Greening Our Labs

In our personal lives, it is easy to list ways in which we can become “greener.” We can use reusable grocery bags, carry our own utensils and straws, hang our clothes out to dry, and so on. Although reducing our energy consumption and trash production is not always convenient, it is often relatively simple to implement these changes in our lives. As scientists, however, the path to being eco-friendly is less clear. We are all familiar with the piles of plastic and styrofoam we generate in our labs on a daily basis, but it can be easy to justify our waste or see it as inevitable. Elicia Preston, manager of the Murray Lab in the Department of Genetics at Penn and driving force behind Penn’s Green Labs, urges us to challenge this thinking and take action in reducing the environmental impact of our research labs.

Green Labs is an initiative run through the Penn Sustainability Office that strives to make the labs on Penn’s campus more environmentally friendly. Preston recalls that when they first learned of Green Labs it was “only a website and checklist of things you can do in your lab to make it more sustainable.” Although Green Labs was a part of Penn Sustainability, there were no official staff members dedicated to it. That changed in 2015 when Preston applied for a Green Fund grant to purchase reusable glass petri dishes for their lab. Sensing an opportunity to make an impact with Green Labs, Preston then founded the Green Labs Working Group, which meets quarterly to discuss ways in which researchers can make their labs more sustainable. While Preston highlights that these meetings are particularly useful for lab managers, researchers at all levels are welcome to participate. Green Labs has two main goals: 1. to work with the Penn Sustainability team to push for better campus-wide policies related to lab sustainability and 2. to encourage labs to integrate sustainability into their work.

Beyond turning off lights and lab equipment when they are not needed, Preston shares a few other easy ways in which we can reduce the environmental footprint of our labs. Instead of throwing away plastic bags, film, or packaging that lab materials come in, these plastics can be taken to a Lowe’s recycling center or saved for Penn’s annual ReThink Your Footprint plastic bag take-back. There are even options for styrofoam packaging; vendors such as Sigma-Aldrich and New England Biolabs have mail-back recycling programs, with instructions and prepaid postage included on their styrofoam boxes. Although more impactful practices can be costly in terms of both money and labor, Preston emphasizes that such practices are “absolutely worth it to protect the earth, even a bit.” For example, reusable glassware can be used in place of plastic, and, when feasible, biohazardous plastics can be bleached and cleaned for recycling. Labs can also try to buy biodegradable or recycled materials.

The logo and contact information for Green Labs at Penn.

Preston believes that “outreach and bureaucracy are the two biggest challenges facing Green Labs.” The Green Labs Working Group is not able to access campus-wide announcements or send out large-scale email blasts, and paper posters tend to be ineffective at grabbing attention (and cause waste!). Thus, spreading the word about Green Labs and sustainable lab practices is another important way to help bring about change on campus. Preston also notes that bureaucracy has made it difficult to implement relatively simple changes that could have widespread impact. For instance, they have been struggling to obtain and distribute signs that would instruct researchers on what lab materials can be recycled. Part of the issue is that administrators are concerned researchers will not appropriately clean or process lab materials before recycling them. Ultimately, this qualm serves as a reminder that as scientists we need to take more personal responsibility in understanding proper lab safety and sustainable practices. In order to make our labs “greener,” we have to be active and responsible participants.

In both life and lab, Preston urges us to remember the following: Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Repurpose, and Recycle.

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