The 2050 Lab of the Future: Sustainability
My Green Lab CEO James Connelly discusses all things laboratory sustainability, including changing attitudes, top tips, and common misconceptions
| 7 min read | Interview
How did you get involved in laboratory sustainability?
I trained as an architect, and worked for a decade in the green building industry. I created several sustainability programs, including Declare (an ingredients label for building products) and the Living Product Challenge, which became the most advanced sustainability standard for products that were net positive across their lifecycle. Seven years ago, I met Allison Paradise, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist who wanted to address the environmental impacts of research. We founded My Green Lab as a non-profit organization in 2013.
Allison opened my eyes to the damaging ecological impact of laboratories, and I advised her on organization growth strategy. Inspired by the mission, I joined the board and three years ago, I became CEO when Allison left to pursue some personal passions. Since then, we have expanded from three to 16 members globally – many of them like-minded researchers who highlighted similar concerns in the industry.
How else has My Green Lab grown over the years?
Since My Green Lab was founded, we’ve grown to be the most globally recognized organization in the lab sustainability space. We’ve worked with over 1,300 labs in 39 countries, and engaged with over 15,000 scientists. The industry has finally opened its eyes to the environmental impact of research – and the capacity for change!
As we’ve grown, we’ve added new programs alongside My Green Lab Certification, including the Accountability, Consistency, and Transparency (ACT) label – the first eco-label for laboratory products – and the My Green Lab Ambassador program, which is a free online introduction to green labs. We have over 3,000 ambassadors from 59 countries, and aim to convene on a monthly basis to share new ideas and strategies.
How important is laboratory sustainability to the environment as a whole?
At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26), My Green Lab released a study that proved biotech and pharma were one of the world's most carbon intensive industry sectors. Pharma companies alone have a larger carbon footprint than any other major emitters – such as semiconductors, forestry, and paper. Laboratories often use 10 times more energy than a typical office space, four times the amount of water, and produce huge amounts of hazardous waste and plastic.
A 2015 study (1) estimated that academic research labs produce two percent of global plastic waste – and when testing and clinical labs are factored in, the scope of the problem becomes catastrophic. Fortunately, My Green Lab offers a program to lessen the impact of labs and their supply chains. Our mission is to conduct science in a way that is beneficial to the health of people and our planet. We believe that, in 10 years, all labs should be green labs, and all product design will put the environment first.
How have you seen attitudes about sustainability change in recent years?
We have seen a dramatic increase in awareness surrounding sustainability and science, with a particular interest in carbon. Before COP 26, over 30 percent of the largest biotech and pharma companies committed to the UN Race to Zero. After we released a study evaluating the carbon impact of biotech and pharma, the UN selected My Green Lab’s certification as a “Breakthrough Outcome.” They set a goal that 95 percent of all labs in pharma and medtech should be My Green Lab certified at the highest level by 2030. Since then, there has been increased uptake in our programs, particularly in the biotech and pharma sectors. My Green Lab programs have now been implemented globally at 23 of the 25 largest pharmaceutical companies!
What are some relatively straightforward things companies and labs can do to be more sustainable?
Basic measures – such as turning lights and equipment off when not in use – will have a significant environmental impact. Ultra-low temperature freezers use the same amount of energy as a house, so raising the temperature from -80 °C to -70 °C can drastically cut energy consumption. Furthermore, a fume hood uses as much energy as three houses; shutting the sash will reduce consumption by a third. Lastly, it is important to focus on the supply chain. Scope Three emissions – those not produced by companies themselves, but by those they’re indirectly responsible for – from biotech and pharma are 4.7 times higher than direct greenhouse gas emissions that originate from their own operations. Labs can also purchase ACT labeled products or encourage suppliers to adopt the ACT label, which will lower the emissions from purchasing decisions.
What common misconceptions exist?
I think there is a wide misconception that practicing sustainability will impair the scientific process or hinder results. However, when scientists learn of their impact, they are eager to change, and many of the recommendations we suggest not only save resources, but also improve the efficiency of research itself. Science and sustainability should not be in opposition – and we have continuously proven that with our programs!
What is your blue-sky vision for the "analytical lab of 2050?"
My blue-sky vision is a net zero carbon lab, filled with laboratory products that are certified to reduce their carbon impact to zero – or even composed from sustainable, carbon-sequestering materials. Labs could transform from producing waste and emitting carbon to becoming positive players in reversing global warming.
In the future, the analytical lab will move from test tubes and equipment to computing power. Many experiments will be modeled with advances in processing power; here, the environmental consequences of research will stem from data storage and computing power. There will also be an increased impact on the supply chain and infrastructure that supports computational capacity and storage. My Green Lab is already focusing on how to manage and reduce this footprint in the next version of the program.
Will we ever get there?
Absolutely! In fact, we must get there before 2050. The next decade is critical to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, which is why My Green Lab and the UN are so focused on taking action by 2030. We already know how to create zero-carbon labs and carbon sequestering products, so the challenge is to encourage the industry to follow suit.
I believe that scientists should spearhead the response to climate change, considering our knowledge on climate science and our innovative capacity and resources to execute the shift to a zero-carbon future. Our industry is familiar with making strategic investments for potential, long-term pay-off. It takes around 10 years to bring a drug to market, and we have a similar time frame to keep global warming at 1.5 °C. Our current trajectory of growth makes me optimistic that our mission will be achieved.
I believe that change depends on science to pave the way.
Partners in Sustainability
Darlene Solomon adds to the sustainability conversation and discusses what labs can do to lower their carbon footprint
By Darlene Solomon, Chief Technical Officer, Agilent Technologies, Santa Clara, USA
What’s the view on sustainability from analytical labs?
According to Agilent customer surveys, 85 percent of labs and organizations have sustainability goals in place, and 83 percent of lab leaders believe their current workflow requires optimization to meet sustainability ambitions (2). These results inspired a partnership with My Green Lab in 2019 – one that continues with high priority. Many labs want to reduce their environmental impact, alongside increasing productivity, lowering costs, and making the lab a safer place to work. Performance, cost, and sustainability need to work together – and this is a huge opportunity for innovation too!
At Agilent, we have seen increased consumer demand for our sustainability innovations, including our oil free vacuum pumps, reduced footprint instruments, and column technologies that reduce solvent requirements and, therefore, hazardous waste. We also encourage labs to become fully digitized so the requirement for paper is lessened. Miniaturization is another key trend that not only solves the issue of lab space but could also help in terms of sustainability because smaller instruments use less material and disposal, and generally have reduced power requirements. Smaller samples may require less reagent use too – both in terms of sample preparation and downstream waste.
What straightforward things can companies and labs do to be more sustainable?
The first step to becoming more sustainable is promoting awareness and education throughout a company. Observe and understand the consequences of what you’re doing. Meet in teams frequently to discuss alternatives and enquire about the My Green Lab Certification process. Achieving net zero in the industry isn’t going to be easy, and solutions need to be actively sought, such as purchasing ACT certified instruments that meet your lab needs and talking to vendors about how energy resource intensive their instruments are. As an alternative to instrument disposal, our Certified Pre-Owned Instruments Program refurbishes used systems and extends the life of these materials. Perhaps this is an option that can meet lab purchasing needs whilst simultaneously reducing cost and waste.
- MA Urbina, AJR Watts, and EE Reardon, “Labs should cut plastic waste too,” Nature, 528, 479 (2015). DOI: 10.1038/528479c
- Agilent, “Pharma Lab Leaders Survey Reveals Key Focus Areas” (2019). Available at: https://bit.ly/3FRygsH