A Concrete Guide To Greener Laboratories For Beginners

How do you feel when I tell you that by following these 5 simple steps you already walked half the way to a green laboratory.

However, making our research more sustainable requires a commitment.

It requires one to make the decision to take the first step. Often, the energy for such change comes from a personal insight. For me, it struck during the research for my bachelor thesis. One day I suddenly realized the stark contrast between my efforts to be eco-conscious at home and my actions within the laboratory. Without even noticing, when entering the laboratory, I became intimidated by my protocols and the need for sterility. My natural tendency for being sustainable and as efficient as possible completely got lost. At least until I actively decided to take the first step into the right direction.

Now, quite a few years later, I was able to reduce the waste in some of my experiments that take place in sterile environments by about 65%. Furthermore, I am part of an international initiative that shares our insights and experiences with scientists all over the world!

My peers were sparked by various other experiences. Some by another person sharing their experience, others by a compelling Youtube video… Surprisingly, it most often is a trivial cause. Yet a pivotal moment because it goes along with the awakening to the importance of sustainability.

After deciding to make a change, where shall one start?

Here are 5 tips to implement sustainable practices without much experience, without needing much time and without compromising anything we do in the laboratory (not even our funds):

1. Do what is green but does not affect your research itself

When starting out you do not need to “edit” your protocols themselves. Start with the simple yet impactful actions that govern how you use items.

Simple changes, like opting for smaller consumables such as 15mL tubes over 50mL ones, can halve waste output.

Reusing items like Falcon tubes and pipette tips, especially for non-contaminating solutions, reduces single-use plastics as well. For example, when preparing your SDS-PAGE gel, set up dedicated stocks only for gels and then use the same serological pipette for water, Tris and Acrylamide. Also, reuse the tubes to refill your stocks.

Switching from plastic to glass or metal it is topic of much discussion. Nevertheless, no need (or possibility) for completely banning plastics. Identify the steps where it is not a big deal to use glass/metal. For example, instead of using serological pipettes use measuring cylinders. The same counts for weighing boards and inoculation loops. Thinking about where you can make these switches, will also help you to see where you might be able to reuse your plastic articles in case glass/metal is not available.

2. Find out where precision is not paramount

Do not overcomplicate it. One of my teachers once told me: “to become a good researcher you got to know where you need to be precise and where not … otherwise you will never finish a day in time.” By the same token, we can be more sustainable: pouring instead of pipetting solutions where precise volumes do not matter (e.g., wash buffers when preparing your samples for microscopy) minimizes unnecessary plastic usage.

Explore opportunities for reusing components within experimental kits, like DNA isolation columns, for which you can reuse the collection tubes. Some suppliers already offer to ship just the columns for a lower price.

Do I need to mention mindful glove usage by wearing them multiple times, when uncontaminated.

3. Adhere to best practices although it is hard

Though we are often tempted to give in when under stress, adhering to best practices will serve environmental and scientific benefits.

Concretely, that can mean to do test runs before launching the main analysis. Let us say you want to scan a large area with your super new and all fancy microscope. It takes 2 more minutes indeed to double check settings and do a small area test run but it will save you a lot of time, bleached sample and electricity when you do not need to realize after 5 hours that you forgot to turn down the gain. Even worse, under stress we tend to do mistakes which in case of lasers in a microscope or samples getting stuck in a flow cytometer can mean repairing services worth thousands of dollars and weeks of downtime.

Something less dramatic might be to precisely calculate and bulk-preparing reagents, thereby conserving materials but also time.

Furthermore, optimizing pipetting sequences and implementing master-mix preparations streamline experimental workflows, benefiting both research efficiency and sustainability.

Finally,, regeneration of nucleic acid extraction columns is often possible and is a great example for how underfunded laboratories are often automatically more sustainable.

4. Optimize where nobody else is:

Rethinking conventional practices will identify opportunities for higher experimental efficiency and therefore more sustainable practice. Think about equipment settings, like increasing PCR-cycler holding temperatures. In case you want (or need) to keep them at 4 degree, try to avoid running them overnight.

When working with HPLCs, become aware of alternative eluents to ACN such as EtOH or even water. Although they might not work for all experiments, in some cases they can increase performance and reduce running times while being less environmentally hazardous.

When doing Flow Cytometry, try to only prepare as much cell suspension as you need. Every mL that you produce will be autoclaved and end up on a landfill or be burned. Also, try to be diligent with your fluorophore reference controls. Robust and valid data is the most sustainable data because you do not need to repeat experiments unnecessarily often.

5. Look beyond the fancy practices:

Rarely noticed yet impactful – simple actions like closing the sash of fume hoods and sterile work benches can save a lot of energy. Yes, you might come back in the afternoon, but the 2 minutes shutting the sash can save electricity worth thousands of dollars (see this publication or examples of the Western Washington University or Washington university of St. Loius)

You might have heard about changing your freezer temperatures from -80 to -70 to reduce energy consumption by about one third… Although some colleagues might be sceptic, start with a single freezer to show everyone that it is not impairing your samples. In fact, a few years ago -70 was the standard temperature – but then someone needed new selling arguments (?). Furthermore, employ covers for water baths reduce energy consumption.

Finally, when you have some recycling bins in your lab, make sure to throw items like caps of tubes that you never use or items that merely touched water or Tris-buffer into those instead of the nearby biohazardous waste.

Of course, if you like to learn some more advanced feel free to follow us and come to our events. Nevertheless, by integrating these simple sustainable practices into our scientific endeavors, we not only contribute to environmental preservation but also enhance the efficiency and integrity of our research.

We discussed in our educational lesson lately how to identify opportunities (if you want to see itif you want to join). However, in essence, it is really simple.

It is all about you having an open mind when doing your research. This is all it needs to be more sustainable!

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