scientists use to how they can run their experiments differently."

Thielking describes other initiatives. I found her story a reminder that changes in little things practiced by many people can make a difference. They count.

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