Go Green: Sustainability in Laboratories

This article analyzes the environmental impact of laboratories. The importance of changing some daily habits in molecular biology to introduce responsible and sustainable practices to reduce our ecological footprint.

Climate change, air pollution, waste accumulation, and water scarcity are among the most pressing global problems. The way we buy, what we buy, how we travel, work, or spend our free time - all determines the amount of our ecological footprint. Every facet of society needs to change, and the activities of laboratories have a significant and often overlooked environmental impact. Have you ever thought about the energy laboratories need to maintain their equipment and facilities? Are you aware of the chemical and reagent waste they generate and how hazardous those often are? Have you ever realized how many tips and tubes you use during your daily laboratory activities? The scientific community starts to sensitize, and many laboratories have established sustainability programs that aim to minimize the ecological footprint of research. The article analyzes the environmental impacts of laboratories and will discuss about practical solutions to introduce sustainability in your daily activities.

Environmental impact of scientific research

Laboratory buildings, processes, and equipment can be resource and energy intensive as safely carrying out high-quality research can require temperature control, ventilation, or high sterility. Beyond that, laboratory consumables and instruments all have an environmental footprint during their sourcing, manufacturing, and disposal. Life science research frequently relies on high energy use, water consumption, single use plastics, reagents, and solvents (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Sources of environmental impact in life science laboratories.

A study performed in 2021 provided data about the median energy usage of laboratories being almost three times that of an equally sized office (1). An analysis of London’s university buildings found that laboratories and workshops had the highest heating and electricity consumption, approximately double compared to teaching and administration spaces (2). Among the equipment that a ‘typical’ laboratory contains, fume hoods and ultra-low-temperature (ULT) freezers are among the most energy intensive. [MAM1]  Indeed, a single ULT freezer consumes nearly as much electricity each year as an average household. In addition, they are responsible for a considerable amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

Moreover, water consumption is highest for research-intensive laboratories, since it is used for different purposes, such as cooling or washing. Autoclaves are, for instance, critical pieces of lab equipment, but they are also large consumers of energy and water. An autoclave uses an average of 170 liters of water per cycle and 16,000 kWh of energy per year (nearly 1.5 times the energy use of an entire house).

Besides, laboratories frequently require the use of chemicals and other hazardous materials for experiments. It is critical to follow all storage and use recommendations from Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) when using these substances. Chemicals do not only have a carbon footprint and human health impacts, but can also result in the pollution of air, water, and soil.

In many research laboratories, single-use plastics constitute a source of material consumption and environmental impact. Single-use plastics are frequently used to conduct cell culture experiments or when sterility is required. According to a study from the University of Exeter in the UK, organizations engaged in biological, medical, or agricultural research globally generate roughly 5.5 million tons of plastic trash per year, or about 2 % of the world's total plastic garbage (3). In addition, a large amount of plastic waste produced by science labs goes straight to landfill every year as most recycling plants do not accept them due to potential health and safety risks or because of missing knowledge about recycling possibilities.

Nevertheless, it exists a tendency for researchers and industry to look for alternatives that aim to cut-off or at least considerably reduce single-use plastic material.

Green labs guide

During years, there has been a dissociation between the manner scientists deal with the environment in their private lives and the way they do so in laboratories. However, an increasing interest is visible in the research community in learning how they can take steps to reduce energy consumption and waste in the laboratory environment. Considering that laboratories make a huge global footprint contribution, it would be important that every lab takes actions to meet the global net-zero targets.

We describe below some tips to conserve energy, reduce water consumption, harmful chemical reagents, and single-use plastic in our daily activities in the lab:

Energy efficient freezer practices. First step is to do a responsible purchasing and look for an efficient model if you need to get a new freezer. The recommendation is to replace old freezers (10+ years) with new high efficiency (HE) units. They consume up to 50 % less energy than non-HE models and use natural refrigerants that do not contribute to global warming. Can you clean out space in your existing unit to accommodate new samples or share freezer space with a neighboring lab? This is a great way to avoid purchasing if possible and reduce your environmental impact. Increasing the temperature setting of a ULT freezer to -70 °C instead of -80 °C can reduce its energy consumption by 30 – 40 %. Minimizing the amount of time, the freezer door is open, reduces temperature fluctuations within the unit, and saves energy. Defrost freezers at least once per year, and check door seals on a regular basis to ensure that the doors do not release cold air.

Fume hoods energy conservation. Many hoods operate on a "variable air volume" (VAV) system, which means the volume of air exhausted will vary depending on the size of the face opening. Thus, the larger the fume hood opening, the larger amount of energy is needed to heat and cool the space. Thus, closing the sashes of a fume hood further down can reduce their energy consumption by 40 % or more. Further, keeping your hood closed when you are not actively using it is the single most important step you can take to save energy.

Water consumption reduction. There are various approaches to reduce laboratory water consumption, such as aerators on taps, equipment that removes the need for water altogether like waterless condensers, and devices and systems that use closed loops and recirculate water. Use the lowest appropriate water purity and sterility for the task at hand. For example, use tap water to wash your hands and dishes and only use deionized water and filtered water when the task requires it. Many organizations have developed guidelines for their researchers to follow to reduce water usage.

Green chemistry practices. Green Chemistry is a rapidly growing field in academics and industry, as the environmental and health impacts of using dangerous chemicals are gaining attention and raising concerns. Green chemistry is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances. Green chemistry applies across the life cycle of a chemical product, including its design, manufacture, use, and ultimate disposal. They also specify the 12 principles of Green Chemistry which include: the selection of more benign, less hazardous reagents and solvents, more efficient reaction design, including the use of more selective catalysis, and sourcing chemicals from renewable sources instead of being derived from fossil fuels. Protect yourself, others, and the environment by being up to date on less toxic chemical alternatives and implementing sustainable chemical practices in your work. There are several available online tools, databases, and inventory management tools for keeping track of chemicals, which can assist laboratories in monitoring chemical usage and avoiding over-ordering.

Single-use plastic consumables. Disposable plastics are preferred over the use of durable products that can be cleaned and reused because of the momentary convenience of throwing something away when no longer needed, plus the believe that only new consumables allow to achieve high-quality results. On this specific topic, we recommend keeping in mind the three Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Recycling of some plastic material utilized in laboratory science could be complex. For example, items used with potentially harmful substances should not be recycled in a form in which they could potentially harm individuals who might be in contact with them. Some of the plastics we use in the lab also pose a recycling challenge: they can be structurally and chemically modified to resist heat and degradation. Many items we employ for molecular biology are too small for conventional recycling because the first step in the process passes the materials to be recycled over a giant mesh. That means items such as pipette tips would fall through the mesh and end up in a landfill. However, there are everyday items in our labs that can be recycled: shipping boxes, printer cartridges, and styrofoam boxes and peanuts, for example. They are distinguishable by the number on their “recycling symbol” (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Sources of environmental impact in life science laboratories.

When it comes to reusing plastic in the lab, many researchers face a hurdle: contamination, especially in areas with a need for sterility. Some disposable plastic use is mandatory, but the goal is to thoughtfully examine how much plastic your lab uses, and which situations can be transitioned to a reusable alternative. Luckily, the increase in collective awareness has led many research institutes to start programs to change laboratory habits in relation to plastic use and waste generation.

Introducing sustainability to molecular biology with BioEcho

Frequently, a resistance to change is common in molecular biology and when someone suggests reducing your waste, the initial reactions are prone to be mixed. Often, the perception of implementing certain habits is not straightforward, which leads them to justify the use of disposables in the lab on the grounds of costs and time saved. We could finger scientist not being more responsible of reducing their environmental footprint, but what about manufacturers of laboratory equipment, reagents, and consumables? They should strive to supply environmentally friendly alternatives to their customers and integrate sustainability into their business practices. Nucleic acid extraction is a routine process applied in many different areas such as clinical diagnostics, plant and animal breeding, veterinary research, biopharmaceutical R&D, and academic research. For decades, the procedure to obtain the genetic material has lain in silica-based extraction methods. Those include several binding and washing steps which need a considerable amount of pipette tips, tubes and, in many cases, produce harmful reagent waste.

BioEcho Life Sciences has developed a unique solution: the EchoLUTION technology for nucleic acid extraction, which enables not only easier and faster workflows, but drastically reduces the amount of plastic waste and hazardous reagents needed during the isolation protocols (Figure 2). The technology consists of a gentle lysis step in aqueous buffers, resulting in a high extraction efficiency. The lysate is simply transferred onto the spin column or plate, nucleic acids pass through the purification matrix without interaction while impurities are held back by the purification matrix and are thereby removed. This happens within a one-minute centrifugation step and the result is a ready-to-use nucleic acid for more sensitive and reliable downstream applications. The simplicity of the process directly leads to the fact that less plastic is used.

BioEcho Life Science has a consequent and holistic concept of sustainable nucleic acid purification products. The company is committed to encourage ecological responsibility by proving that plastic waste can be reduced, packing materials can be recyclable, and the use of hazardous materials can be minimized.

Figure 2. Comparison of the plastic and liquid waste generated with an EchoLUTION DNA extraction kit and a corresponding silica-based kit. 50 DNA extractions each were performed according to the supplier’s protocols. BioEcho EchoLUTION kit results in up to 70 % less plastic waste when compared with the bind-wash-elute kit. In addition, fewer toxic reagents are included in the EchoLUTION DNA extraction kits.

Take home message

Research and laboratory work serves a higher purpose in our society, for example, provides better methods for diagnosing, preventing, and treating diseases. However, their environmental impact should not be ignored or excused. Researchers have become aware of the effect of their activities having a global influence on the biosphere, which is an important first step

Involve yourself and be active! There are many practices you can implement on your daily activities to reduce environmental footprint. If you see all the different approaches at once, it might be overwhelming, but just start with some things until they become a routine and then continue from there. Even small changes sum up!

Don’t be afraid of new approaches and protocols! Look for more sustainable alternatives. It is time, not only for laboratory workers to act responsibly, but for biotechnology companies and manufacturers to contribute to the mitigation of the environmental impact.

BioEcho Life Sciences proves that modern molecular biology can be both sustainable and innovative. Further, we see sustainability as a holistic approach, not only offering greener products, but living sustainability in every aspect of our business.

If you like to know more about our sustainable products, business practices, and company initiatives visit Sustainability (bioecho.com) and explore our Sustainability Brochure, at the end of the page.



1.       Energy Star Portfolio Manager, Technical Reference, US Energy Use Intensity by Property Type, 2021https://portfoliomanager.energystar.gov/pdf/reference/US%20National%20Median%20Table.pdf

2.       Hawkins, D., Hong, S. M., Raslan, R., Mumovic, D., and Hanna, S., ‘Determinants of energy use in UK higher education buildings using statistical and artificial neural network methods’, International

3.       Urbina, M., Watts, A. & Reardon, E. Labs should cut plastic waste too. Nature 528, 479 (2015)

4.       Green Labs Resources | Sustainability | Washington University in St. Louis (wustl.edu)


Author: Dr. Laura Torres Benito

Laura is a passionate scientific communicator, with an extensive experience as a researcher in several fields, including human genetics, biotechnology, and neuroscience. Since joining BioEcho in 2022, she enjoys creating appealing content and material for our customers and interested parties. Laura likes practicing yoga, cooking wholesome Mediterranean food, and playing the piano. She also loves spending weekends on the nature, rock climbing and hiking. 

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