While research labs generate data that can have life-changing effects in many fields, they also have a significant environmental footprint, producing enough waste to cover an area the size of Manhattan ankle-deep1 and consuming 5-10 times more energy than a standard office2,3. Putting this into perspective, a single lab of 40 people can use the same amount of energy as 85 four-person households.

We were shocked by how much energy our lab used!

A group of PhD students and postdocs from the Leibniz Research Institute for Molecular Pharmacology (FMP) in Berlin, Germany, founded the FMP Green Initiative to reduce the environmental impact of their lab. We spoke to two of its members, Dorien Roosen and Agata Witkowska, to see how they inspired change to make their lab greener.

“The FMP Green Initiative started during a lab retreat,” Dorien began. “A small group of us joined forces to look at different aspects of energy consumption and waste disposal around the lab. We were shocked by how much energy our lab used!”

Therefore, to make their lab greener, they looked at these two significant factors – energy consumption and waste.

Green lab tip 1: how to reduce energy consumption

Although these are trivial changes, they can help save up to 50% of energy use

There were three main contributors to their lab’s energy consumption: fume and laminar flow hoods, -80°C freezers, and the ~100 pieces of small equipment (eg PCR machines) dotted around the lab.

Amount of energy used by a lab
Amount of energy consumed by a flume or laminar flow hood (3.5 households), -80°C freezer (1 household), and 100 pieces of small lab equipment (5 households).

Using information from websites such as the non-profit organization My Green Lab, they investigated how to reduce energy consumption in these places.

“We shut the sashes of fume hoods when they are not in use, particularly in the evenings and overnight. Also, as 30 minutes of UV is sufficient to sterilize a hood, we set timers to ensure the UV is not left running. Although these are trivial changes, they can help save up to 50% of energy use,” Dorien explained.

Turning off lab equipment, computers, and lights also helped save up to 30% of energy, and, to prevent people from turning off equipment that is in use, lab members place tape labeled with their name on the equipment they are using.

While we are all used to the concept of –80°C freezers, the thought of leaving freezers at -70°C might feel uncomfortable. However, many samples and reagents can be stored at -70°C without impacting viability4.

“There are public databases and research articles available that detail what samples have been successfully stored at -70°C long-term. To ensure everybody was comfortable with the change, we asked lab members individually what samples they would be willing to move to -70°C, ” said Dorien. “We also created an inventory of consumables to minimize freezer opening times. If an item is ordered, it’s added to the spreadsheet and placed in a numbered box in the freezer. It was a time investment up-front, but it is easy to maintain.”

They also incorporated de-dusting of freezer coils into the annual cleaning routine. These small changes to their freezer routine alone helped save up to 40% of energy!

Amount of energy saved by making a lab greener
Making these small changes to their lab reduced their overall energy consumption by over 40%!

Summary of how to reduce energy use in your lab

  • Shut sashes of flow hoods when not in use
  • Set timers to ensure UV is not left running
  • Turn off lab equipment, computers and lights when they are not in use
  • Change -80°C freezers to -70°C
  • De-dust freezer coils
  • Create an inventory of samples to reduce freezer opening times

Green lab tip 2: how to reduce lab waste

A pair of gloves can be used from a couple of days to a week as long as they aren’t contaminated.

In addition to reducing energy consumption, the FMP Green Initiative considered the four R’s (Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, Re-educate) to help minimize waste. Interestingly, maintaining a common database for consumables doesn’t just help organize freezer space; it also helps reduce waste.

“It’s better to buy 1 x 5g instead of 5 x 1g of a product,” Dorien said as an example.

Another way they are reducing waste is by moving away from single-use plastics and replacing them with metal or glass apparatus. Not only does this minimize physical waste, but it also has an indirect impact on energy, saving on the energy cost of production and transportation. Where alternatives to plastic aren’t possible, for example, Falcon tubes, they collect the tubes and clean them thoroughly for re-use. As they use 100-200 falcons in a week, this has made quite a big difference!

While gloves are inherent to lab work, one lab can generate 90 kg of gloves in one year – that’s approximately the same weight as an adult male leopard! To reduce the number of gloves going to landfills, the FMP Green Initiative investigated how to re-use them.

“We have a hook system in the lab where you put your name on a piece of tape and then clip your gloves beneath it,” Agata explained. “A pair of gloves can be used from a couple of days to a week as long as they aren’t contaminated.”

Avoiding cross-contamination is critical, and they used a combination of in-house tests and online resources to determine safe situations for glove and falcon tube re-use to avoid negatively impacting the science.

For items that can’t be re-used, they participate in recycling schemes wherever possible. Multiple companies offer take-back schemes for items such as tip boxes, packaging, and media bottles, including Abcam.

“We installed a waste separation system for non-contaminated plastics, paper, and gloves. For the gloves, some companies are able to process the gloves into plastic pellets that can be used to make other items such as garden furniture,” Dorien elaborated.

Summary of how to reduce waste in your lab

  • Maintain a common database for consumables
  • Use metal of glass apparatus to reduce the use of single-use plastics
  • Collect, wash, and re-use non-contaminated falcon tubes
  • Re-use non-contaminated gloves
  • Recycle and use take-back schemes where possible

Green lab tip 3: become green lab certified

The most important thing is that to have group discussions, brainstorm ideas, and just spread awareness.

Rewarding efforts to make labs greener is an important process, and several organizations offer green lab certification. Green lab certification can also add value to grants, and you can check if organizations cover an aspect that is particularly relevant to your lab.

“Certification was a two-step process. We first completed an online assessment through My Green Lab, which then suggested areas we could improve. We discussed it as a lab, implemented the changes, and became certified after a couple of months. These discussions were very beneficial, although it’s a constant learning curve! While there is no need for re-certification, we have added the topic to our annual seminar schedule to ensure we maintain the green standards,” Agata expanded.

To round up the discussion, I asked Dorien and Agata if they had any final thoughts on making a lab greener.

“The most important thing is that to have group discussions, brainstorm ideas, and just spread awareness. The certification process is also a great opportunity to get feedback from professionals!” Dorien said.

“PhD and post-doc groups are good platforms for raising awareness and having broad discussions around the topic,” Agata added. “We also received quite a few requests to explain our processes after we posted about our Green Lab certification on Twitter!”

If you are interested in learning more about the FMP Green Initiative, you can visit their website or join the discussion by using the #FMPGreenInitiative hashtag on Twitter.

FMP Green Initiative group picture
The FMP Green Initiative and their Twitter handles: (from left to right) Svenja Bolz, Dorien Roosen (@dorien_rsn), Agata Witkowska (@AgataWitkowska), Kristine Oevel (@KristineOevel) and Tania Lopez-Hernandez (@Tania_lopezhdez). Not in the picture, but a new active member of the initiative, is Klaas Yperman.


Featured image by Joanna Patterson-Cross