How To Reopen Your Lab With Sustainability In Mind

If you’re preparing to return to the lab for the first time in months, there’s never been a better time to make your lab more sustainable.

Earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced thousands of labs to temporarily shut down. As restrictions are lifted in many areas, scientists are slowly resuming research. However, reopening a lab after months of closure will require a lot of cleaning and organizing, much like a fresh start. This presents a valuable opportunity to evaluate your lab’s practices and identify ways that you can reduce your environmental impact.

Make a comprehensive inventory of lab materials.

Before you can jump back into experiments, you will need to make sure you have all the necessary materials. Depending on how long your lab was closed, a lot of reagents might have expired. You’ll need to look through all the random bottles you’ve accumulated and dispose of any that are no longer usable. Remember to follow all guidelines issued by state, local, or institutional regulatory groups for disposing potentially hazardous materials. When in doubt, check in with the safety office at your university.

This is a perfect opportunity to create an inventory of all the materials in your lab. There are probably chemicals or reagents that you forgot about or haven’t used in years. Rachael Relph, Chief Sustainability Officer of My Green Lab, recommends creating an inventory of all materials in your lab and organizing the information in a spreadsheet. This will help you keep track of expiration dates, prevent duplicate purchases and monitor how quickly you’re using things up.

“One of the most common reasons we’ve found that people are discarding materials is simply because they bought too much,” Rachael says. “If you’re discarding things, take a second to note how much you’re throwing away. Then see if you can plan better next time by ordering smaller quantities or sharing with other labs.”

Optimize purchasing and ordering.

While many suppliers have implemented their own programs to reduce the waste generated by things like kit boxes, packaging and shipping are two of the largest sources of waste and carbon emissions for most labs. One easy way to reduce your footprint is to consolidate orders so that multiple products can be boxed and delivered together. Try to plan ahead and alert other people in your lab when you’ll be ordering from a specific supplier. Rachael suggests designating a spot in the lab where everyone can write down what they need and place orders weekly or monthly, depending on the urgency.

If you can’t wait for a specific product, Helix On-Site Stocking by Promega might have what you need. Helix units are customized to stock the products you use most often, with free shipping and automatic billing. The Helix program produces net-zero emissions through consolidated shipments, reduced packaging and carbon offsets.

In addition to minimizing packaging and shipping waste, Rachael suggests investigating whether there are more sustainable options for some of the materials you use every day. For example, is it necessary to stock sterile single-use plastic materials, or would a clean (not sterile) reusable alternative be sufficient? Is it necessary to order sealed boxes of pipette tips, or can you refill the ones you already have? Many suppliers and sales reps are willing to help you find environmentally friendly alternatives for the products you order regularly, and My Green Lab has resources available to help you identify more sustainable options.

Evaluate all equipment and machinery.

It takes a lot of equipment to keep a lab running, and a lot of energy to keep the equipment turned on. The end of a long break away from the lab is the perfect time to perform routine maintenance and implement systems to reduce the amount of energy wasted by some of this equipment. Start by defrosting your cold storage units. Freezers, especially those set to -80°C, accumulate thick layers of frost over time. This can block filters and coils if not regularly cleaned out, as well as take up valuable space that could be used for samples. While you’re defrosting, take the opportunity to go through old samples and dispose of any that are no longer needed. Try to condense materials and unplug any units that are not in use.

Next, survey all of the equipment currently plugged in or turned on. How much of that equipment is constantly in use? Is there anything that can be turned off? Rachael recommends labeling instruments according to when they can be turned off or unplugged, such as “When Not In Use,” “Overnight,” “Weekends and Holidays” or “Never.” She also suggests purchasing outlet timers to schedule when equipment is turned on and off. For example, your heat block can probably be turned off at the end of the work day, but it needs to be turned on again by 7:00am to make sure it’s warm by the time you start experiments. A simple outlet timer can simplify that routine by maintaining the schedule automatically.

Build safe and environmentally friendly cleaning protocols.

While many scientists are returning to the lab, it’s still important to implement measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Follow all guidelines issued by your institution and consider how you can plan experiments to reduce the number of people in the lab at a time.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency maintains a list of disinfectants that have been shown to eliminate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. However, the Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at University of Massachusetts Lowell points out that many common chemicals used for cleaning and disinfecting can present health or environmental hazards. TURI has published guidelines for comparing active ingredients and selecting safer disinfectants. Jason Marshall, TURI Lab Director, says that all of his facilities use hypochlorous acid to clean and disinfect surfaces. Hypochlorous acid is generated by an electrolyzed water system and poses little environmental or health risk.

“We’ve also found that we might not have to clean and disinfect as often as we originally thought,” Jason says. “If no one comes into a room for several days, there’s no reason to waste chemistry disinfecting the entire room. All evidence we’ve seen suggests that any virus particles that may have been on a surface in that room are no longer active.”

Alicia McCarthy, TURI Cleaning Laboratory Specialist, says it’s important to remember that cleaning and disinfecting should be two distinct steps. Without cleaning first, you may just be layering disinfectant on top of dirt that is harboring virus particles. If you’re using a dual cleaner-disinfectant, you should use it twice. The first use will clear dirt and other contaminants, and the second will more effectively disinfect the surface.

Even the most intense safety regimens can be made more environmentally friendly. Alicia says their labs are fortunate to have on-site laundry equipment, so they’ve replaced paper towels with reusable microfiber cloths. The team is also minimizing waste by rotating personnel and reusing the surgical masks everyone wears while in the lab.

“One group comes in Monday through Wednesday, and the other group comes Wednesday through Friday,” Alicia says. “Everyone gets paper bags labeled by day and one mask per day of the week. At the end of the day, you put our mask in the bag and don’t open it again until that same day the following week. For example, you may have a ‘Monday’ mask that you only wear on Mondays, and the virus dies in between. This generates less waste while still keeping everyone safe.”

Conclusions

Health and safety should be the top priority of every scientist preparing to reopen a lab. However, reopening after a long break allows you to look at your sustainability practices with fresh eyes. There are easy ways to reduce your environmental impact while preparing to resume experiments. For more resources on sustainable lab practices, check out My Green Lab or the Toxic Use Reduction Institute.


Looking for more information about lab sustainability?


Promega is proud to support My Green Lab, an organization dedicated to making scientific research more sustainable. Learn more about our partnership here.


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After a detour through a Northwestern University cell bio lab and a degree in Biology/Neuroscience, Jordan found his passion in science writing. Primary interests include immunotherapy, circadian rhythms and developmental neuro. Fun fact: Jordan ran a satire newspaper for several years in college, though these days he mostly tells the truth in his writing. When he's not typing away, Jordan enjoys pottery and outdoor cooking. "If I say to you, 'Don't think about elephants,' what do you think about?" --Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Inception

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