By Martin Farley, Sustainable Labs Adviser, UCL, KCL

Published: 24 August 2018

Laboratory research is extremely energy and materials hungry. Much of this is necessary to facilitate the incredible discoveries research enables, but as most experienced lab users know, there are opportunities to mitigate this.

Just how big is the impact of labs on the environment?

A recent Nature article detailed estimates for the amount of plastics produced from laboratories; a stunning 1.8% of the world’s plastic waste is estimated to come from labs. Sadly, the majority of these plastics are incinerated at high temperatures and sent directly into our atmosphere. Beyond waste, laboratories have been shown to utilise up to 10 times more energy than non-research areas. E.g. labs take up just 6% of the floor space at the University of Bristol but consume 40% of the electricity. This trend is not uncommon as many Russell group universities which find that laboratory buildings can consume 2/3 or more of all energy utilised.

Beyond environmental concerns

Research methods face changing times which will require it to shift accordingly. These changes include more competition for funding, as well as shifting political environments. Possibly one of the greatest modern challenges to research has been dubbed the “crisis of reproducibility”. Here researchers have found that many of the papers published in respected journals such as Nature are simply not reproducible, one of the founding tenants of science. Surveys of researchers indicate that causes are likely the absence of simple good-practice techniques such as understanding of statistics, experimental design, and in-lab validation. Science which isn’t reproducible presents an enormous challenge in that it not only represents a waste of resources in the initial experiment, it can instigate further poor experiments around the world.

Estimating impact in both carbon and pounds

At UCL and King’s College London, a new tool and approach is being piloted to attempt to standarise good practices around efficiency, sustainability, and research quality. The tool has been dubbed LEAF, short for the laboratory efficiency assessment framework. Within it are a set of criteria broken up as Bronze, Silver, and Gold levels, as well as a set of simple “calculators” which crucially allow users to estimate the impact of their actions in both carbon and pounds. UCL is piloting the tool in partnership with King’s College London and several more research-intensive institutions, and has received interest in the application from a number of UK research funding bodies.

Labs using the tool would aim to achieve a suitable award level. We recognise that research can be extremely time-intensive, and so LEAF has been designed take as little time as possible. In fact, most labs should be able to achieve Bronze with just an hour or two of input.

Preliminary data from groups at UCL applying the tool indicate that small lab groups using the framework can save £5,000 per annum in procurement costs and energy, as well as implement simple steps aimed at improving rigour and reproducibility. Surveyed users that they felt the tool was educational, fun, and useful. Currently in progress, the pilot hopes to show similar savings through simple improvements and will present findings to relevant funders including those at the AMRC.

We have a responsibility

Our ultimate goal is to introduce a system which drives efficient and sustainable research, in a way that benefits funders, researchers, and the quality of research itself. Our hope is that LEAF can become a metric which facilitates this. Wastage within laboratory settings has become common practice. When we consider the sources of our funding and the intent behind the efforts at raising those funds, we have a responsibility to ensure that they are spent as well as possible, and in turn impact our environment as little as possible.