Go green, go efficient: Sustainable laboratory practices

Laboratories are one of the most resource-intensive spaces for any organization, consuming three to five times the energy of an equivalent-sized office, with more specialized lab facilities exceeding that amount.1 Although this is unsurprising given the range of equipment required in a typical laboratory, along with the corresponding heating, cooling, lighting, and ventilation required, the impact on the environment cannot be ignored.2

Recent research has found that laboratory workers are overwhelmingly in favor of making changes toward going green, with 90% of those questioned agreeing or strongly agreeing that sustainability is important in their day-to-day work.3 Given the complexities of a laboratory environment, making any changes can seem daunting, but even small adjustments to increase efficiency can result in significant environmental and cost benefits.  

While each laboratory has its own considerations for implementing sustainable practices, there are several clear opportunities to reduce impact through energy efficiency, waste management, and water efficiency. Here we look at 9 ways labs can be more sustainable: 

Article highlights:

  • The high energy consumption of laboratory equipment means labs are resource-intensive workspaces.
  • With the global threat of climate change, organizations need to look at ways to reduce emissions and operate laboratories in a sustainable way as they work towards zero carbon goals.
  • There are simple steps that can be taken towards sustainable laboratory practices, and even small changes can make a big difference.
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Energy efficiency

Lab equipment is notorious for being energy-intensive, and since it processes a high volume of tests, the energy consumption can be staggering. For example, the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Infection, Immunity, and Inflammation uses the same amount of energy in a single weekend as an average house does in a whole year.5 Thankfully, incorporating sustainable laboratory practices offers some quick wins that can make a big difference.


1. Shut fume hoods

An open fume hood means air is pulled into the hood, at the same time as reconditioned air is pumped in, requiring motors and fans to work harder to condition the air. This constant conditioning means a single fume hood can use as much energy as three and a half average domestic households every day.6 By simply closing the fume hood when the equipment is not in use, Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology reduced their annual greenhouse gas emissions by 300 metric tonnes and benefitted from a cost savings of $200,000.7 When in use, keeping the hood at the lowest possible level will also reduce energy consumption.8


2. Consider cold storage

Second only to fume hoods, freezers can be one of the biggest consumers of energy in a lab,9 with a single ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezer using as much energy in one day as an average domestic household.10 By implementing cold storage best practices, labs can make a big impact. Labs should be sure to maintain equipment, including removal of ice from door seals, brushing out the build-up of frost, clearing out items no longer requiring storage, storing samples in the smallest possible container, and sharing freezers with other labs. To make a significant impact with only one simple change, the temperature of ULT freezers can be adjusted where possible. ‘Chilling-up’ from -80°C to -70°C can save up to 30% on energy.11


3. Switch off lights and appliances

Lighting can account for up to 28% of energy use in labs.3 This can be easily reduced by simply switching off lights at the end of the day, or during the day if possible. Small LED task lights use considerably less energy, and installing motion sensor controls also helps. The same applies to computers and other equipment. Switching these off, or adjusting settings and using timers so they are only used when necessary, can result in big savings. Simple things, like stickers to remind people to ‘switch off’ can also help establish good habits.12

Waste management

At home, we are becoming well-practiced in the habit of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’, but with life science research estimated to use 5.5 million tonnes of plasticware per year,13 this mantra is critical for working towards a green laboratory.


4. Reduce

By reducing the amount of plastic and packaging coming into the lab in the first place, we can also reduce the waste output. This can be done in several areas both within the lab and through suppliers. Internally, labs can look to reduce container size, which in turn reduces the need for reagents. Keeping an inventory and purchasing only the supplies needed while sharing supplies and equipment with other labs further minimizes waste. Externally, labs can choose to use suppliers who are working sustainably towards energy efficiency goals. Suppliers that reduce packaging materials and consolidate shipments minimize shipping emissions.


5. Reuse

Given the amount of plasticware used in labs, it is essential to switch away from single-use to reusable items as much as possible. Sourcing glass or stainless-steel alternatives can cut down plastic waste, and it is possible to autoclave reusable products to further reduce waste.14 For non-sterile workflows, labware such as conical tubes and plastic bottles can be washed and reused. Reusing any packaging materials received from suppliers to create new packaging or ice boxes will also minimize waste.14


6. Recycle

Using a certain amount of single-use plastic in labs is unavoidable due to the sterile nature of the work. Where it is required, options for recycling can be considered. Waste management programs are available to recycle lab materials such as plastics and gloves. Similarly, solvent recycling schemes are available, and simple steps can be taken for general recycling such as keeping a recycling bin next to the printer and displaying a poster identifying what should be recycled to help encourage staff to be more green.14

Water efficiency

Laboratories require substantial amounts of water to operate, but water efficiency is often overlooked when considering sustainable laboratory practices. As with energy efficiency, there are a number of quick wins to reduce consumption.15


7. Turn off taps and appliances

Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest. Don’t use appliances that require water, such as glassware washers and autoclaves, unless they’re full, and avoid running taps when not in use. This can be taken further by using timers or foot pedals to control water use from taps, or by installing low-flow aerators to reduce flow. Whereas a typical tap runs at 15 liters per minute, a low-flow aerator can reduce this to <6 liters per minute.3 It is also useful to make sure appliances are running efficiently. Check taps for any leaks and ensure problems are fixed as soon as possible to minimize waste. A tap that drips once per second can use as much water as 180 showers over the course of a year.15


8. Consider adapting or upgrading appliances

Autoclaves, particularly steam-jacketed autoclaves, can be one of the biggest water consumers in the lab.16 Their water consumption can be reduced dramatically, up to 90%, by retrofitting water-saving devices that remove the need for a constant stream of water for cooling.16 Newer models of autoclaves do not use steam jackets, so another option, if appropriate, could be to upgrade to a more efficient device. Water vacuum aspirators are also a big consumer of water. Using one for only two hours per day requires the same amount of water that 750 people would use in a year. Switching to a vacuum system that does not require a stream of water is not only more sustainable but also offers more control and is a safer option.15


9. Stop single-pass cooling

The process of single-pass cooling sees water circulated once before being disposed of down the drain. Ideally, buildings should have a closed-loop water system that can be utilized. If not, instead of the cooling water being wasted, it can be reused in a recirculating bath which can cool multiple reactions at the same time.17

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Fostering a sustainability mindset

The above list outlines just some of the opportunities available to reduce impact and help ensure sustainable laboratory practices. It is by no means exhaustive and there are several initiatives available to improve lab sustainability. The European Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine’s "EFLM Task Force 'Green and Sustainable Laboratories’" and the "My Green Lab" program both provide guidance and actionable ways to make meaningful change and bring a new perspective to those working in the lab.

Even small changes can have a big impact on sustainability. Sustainable laboratory practices not only benefit individual labs, but also contribute towards organizational net zero goals, and most importantly play a part in the global fight against climate change.

  1. ARUP. (2024). Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  2. Durgan J et al. (2023) Immunol Cell Biol. 101, 289-301. Paper available from [Accessed May 2024]
  3. Royal Society of Chemistry. (2022). Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  4. Princeton University. (2018). Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  5. The Gist. (2018). Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  6. My Green Lab. (2024) Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  7. Harvard University. (2023) Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  8. Cleveland State University. (2020) Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  9. Freezer Challenge. (2024). Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  10. Gumapas L and Simons G. (2012) Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  11. Freezer Challenge. (2024) [Accessed May 2024]
  12. Proteintech. (2024). Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  13. Urbina MA et al. (2015). Nature. 528, 479. Paper available from [Accessed May 2024]
  14. Integra Biosciences. (2024) Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  15. My Green Lab. (2021) Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  16. Purite. (2022). Article available from [Accessed May 2024]
  17. Green Your Lab. (2024) Article available from [Accessed May 2024]