Let us be realistic though, this is a temporary situation, people need to travel, factories need to produce, and as life will go back to normal, pollution levels will rise along with it. While many people are conscious, and proactive, of the steps they can take at home, improvements in the workplace can be even more important. A study looking at the carbon footprint of a clinical lab (considering only electricity, water, gas consumption, and [plastic and paper] waste production) showed that optimising operations and basic facilities could reduce a lab’s environmental impact by ~50%4. This is not even taking a focus on the solvent side of things, arguably a significant factor for many labs.
Most are aware of the general improvements we can make at home and in the lab - shutting down computers/instrumentation where possible, switching off lights when we leave a room, reducing water consumption, recycling, etc. However, there are a great variety of “small steps” that you can take to reduce your labs’ impact on the environment, and to improve your lab environment for your own health and wellbeing. Every little effort makes a difference, and they all add up. We’ve pulled together some examples that will hopefully get you thinking about improvements that you can make to reduce the environmental impact of your lab and to improve the lab environment too.
Many people are unaware of the range of recycling programmes that are now available. From baby food pouches to medicine blister packs5, many organisations are working towards that ideal circular economy. Now, there is even a Kimtech™ Nitrile Glove recycling programme6, designed with users in Pharmaceutical/Bioscience manufacturing companies, research facilities and universities in mind. At the moment, they only accept their own brand gloves, but it is likely others may follow their example.
Much of the glassware used for the supply of chemicals, and even some plastic and aluminium bottles, can also be recycled7. So long as they have been sufficiently rinsed, no residue is left and the bottles are dry, most waste handlers can collect as non-hazardous waste and recycle. It is always a good idea to have a chat with your waste management service to see what options they can offer and what their own conditions are.
Solvent safety and consumption
Working in chromatography, and in many labs, one big safety concern is always solvents. If you have ever been involved in risk management, you might be familiar with the acronym “Eric Prevents Death”. Eliminate, Reduce, Isolate, Control, PPE, Discipline. Elimination of solvent handling is not an option in a lab environment (not yet anyway) so we do what we can to reduce our exposure. We minimise how often we handle solvents, how much and what type we are working with, we use fume cupboards, extraction arms, gloves, etc. and there have been some great advancements in technology to really reduce the volume of solvent we need to use.
Liquid-liquid extraction techniques can be far from ideal. They often require the use of large volumes of solvent, they are very time consuming, and when you are getting into the region of a 1 litre total volume with a few minutes of shaking, repeat x40 it’s tiring! If you’ve ever spent a significant amount of time on this technique, you might be just as excited as I was when I learned about DiLLME. Dispersive Liquid-Liquid Micro Extraction carried out by an automated robotic workstation, with the option to be combined with chromatographic systems. Extraction solvent volume can be reduced to under 1ml, a massive impact on solvent consumption as well as exposure, not even thinking about the time saved! By automating the technique reproducibility can be dramatically improved too8.