Environmental sustainability is high on the agenda for governments worldwide, with private companies, public bodies and academic centers all playing a part in reducing the burden on the world around us. Unfortunately, laboratory research is particularly resource-intensive, consuming energy and water at greater levels than other sectors and producing vast quantities of plastic waste – a staggering 5 million tons every year.
MyGreenLab, a non-profit organization devoted to creating a culture of sustainability in science, notes that this volume of plastic waste could cover an area 23x the size of Manhattan. These are striking figures, and with limited options for recycling the plastic products generated by laboratories, the situation is of deep concern. Against the backdrop of rising research demand in high-growth areas such as genomics, it's an opportune moment for laboratories to explore how to use resources better and reduce this environmental burden.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
– Margaret Mead
The advice from sustainable laboratory initiatives like MyGreenLab concerning waste is to follow the three 'Rs', reduce, reuse, and recycle and explore how each method could be adopted within the specific setting. Getting the basics right also matters – for example, the good practice of inventory management is essential for controlling costs and also supports oversight over sustainability practices. Making sustainability a factor in procurement strategy is another tactic many laboratories are now employing – since consolidating orders can significantly reduce waste.
It’s well known that consumables including tips, reagents and reaction tubes are the primary source of plastic waste from the laboratory, often resulting in numerous sacks per day from a single facility.
'Green' options for disposal of these items are limited due to contamination, but not all waste is hazardous so laboratories may work proactively with waste management providers to identify any opportunities for recycling. Yet, with consumables, perhaps the most powerful tactic laboratories can employ is to eliminate waste before it occurs by reducing use. There are already options available that already contribute to this effort, including liquid handling solutions that mitigate waste of tip and reagent resources.
For example, SPT Labtech’s dragonfly uses non-contact reagent dispensing, allowing a single tip to be used for multiple plate runs, dramatically reducing the number of tips required. Miniaturization, where we scale down the volume of a reaction mixture or assay, is another opportunity for environmental improvement by reducing waste of both reagent and sample. SPT Labtech’s mosquito and dragonfly instruments support these increasingly adopted miniaturized workflows.
Indirectly, by reducing time at the bench for individual researchers, automated solutions can also lessen the use of other single-use plastics like gloves.
Beyond this, innovative solutions such as automated washers that sanitize tips for reuse, and microplate washing technologies are now entering the field, and we will watch with interest to see how these approaches develop.
At a higher level, it’s also crucial to think carefully about what technologies we choose in the laboratory to ensure that the scientific output justifies the environmental footprint. For example, investing in an instrument that is too complex for use by many of the research team is a questionable use of resources and does not reflect sustainable practice.
There is a great deal to explore and address in the journey towards greener research practices, yet the positive outcomes of embracing sustainability are multi-fold. Laboratories investing in sustainable approaches stand to benefit from stronger community spirit and motivation as well as derive cost efficiencies. A sustainability focus can also help inspire better science by encouraging us to think creatively, streamline processes and "do more with less", generating a more significant scientific return on our investment, while protecting our world for the next generation of scientists.