It all started in 2019, with a simple switch from 200 milliliter plastic containers to compostable containers. But over the next year, chemical researcher Jane Kilcoyne and her lab saved €15,800 (US$16,000), reduced their non-chemical waste by more than 95%, and reduced their consumption of single-use plastics by 69%. . The seven-person lab tests thousands of shellfish samples for toxins each year at the Marine Institute, a government agency responsible for marine research, in Galway, Ireland.
In March 2022, they published an article about how they reduced the environmental impacts of their laboratory1. By ordering and preparing solutions and reagents only as needed and extending the expiration dates of homemade solutions, they reduced their chemical waste by approximately 23%, or 300 litres. Finally, with a few small changes, like keeping the hood flap down when the unit is not in use and increasing the temperature of their cold room, they reduced the total electricity consumption of the entire headquarters. social of the institute of 11,000 square meters in 26%.
Although environmental sustainability is considered costly, many of the strategies adopted by Kilcoyne and his colleagues involved using less of it – whether chemicals, paper, energy or plastic. The team’s savings eclipsed the small costs of their sustainability measures, such as buying a filter for their chemical storage cabinet and setting up a recycling system for their polystyrene.
Kilcoyne led the first part of the project, which focused on waste reduction (a colleague later led the energy reduction part). She spoke to Nature about the challenges and successes of the initiative, how her team can be a model for other labs, and what she would like to see governments and others do to help.
What does your lab do?
We run Ireland’s national shellfish toxin monitoring programme. We receive just over 3,000 samples per year that need to be tested for regulated toxins, and we perform over 5,000 tests per year. We also do a lot of research on biotoxins.
What were you able to achieve?
We used to produce about 4,000 kilograms of waste per year, and we reduced that to 130 kilograms. Much of the reduction has been achieved through composting and recycling alone, not through single-use plastics. It made a big difference.
When we considered switching to glass instead of plastic, we worried about the transfer of toxins and contamination. In our paper we demonstrated that there was no transfer – I showed that the use of glass had no impact on our shellfish toxin test results. Initially, there will always be some pushback against any change, but once you can demonstrate that it doesn’t affect the results, people are more open to it.
We use a company called Waste Matters, based in Clara, Ireland, for polystyrene recycling. We have a shed at the back of the lab, and once it’s filled with polystyrene boxes, Waste Matters uses a machine to extract the air from the polystyrene, which becomes “plastic logs”. These are shipped overseas, mostly to mainland Europe, where various companies use them.
Did the results of any of the changes surprise you? Was there a change that saved a lot of money?
Using compostable containers for sample storage was not only an effective replacement for plastic containers, but also about half the cost. We have seen the greatest cost savings from reducing fume hood run times and reducing our use of organic solvents in the lab.
How long did it take to implement the changes?
We started reducing our plastic consumption in 2019 by switching to reusable glassware and compostable jars. It took about a year for everything to be implemented on the waste side.
The energy side of things took longer. Energy efficiency was led by our institution’s facilities team and Toni Hollowell, the institute’s facilities manager and one of the paper’s co-authors. Emails were constantly sent to staff throughout the building, reminding them to turn off equipment. It took a long time for the facilities team to figure out how we use our hoods and which ones could be turned off when.
We are always looking for ways to improve our sustainability. Everyone on the team agrees — they’ve seen the benefits. Everyone is so good now at turning off equipment and lowering hood flaps. It just became normal and automatic.
The Irish Government’s 2019 Climate Action Plan set a target to improve energy efficiency by 33% by 2020. Has this affected your lab’s plans?
Government mandates to reduce our waste and increase our energy efficiency have helped. I think I would have tried anyway. I had thought, “Surely there is something we can do to be more sustainable.” But the strategies and policies of the government definitely emboldened me, and I think I got more support from management because of them. If this government policy had not existed, it would have been more difficult because people really do not like change. Especially when it comes to standard operating procedures (SOPs) — they’re very formal and you need to follow them to the letter. To change things, you have to rewrite the SOPs or change them, and people just don’t like the extra work involved.
But the fact that we have achieved significant financial savings should encourage people to spearhead change.
What would you recommend to other labs that want to be more sustainable?
Being part of a network is ideal for stimulating ideas and motivating change. In Ireland, there is a network (of which I am a member) called Irish Green Labs, there is also the Sustainable European Laboratories network. The My Green Lab ambassador program is open to everyone, offers training modules and organizes conferences on laboratory sustainability.
Tell us about the My Green Lab certification.
The certification program consists of taking a survey and obtaining a certain score. It also requires some changes to be made to freezer inventory, water consumption, and ventilation. We started working on our freezer inventory, but we didn’t look at other things, like water consumption.
What kind of institutional change would you like to see?
I hope there will be more government support for these kinds of changes and more changes in terms of lab funding. Funding agencies should impose some form of green certification on a laboratory before it is funded. There are many other research requirements, such as integrity, diversity, and human resources. I think it is also essential that the laboratories operate in a sustainable way. There is an ongoing campaign by My Green Lab to urge science funders to stipulate greater lab sustainability as a condition of funding. It would make a huge difference.