Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Going green in the laboratory?

So now everyone is jumping on the green bandwagon and looking to become more environmentally friendly and this includes science laboratories. From my observation, the ‘modern-day’ green movement began to escalate quickly after “An inconvenient truth” was released. I think this movie/documentary (which I still haven’t seen) opened the eyes of a large portion of society who were unaware of global warming (including myself) or who had turned a blind eye to it. As far as I am aware, "Nature" (which I don’t have the privilege of reading online) and "The Scientist" are just a couple of science journals that have recently published articles about making the lab more environmentally friendly. However, long before Al Gore, Nature or The Scientist, one of my ex-co-workers actually raised the question of how much scientists contribute to the destruction of the environment. I’m uncertain about labs in other disciplines (eg. engineering, agriculture) but if you’ve ever worked in medical science lab, you would know how environmentally un-friendly they were. Starting at the lab bench: My work is at the molecular level therefore liquid handling is in microlitres and millilitres and one of the most highly utilised apparatus for this level of liquid dispensing is the hand pipette which requires disposable plastic tips. Most of my work requires the use of a very large number of these plastic tips for dispensing biological materials, solutions or enzymes. For each sample, a new tip is required for each ingredient. Then there are hand gloves which are used to protect the scientist from biological or chemical contamination and also to protect the sample from human contaminants. Tissues, Eppendorfs (small tubes for holding small quantities of volume), regular tubes, etc, etc. All of the above mentioned must then be incinerated because it can contain hazardous human cells, pathogens or genetically modified organisms. The process of waste incineration consequently produces gas emissions (including carbon dioxide). In addition to these plastics, many products are usually enclosed in their own plastic casing or packaging because our experiments require the products to be sterile upon use. A large quantity of paper and plastic waste is accumulated just alone from the packaging of products.
Scattered around the lab are commonly used equipment/apparatus which require large amounts of electricity to run: water baths, incubators, rockers, mixers, balances, a radio (if in my lab), fume hoods, ultra-cold freezers, etc. Most of these equipment are left turned on or on standby due to the inconvenience of start up times when needed to be used; and also because they may be incubating biological specimens.
An important point mentioned in "The Scientist" article (Can labs go green?, volume 21, page 6) was that a lot labs did not have windows and therefore relied upon artificial light sources. Medical research facilities usually comprise of several labs which are fitted with standard fluorescent lights. Unfortunately, most of the time, the lights in a room will be left on even after one use and a single room can contain several light fittings. I’m not sure why many labs were designed without windows and still continue to be designed without windows. Maybe to avoid distraction from the outside or maybe to use space economically or maybe to protect biological specimens from the UV light emitted from sun.
The above are just a couple of my observations of energy usage in the lab and I’m sure there are many points I have missed. Prior to writing this post, i was unware of the real impact that running a lab had on the environment compared to a household or a building but according to the sources cited by The Scientist, it is significantly greater. Significant enough to initiate projects such a Labs21 ("a voluntary partnership programme dedicated to improving the environmental performance of US laboratories" - Labs21). It will be interesting to see how far the lab will evolve in an effort to sustain the environment.
In conclusion i would like to ask this question: Does the benefit of medical research out-weigh its negative impact on the environment or vice-versa? On one hand, medical scientists are trying to better the quality of life for humanity but on the other hand we are using vast amounts of energy to produce, use and dispose of products and equipment, all of which is contributing to the detriment of the environment and humanity. I know that when I’m working in the lab I am doing my bit for the environment and my ex-co-worker will definitely back me up here.

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