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Recent trends in sustainable lab practices

As the world around us is in a constant state of evolution, growth and globalization, the environmental impact of our daily practices is also becoming an increasingly severe issue. Hence, a significant number of industries are adopting more green and sustainable approaches, to lower their carbon footprint, and the scientific community is no exception. Recent studies [1], [2] have highlighted the above-average level of CO2 emissions caused by chemical research labs, with the main contributors to this being heating and energy sources, purchases, consumables and wastage. This blog post aims to raise awareness regarding some of the latest trends, challenges and practices in making research labs more eco-friendly and sustainable.

  • Green lab design: The foundation of a sustainable, low-emission lab represents its design features and infrastructure. The incorporation of energy-efficient lighting, maximizing the use of natural light, strategically placed ventilation systems or the incorporation of low emission lab equipment represent some of key aspects of green lab design [3]. Green building certifications, such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), provide frameworks for optimizing resource efficiency and minimizing environmental impact in laboratory construction projects [4].

  • Waste reduction and recycling: The use of a high number of consumables, materials and solvents, in a high research throughput lab, is inevitable, and leads to an increased level of chemical, biological, plastic, glass and electronic waste. However, mitigating strategies could be applied to lower the impact of this onto the environment such as: increasing equipment lifetime, reducing lab equipment purchases and the use of chemicals by pooling, waste segregation and recycling programmes or repurposing laboratory waste materials. Solvent recovery (via distillation or membrane separation) and reuse represents an excellent alternative to improving the sustainability of industrial practices, provided it does not affect the quality of the products obtained [5]. Additionally, programmes for recycling of consumables, such as nitrile gloves, appear across the globe and provide new avenues in improving the sustainability of a lab [6].

  • Green chemistry and sustainable synthesis: The goal of green chemistry is to reduce the noxious effects of chemical materials and processes on human health and the environment, via ground-breaking scientific solutions. The optimization of reaction pathways using safer catalysts and solvents, the reduction of derivatives and side products, and the implementation of analytical methods throughout the synthetic cycle represent some of the practices explored [7]. Additionally, the advancements in computational chemistry and artificial neural networks can help eliminate some of the experiments planned at the early phases of project design, reducing the materials used and shifting the focus towards experiments that are more likely to succeed [8].

  • Collaboration and knowledge sharing: In this era of rapid communication, with a plethora of means to share and find information regarding any topic, it is natural to form communities and networks that share similar goals. Such networks also exist in the space of sustainable lab practices, with societies such as the Sustainable European Laboratories (SELs) Network, aiming to break the barriers between scientists involved in sustainable research and promote the mitigation of the environmental impact caused by scientific research [9].

In conclusion, sustainable laboratory practices have become integral to scientific research and innovation. Through advancements in green lab design, energy conservation, waste reduction, green chemistry, and collaboration, laboratories are making significant strides towards minimizing their environmental footprint.


By Vlad-Nicolae Lesutan


References

  1. Estevez-Torres, A., et al., Carbon footprint and mitigation strategies of three chemistry laboratories. Green Chemistry, 2024. 26(5): p. 2613-2622.

  2. Cseri, L., et al., Chapter 3.15 - Organic Solvents in Sustainable Synthesis and Engineering, in Green Chemistry, B. Török and T. Dransfield, Editors. 2018, Elsevier. p. 513-553.

  3. Watch, D. and D. Tolat. Sustainable Laboratory Design. 2016  [cited 2024 18 March]; Available from: https://www.wbdg.org/resources/sustainable-laboratory-design.

  4. Bergstrom, S. How to Use LEED in the Lab. 2024  [cited 2024 18 March ]; Available from: https://www.labdesignnews.com/content/yqk213s9yta9cmxzvnzq5gdnm09pnx.

  5. Aboagye, E.A., J.D. Chea, and K.M. Yenkie, Systems level roadmap for solvent recovery and reuse in industries. iScience, 2021. 24(10): p. 103114.

  6. TerraCycle. The Kimtech™ Nitrile Glove Recycling Programme. 2024  [cited 2024 18 March]; Available from: https://www.terracycle.com/en-GB/brigades/gloves.

  7. Castiello, C., et al., GreenMedChem: the challenge in the next decade toward eco-friendly compounds and processes in drug design. Green Chemistry, 2023. 25(6): p. 2109-2169.

  8. Wu, F., et al., Computational Approaches in Preclinical Studies on Drug Discovery and Development. Frontiers in Chemistry, 2020. 8.

  9. SELs-Network. Working towards sustainable life science in Europe. 2023  [cited 2024 18 March]; Available from: https://sels-network.org/.

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