Is it possible for clinical labs to reduce the environmental impact of their work?

It might be difficult to believe that clinical labs can achieve sustainable operations, given their high throughput and need for sterility. But in fact, much can be done to limit labs’ environmental impact. Clinical laboratories use 10 times more energy than offices, more than four times more water, and generate billions of pounds of waste every year, nearly all of it considered hazardous. Through simple, easy changes, lab staff can make reductions in each of these four key areas—energy, water, waste, and hazardous chemicals—that will result in a safe, more sustainable lab.

How can labs reduce energy consumption?

Turning off equipment when it is not in use is one of the easiest and most obvious ways to save energy. If equipment has a warm-up time or a set temperature, simply put it on an outlet timer to ensure that it is ready when lab operations begin. Labs should also consider purchasing freezers that have earned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star certification. A transformation in cold storage has occurred over the past few years, with energy-efficient ultra-low temperature freezers and -20°C freezers now available. These freezers often consume 50-60% less energy than standard freezer models.

How can labs reduce water consumption?

Most lab faucets run at 4 gallons/minute even though most standard faucets are equipped with low-flow aerators, inexpensive devices that restrict the flow of water to 1.5 gallons/minute or less. By simply installing low-flow aerators, labs can save thousands of gallons per year. Labs can also limit water consumption by running dishwashers and sterilizers at full capacity.

How can labs reduce waste generation?

Reducing the amount of waste coming into a lab by consolidating purchases and choosing products with reduced packaging is a great place to start. Labs should reuse as many items as possible, using glassware instead of disposable plasticware whenever feasible.

Recycling nonhazardous waste is also becoming an option for labs. Many waste haulers are starting to accept non-hazardous plastic waste from labs, including pipette tip boxes, and several vendors offer recycling programs for their products. These include:

  • Corning – all product packaging
  • Kimberly-Clark – garments and nonhazardous gloves
  • MilliporeSigma – polystyrene coolers and MilliQ water filters
  • New England Biolabs – polystyrene coolers

Hazardous waste may be recycled in some states as well. For example, Triumvirate Environmental, based in Massachusetts, has the ability to recycle any hazardous waste from laboratories, including bio-hazardous waste.

How can labs reduce hazardous chemical use?

There are many resources available to help clinical labs choose safer, more sustainable alternatives to hazardous chemicals. The MIT Green Chemistry Wizard, My Green Lab’s “Guide to Green Chemistry Experiments for Undergraduate Organic Laboratories,” and the Green Chemistry section of MilliporeSigma’s website all offer suggestions for safer chemical substitutions. In addition to using less hazardous chemicals whenever possible, labs should eliminate the use of mercury in both thermometers and fluorescence microscope bulbs.

By being mindful of the environmental impact of everyday actions in a lab, and by taking these simple, easy steps to minimize energy, water, and hazardous chemical use, as well as waste generation a clinical lab can be transformed into a safe, sustainable space.

Allison Paradise is the CEO of the non-profit organization My Green Lab in Los Gatos, California, which is dedicated to building a culture of sustainability in laboratories through science. +E-mail: allison@mygreenlab.org