Contributed by Steve Nelson, Associate Director Environmental Health & Safety & Kevin Ives, Communicator, both in Risk Management & Safety
Laboratories performing chemical and biological research and teaching provide a critical service to society. However, these benefits come at a disproportional environmental cost in the form of energy and resource consumption, as well as waste generation. When most people think of laboratory waste we picture waste chemicals and biological materials, as well as solid waste or trash. Granted the chemical and biological waste generated by laboratory operations make up a significant portion of the regulated waste generated by a research university, but chemical and biological waste is not the only form of waste.
Compared to office and classroom space, laboratories require up to 10 times the amount of energy to operate and use 4 times the amount of water. A single laboratory has the energy footprint of five single-family homes! With regard to energy, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and cooling) make up about 60% of the energy demand for laboratories. This is because air from a lab is not recirculated as in an office building. Rather 100 % of the air from a lab is exhausted to the outside with air exchange rates of 6 – 10 times per hour. Imagine trying to cool your home with all of the windows and doors open in the middle of summer.
But are labs inherently wasteful or are there opportunities for waste minimization, such as reducing the demand for energy and water or the volume of solid or hazardous waste generated? In order to minimize the environmental impacts of laboratory operations, we must reevaluate how we operate our labs. For example, why use ethidium bromide, a highly toxic mutagenic chemical, when nonhazardous substitutes are available? Is there a reason that a heated water bath needs to run all night just so that it is hot when you arrive in the morning? Would you leave your oven running all day so that it is pre-heated for dinner when you get home?
Since the early 2000s many colleges and universities have introduced Green Labs programs to improve efficiency, protect human health, and reduce the environmental footprint of their laboratory facilities. Each school’s program is unique to the institution but all share some common themes and initiatives. These programs address four key areas of laboratory operations relative to environmental impacts: Chemical Use, Waste Generation, Water Consumption, and Energy Consumption.
With regard to waste generation, Green Labs addresses the three areas of waste minimization: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Many programs include opportunities for recycling of laboratory plastics and other materials, which can significantly reduce the volume of solid waste generated. Worldwide, labs generate about 12 billion pounds of plastics each year. Some materials such as Styrofoam coolers present a challenge, as there have been very few options for recycling. However, the options for recycling and reuse are growing. For example, used Styrofoam from the University of Alabama at Birmingham labs is sent to a facility, which melts and molds them into polystyrene products. Other options include reusing the coolers as packaging for other shipments or returning them to the supplier. Additional opportunities for recycling include latex and nitrile gloves, electronic waste, and even some solvents.
Implementing Green Chemistry practices presents opportunities for reducing hazards in the lab as well as making laboratory practices more sustainable. The principles of of Green Chemistry include reducing the hazards of chemical syntheses and designing safer chemicals as well as reducing resource consumption. For example, if we design our chemical syntheses using nonhazardous or less hazardous materials we make our labs safer and reduce the toxicity of the waste generated. MIT’s Green Chemistry Wizard provides a useful tool for identifying less hazardous or non-hazardous chemical substitutes.
An area, which has been relatively untapped but has huge potential, is the sharing of research space and equipment. Redistribution of unwanted glassware and plasticware to other labs in the institution or the local education authorities is an example. The University of Georgia collaborates with their Local Educational Agency to distribute unwanted lab glassware and other equipment to local school science programs. Some schools such as the University of Colorado Boulder allow researchers to rent space in an ultralow temperature freezer for sample storage. This allows a lab, which has limited needs for storage, to avoid the cost of purchasing one of these freezers and saves the institution on energy demands.
Many Green Labs programs target lab hoods and ultralow temperature freezers (AKA -80 Freezer). These two items typically represent the largest energy loads in a lab and present the greatest opportunity for reducing energy demand. For the past several years, the International Institute of Sustainable Labs (I2SL) and the My Green Lab organization have sponsored the “International Freezer Challenge”. Participants in the challenge reduced their energy consumption by over 6 million kWh or enough energy to power about 850 homes. The CDC in Atlanta achieved energy reduction of more than 320,000 kWh annually through clearing old samples, which allowed removal of 44 freezers; adjusting temperature set points on 60 freezers from -80 to -70; and defrosting/cleaning of 100 freezers. The CDC estimates cost savings from this program of more than $127,000 annually. In addition, “Shut the Sash” initiatives designed to reduce energy wasted through hoods being left open when not in use have been very successful for cutting energy demands. Leaving the sash open on a single fume hood for a day can waste as much energy as three single-family homes. In addition, replacing old equipment with modern energy efficient models can also cut waste and save energy. For example, replacing an old-style, -80 freezer with an Energy Star model can save 20 kWh per day or about the equivalent of a single-family home.
Cumulatively these types of changes can have substantial benefits in the form of reduced energy consumption and the associated emission of greenhouse gases, as well as cost savings. A pilot study at Harvard University found that shutting hood sashes in the 278 hoods operated by the Chemistry & Chemical Biology Department saved as much as $250,000 a year and prevented emissions of 350 tons of greenhouse gases. Going further, some schools have begun focusing on fine-tuning their laboratory buildings to optimize efficiency and reduce energy use. The University of California Irvine is an example of what can be accomplished with this Smart Labs approach. While most facilities have plateaued at 20 – 25% energy savings, UC Irvine is achieving 50% reductions in energy consumption in their lab buildings!
Recently, Auburn University formed a Green Labs working group to explore the potential for implementing a Green Labs program. The working group includes representatives from the Office of Sustainability, Facilities Management, Risk Management and Safety, and the Office of the Vice President of Research. If you are interested in participating in the Green Labs program or just want additional information, please feel free to email Steve Nelson in Risk Management and Safety or visit Auburn’s Green Labs webpage.
Green Lab Resources