The journey of a lab cluster embracing impact reduction through Green Lab Certification
Bernal Institute BioLabs, University of Limerick
My Green Lab has awarded the Bernal Institute BioLabs a Platinum Green Lab Certification for their efforts to minimize their laboratory operations' environmental impact through the implementation of sustainability best practices.
The Green Lab Certification (GLC) program educates laboratory personnel on 14 laboratory sustainability topics such as energy, water, waste, chemistry/materials, and engagement. Bernal Institute BioLabs’ participation in the certification program empowered them to make positive, sustainable choices that benefit their research and community.
“Laboratory work is resource-intensive, as evident through extensive water usage, energy consumption, and accumulated waste. However, lab protocols and processes are rarely optimized for sustainable opportunities”, says Dr. Andreas Grabrucker, Senior Lecturer & Principal investigator, Bio Materials Cluster Lead at the Bernal Institute, University of Limerick.
“Especially in a University-based Institution that also trains the next generation of researchers, we need to establish a culture where considering the sustainability of the laboratory work is a part of the daily routine. Many labs worldwide are starting to think about improving green practices, but the ‘how’ and ‘where to begin’ are challenging.”
As part of their strategy while undergoing certification, the Bernal Institute BioLabs formed a ‘Green Team’ that drove the process, evaluated the results, and communicated with lab members. The team collected all information about current well-working processes in the lab and the new, improved processes to formalize them by writing a “Bernal BioLabs green practices handbook.”
They also implemented practical, long-term changes, including monitoring waste streams, energy, and water usage, that have since become a natural part of their daily work in the lab.
Bernal BioLabs, as part of their certification process, incorporated a variety of new protocols to reduce their research impact. For example, they came up with a system that ensures autoclaves are only used when full. This small– but impactful– change in protocol continues to avoid unnecessary energy and water usage.
“The most positive lesson we have learned through the certification process is that change is possible. Daily lab routines can be modified quickly and effectively,” says Dr. Grabrucker.
Along with Dr. Grabrucker, we spoke with Dr. Miriama Ceresnakova, Instrument Scientist and Lab Manager of the Bernal BioLabs, as well as Janelle Stanton, a PhD Student in the Biological Sciences– both of whom provided more insight into the journey of Bernal BioLabs through Green Lab Certification.
A Better Way to Do Research
In your opinion, why must laboratories be more sustainable?
Janelle Stanton: From my time in research-based laboratories, the need to reduce, reuse and recycle has never been more imperative. Laboratories across the globe generate a large amount of waste and contribute to extravagant energy & water consumption. There is a vast need to address these issues economically, reduce our carbon footprints, and save crucial natural resources.
What were some of your specific expectations from the program when you first started? How did those expectations change or develop as you went along?
Dr. Ceresnakova: Bernal BioLabs is a set of lab suites accessed by 40+ researchers daily. In the beginning, we thought a small group for the GLC program would be nice to keep things focused. Later, we realized the importance of involving as many people as possible to understand sustainable practices and develop a green culture within the lab and beyond.
Janelle Stanton: Initially the idea was to identify the current unsustainable processes and practices to find potential areas of improvement. This initial thought process in our lab led to the development of a framework helping all lab members to follow newer and greener sustainability goals.
What challenges concerning lab sustainability and engagement were you experiencing before starting the GLC Program?
Janelle Stanton: As a PhD student, sustainability was not really on my agenda, and I was worried that changes in our daily lab routines and protocol would make my work more difficult. However, as we got introduced to the green team and the suggested changes, I realized that we could make it work and that working in the lab more sustainably is, in fact, essential.
Dr. Ceresnakova: A major concern was that this new process would hinder research or would be time-consuming, perhaps putting even more burden on an already busy schedule. The engagement in initiatives that target lab sustainability are generally low. However, the GLC program provides a structured, guided process allowing oversight on the resources and time that the implementation requires for necessary engagement.
A Glimpse into the Sustainability Journey
What was the most memorable moment of this journey for you?
Dr. Ceresnakova: The most memorable moment was receiving and sharing the feedback score that brought us to the platinum level of certification. Although our baseline score was relatively high already, the second score demonstrated the effort and commitment that all the BioLabs researchers put in to show that we want to and can be a ‘green’ laboratory.
What were some practical things you did to better integrate sustainability in your lab operations?
Dr. Grabrucker: We composed the green practices handbook as a green practice guide for the lab members. Thus, whenever someone does not know what to do with empty batteries, printer cartridges, when to turn off lights, what alternatives for travel to work to a car are available, etc., the handbook has the answer.
We also created an online resource for sharing consumables via a mailing list. For example, chemicals and reagents that are about to expire or no longer needed by one team are put onto the list and, if required, can be accessed by other groups.
Dr. Ceresnakova: As a laboratory that works with biological samples, we use autoclaves daily. Following the baseline assessment, we have adopted a ‘basket system’ where the autoclaves are only used when the basket is full, representing the autoclave capacity.
Janelle Stanton: To educate lab personnel about equipment shut off processes, we implemented a sticker system to communicate if and when specific lab equipment can be powered down. For example, a red sticker equals do not shut down; yellow equals can be shut down at the end of the day, and green equals shut down immediately after use. Our sticker system serves as a reminder and reduces unnecessary energy usage in the lab.
An Impactful Cultural Shift
What effect did the certification process have on the sustainability culture within your organization?
Dr. Ceresnakova: The Green Certification achieved by BioLabs is in line with the sustainable development goals of Bernal Institute and the University of Limerick. Our present actions are vital in times of an environmental tipping point that threatens our future generations. Following our successful BioLabs certification, another University of Limerick department is now undergoing the process. We are delighted we have served as an inspiration and are more than happy to share our knowledge and experience of the certification process.
What positive lessons have you learned through the certification process that would drive future decisions regarding waste/energy/procurement/water, etc.?
Dr. Ceresnakova: The most helpful lesson for me is that even a small change can make a difference and that we should stay open-minded to change and feel accountable for the state at which our labs operate at any given time. Eventually, we are the end-users, and it is up to us to carry out daily tasks sustainably.
Dr. Grabrucker: In my opinion, as soon as the thought process around sustainability enters a lab and you start an inventory list that allows you to assess your current practices, you have won something important.
What advice would you give to similar laboratories/organizations who are pursuing or intend to pursue GLC?
Dr. Grabrucker: Do it! Starting the process, getting an inventory list of current practices, and thinking about sustainability are more important than the outcome. However, getting the ball rolling is key, and for those who are not sure how, the GLC program will be beneficial.
Dr. Ceresnakova: My advice would be not to be afraid to start the process because you may think, ‘my lab is old, and it would take ages to achieve sustainability.’ Some changes are much smaller than you think but may have a substantial impact on sustainability. It is primarily the culture of workers that dictates how sustainable you are.
Inspired to take action to green your lab? Learn more about our Green Lab Certification program here.