Laboratory waste isn’t the first thing you think of when considering scientific research, yet research laboratories generate approximately 5.5 million tons of waste per year, according to a 2016 Nature article.

Much of that waste — from plastic foam to packaging — could easily be recycled, reducing the waste stream from a lab and ultimately saving energy and money for research programs. Apart from waste reduction, there are many other green actions a lab can implement to foster sustainability.

All that’s needed is someone to spearhead the green charge.

At Virginia Tech, that someone is Ellen Garcia, a Ph.D. student in Daniela Cimini’s laboratory at the Biocomplexity Institute. Cimini, a Biocomplexity Fellow, is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science.  

In December of 2016, Garcia met the founders of My Green Lab, a nonprofit based in California working to provide sustainable solutions for research laboratories and manufacturers. Deeply inspired by My Green Lab, Garcia returned to the institute determined to implement changes.

“Many sustainable practices,” Garcia notes, “are simple changes in behavior. It really just takes someone noticing and making an effort to foster change.”

These changes have included reducing energy consumption by regularly turning off lights and taping over light switches powering unnecessary lighting; in-your-face reminders to turn off equipment, including vacuum lines, when not in use; and streamlining waste disposal to decrease the amount of plastic containers used. In most cases, people have to simply be encouraged and reminded to do something until it becomes a new habit.

One change that has a large impact on the energy consumption of laboratories is raising the temperature of super-cooled freezers from the standard -80°C to -70°C, a temperature which still preserves specimens but uses far less energy. Another change with big impact is to close the sash on chemical fume hoods. These fume hoods use as much energy in one day as three-and-a-half households. With the sash shut, energy consumption is slashed in half.

Researchers can also order their supplies from companies with sustainable practices. Corning, for instance, recycles its packaging free of charge to the consumer. Garcia has managed to divert at least 30 pounds of packaging from the waste stream by working with Corning. The Biocomplexity Institute now has recycling options available to all its research labs for Corning plastic packaging, as well as pipette tip boxes from any manufacturer, thanks to a program from Fisher Scientific.

Among the many resources My Green Lab offers is a green lab certification process, which is recognized as the standard for sustainable laboratory practices across North America. In one year, Garcia was able to obtain a silver-level green lab certification, meaning that 60-69 percent of lab actions are considered sustainable.  

The Cimini lab is not the only one to take action. Thanks to efforts from Garcia and the research operations team, the Biocomplexity Institute has implemented a unique plastic foam recycling program.

“The amount of Styrofoam we have diverted from the landfill in only a few months fills an entire stock room,” Garcia noted.

Inspired by Garcia's program, other labs at Virginia Tech are working toward more sustainable lab practices throughout campus.

Allison Paradise, executive director of My Green Lab said, "The impact of Ellen's work is truly inspiring. She stands out as a leader in the green labs movement, and through her actions she has demonstrated how one person can transform laboratory operations on a campus. Less than two years after Ellen's lab became the first Certified Green Lab at Virginia Tech, the university is now considering launching a campus-wide program aimed at reducing the environmental impact of labs. It's incredible - she's doing all of this while getting her Ph.D. Imagine what would happen if graduate students around the country followed Ellen's lead. Life science research would be forever changed."

To learn more about My Green Lab and sustainable lab practices, attend the 15th Annual Virginia Tech Laboratory Exposition from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 3. Allison Paradise will provide morning and afternoon presentations on lab sustainability. For more information or to register, visit the Lab Expo website. Vendors will be encouraged to promote their sustainable products, and lunch will be provided for registrants.

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