Scientists studying climate change have been calling for meaningful action for decades. Political and social inaction has spurred youth climate activists all over the world. “Our house is still on fire,” Greta Thunberg told the World Economic Forum at Davos just a few months ago. We’ve seen it in the Amazon, we’ve seen it in Australia, California, Flint and closer to home, in our own Prairies and lakes. As members of the scientific community, we have to lead by example, and that requires re-assessing our everyday laboratory practices.
Most laboratories on North American university campuses encompass about 20% of overall space but account for nearly 50-66% of the energy consumption. The main areas of focus for increased sustainability are energy and water, waste management and greenhouse gas emissions. The pieces of equipment that tend to use the most energy are ones with which we come into contact daily: our -80°C freezers and fume hoods. To put things into perspective, one fume hood uses the equivalent of the energy consumed by three residential houses in just one year; this is about 18,000 kWh. One way to reduce this burden a bit is simply by lowering the sashes of the hoods when not in use. It is estimated that lowering the sash from 18’’ to 6’’ can save upwards of CA$250,000 a year; the savings in energy are equivalent to greenhouse gas emission from 793 cars or CO2 emissions of 555 U.S. homes!
The -80°C freezer annual energy consumption can be compared to that of an ordinary American home. While regular de-icing and maintenance are important, labs have begun to consider whether these freezers need to be set at -80°C in the first place. Many have found that a temperature setting of -70°C is sufficient and can save up to CA$60,000. The energy saved by this 10-degree difference is equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions by 12 cars or the CO2 emissions from about 8 U.S. homes on average! These measures are especially important to consider as freezers not only consume a lot of energy but produce a significant amount of heat and gas emissions as well. Thus, any positive changes we make will have significant benefits.
Another item we use a lot in our labs is plastic: petri dishes, ELISA plates, Falcon tubes, Eppendorf tubes, pipette tips and gloves, to name a few. To get just a snapshot of this, I asked a few of my colleagues to keep a tally of some of the items they used in the lab over two weeks. Collectively, 17 pipette boxes, 86 pairs of latex gloves, 267 plastic tubes, 34 bottles/culture flasks, 24 sharps/syringes and 21 ELISA plates were used. Not only is that an underestimation of the actual numbers, we can only extrapolate what those numbers might look like for the entire Department.
One way to mitigate the plastic consumption is to use glass equipment. However, reusable items need to be autoclaved. A regular autoclave can use up to 50 gallons of water per minute! Some require additional water as a cooling system as well. It’s not hard to imagine then, that most labs use 10X more energy than offices, 4X more water than offices and may produce up to 5.5 metric tonnes in plastic waste over a year.
Some companies have recognized the need to generate more sustainable practices and have begun to make some degree of progress towards achieving that. Fisher Scientific has an additional filter for customers looking to purchase more environmentally friendly products, such as recyclable plastics or more energy-efficient equipment, and has increased its use of sustainable packaging. The non-profit MyGreenLab works with laboratories from all over the world and makes recommendations for maintaining productivity while reducing waste. MilliporeSigma allows customers to return items like chemical containers and plastic foam coolers, managing to recycle more than 3,300 tonnes of single-use plastic since 2015.
The community is making slow but steady strides towards creating a more ubiquitous and pervasive culture that focuses on sustainability. It starts from us, working together and being mindful of the waste we produce, to tackling the issue systematically by creating new technologies and developing cleaner chemicals. As members of the scientific community, we know the significance of the data all too well and should do our part to mitigate our contribution to climate change.