Solutions to the world's biggest problems, including climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, are studied in research laboratories across the globe. But as sterile as those labs may appear, they have a dirty secret: immense carbon footprints.
Labs burn through five to 10 times more energy per square foot than offices, an impact that may be magnified tenfold for clean rooms and other specialized facilities. For instance, 44 percent of the energy use of Harvard University is derived from its laboratories, which take up less than a quarter of campus space. Labs also send massive amounts of water down the drain and discard possibly billions of pounds of single-use plastics every year.
A unifying force is needed that creates standards and fosters a space for strategies and best practices, according to James Connelly. That's what he wants to deliver as the new CEO of My Green Lab, which works with life sciences leaders including AstraZeneca and Agilent.
"It's sort of a surprising fact how much energy and water and materials that laboratory spaces consume," Connelly said. "It's been ignored by the green building world a little bit because it's difficult to address. So the unique aspect of what My Green Lab does is, it was created by scientists, for scientists to help work on behavior change and a transformation of how the labs are actually operated and how science and research is performed."
At universities and corporations alike, addressing emissions and waste in labs can significantly drive down costs and further sustainability commitments. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, if half of America’s labs shaved off 30 percent of their energy use, the total savings would be equivalent to the annual energy use of 840,000 homes.
"My Green Lab is a brilliant project because it reaches out to change behavior and mindset of scientists in the lab," said Pernilla Sörme, risk management lead in global safety, health and environment at AstraZeneca, which expanded Green Lab Certification to seven sites across its global portfolio.
The nonprofit is the first consolidated effort to educate researchers about sustainability in laboratory operations. Its Green Lab Certification already has labeled more than 400 labs. Last year, the Colorado Department of Agriculture became the first government lab to reach "green," the highest of five levels. If that sounds similar to green building standards, such as LEED, that's by design: My Green Lab is gunning to become the leading sustainability advocacy group in the life sciences, globally.
Connelly comes to the growing organization by way of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), which he helped expand into the world's leading proponent of regenerative, healthy and equitable building design — managing its Green Building Challenge and Living Product Challenge before serving as VP of projects and strategic growth.
Projects and progress
My Green Lab's 15 partners and sponsors include biotech giant Genentech, MilliporeSigma and USA Scientific. The nonprofit also has teamed up with the EPA to bring the Department of Energy's Energy Star label to ultra-low temperature freezers used for COVID-19 vaccines, applied first to equipment sold by Stirling Ultracold, another sponsor of My Green Lab.
My Green Lab also runs the ACT "eco-nutrition" label for lab equipment. (ACT stands for Accountability, Consistency, and Transparency). It was created to help procurement officials and scientists with purchasing. The organization is working directly with manufacturers, including scientific instruments maker Thermo Fisher, to set benchmarks on products and packaging design.
The label rates the sustainability of products consumed in laboratories including beakers, pipettes, bottles and equipment such as autoclaves and chemicals. The ratings represent data from the GreenScreen safer chemicals benchmark as well as details on packaging and product handling at the end of life. Last April, diagnostics equipment leader Agilent signed up as a My Green Lab sponsor and also to have its instruments certified for ACT.
"We chose to work with My Green Lab because, like them, we understand the importance of building a more sustainable scientific industry," said Darlene Solomon, Agilent's chief technology officer and senior vice president. "In many cases, product developments in support of sustainability also reduce laboratory risk. As we see the importance and value that our customers place on sustainability growing, the ACT instrument labels from My Green Lab will play a major role in helping those customers to make more informed, sustainable decisions for their analytical laboratory."
The number of standalone lab-greening efforts has grown since Harvard-trained neuroscientist Allison Paradise created My Green Lab in 2013, from about 10 to 90 groups that engage tens of thousands of scientists around the world.
"We're seeing an acceleration of interest and excitement about sustainability through the pandemic, and that represents the general overall awakening and awareness of the life science industry to sustainability that My Green Lab is really helping to catalyze," Connelly said. "It's important because it's a growth industry that's going to be incredibly important to our future as a society, and to managing things like COVID or in the future other diseases that may come down the pipeline."
Through certification and education programs, My Green Lab enlists scientists and facilities professionals to clean up the carbon impact of labs. Lately, the group has been publicizing ways to green the cold chain for COVID-19 vaccines, which require sub-North-Pole temperatures. Its Laboratory Freezer Challenge, entering its fifth year, has gotten professionals from hundreds of labs to reduce the energy consumption of their deep freezers.
Higher efficiency energy systems in the green building industry don't address the "guts" inside a lab that really drive energy consumption, Connelly noted. "That's something I'm really excited about, to dive in deeply and see how quickly we can make an impact on these types of operations in buildings that have such a dramatic impact on climate change."
And because the higher-level sustainability goals of many organizations still haven’t moved down into their R&D labs, that means plenty of low-hanging fruit for scientists and their colleagues to pluck.
Noted energy hogs inside labs include ultra-low temperature freezers — which can eat up as much energy as a house — and chemical fume hoods for ventilation. The University of Glasgow’s Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation blames 42 percent of its energy consumption on centrifuges alone.
As for the overuse of single-use plastics, the University of Exeter estimated that academic researchers produced plastic waste equivalent to 5.7 million two-liter soda bottles each year.
Thankfully, Connelly has seen more companies thinking through how to change the supply chain of plastics, produce them in a more sustainable way, figure out ways to reuse or recycle them in laboratories, and change the way lab professionals manage plastics. "There's a ton of innovation happening," he said.
Based on case studies, My Green Lab estimates that participants in its Green Lab Certification can achieve reductions of 30 percent in energy use, 50 percent in water use and 10 percent in waste.
AstraZeneca was one of the first pharmaceutical companies to pursue Green Lab Certification at multiple sites, starting about two years ago. The company already had achieved LEED certifications in America and ISO 14 001 certification in Europe, and its R&D site leaders found in My Green Lab a global strategy to steer laboratory sustainability.
Reducing waste and energy in its labs aids AstraZeneca’s sustainability targets, issued a year ago, of zero carbon emissions by 2025 in operations and being negative-carbon by 2030 across its value chain. That includes moving toward 100 percent renewables and a fully electric fleet.
The Green Lab Certification has created a framework and a new way of working that becomes second-nature for AstraZeneca's scientists, Sörme said. "You start thinking, do I actually need to use a high-grade solvent or can I use a low-grade solvent that’s more environmentally friendly?" And scientists can share ideas across the global sites, which is driving innovation in product development as well as employee engagement.
"We also have a lot of fun activities," she said. "For instance, we got our scientists in the U.K., because they love doing research, to do a bit of an inventory. They did 'a day in the lab' to find out how much they used plastic-wise. That's the state we want to be at when people come up with ideas on their own and want to share that."
Each AstraZeneca lab site has a green team with scientists, facility managers, health and safety managers and procurement professionals. A survey kicks off the Green Lab Certification process, reaching out to every scientist, not just key leaders.
There’s a lot of best-practice sharing on novel ideas, such as for recycling lab gloves and reducing water use, Sörme noted. A lab in Boston might share solutions for a site in Cambridge, U.K., to adapt locally. Quick-win practices have included changing freezer filters annually and installing LED lights. AstraZeneca in 2019 credited Green Lab with helping it reach a 97 percent recycling rate of biological waste at a facility in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and sparking the recycling of tens of thousands of plastic centrifuge tubes and serological pipets in Cambridge.
The company is exploring how to raise the temperature of ultra-low temperature freezers from minus-80 to minus-70 degrees Celsius to achieve significant energy savings. In a separate effort, AstraZeneca was a winner in the 2020 Freezer Challenge run by My Green Lab and the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories.
My Green Lab's intention to address systemic issues by creating an ecosystem of programs echoes the approach taken by the ILFI, which was initially considered aspirational by many in the mainstream building establishment yet has been embraced by the likes of Microsoft and Google and making headway in Asia and Europe. Connelly hopes to see a similar growth trajectory at My Green Lab, which has an ambassador program and accreditation program in development.
It's worth noting that ILFI was an early advocate of identifying social equity as a root cause behind environmental problems, releasing its JUST Label behind building products in 2014, following its Declare Program in 2012 targeting "red list" chemicals of concern in building products.
"We want to start driving equity into our program and elevating it to the same position as efficiency and waste reduction and water reduction," Connelly said of My Green Lab.
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