Greener Science Research Practices

As we try to “curb our consumption” on this year’s Buy Nothing Day, I thought about the 16L of concentrated hydrochloric acid I received this morning in the mail:


Those 16L of concentrated acid will make 160L of the 10% HCl my lab requires for the work we do. Why might this remind me of BND? Those 160L might last 6 months, only to be painstakingly disposed of after we no longer see it fit for use in our lab (we always require newer, “cleaner” acid”). What a waste! If we can take a good hard look at our personal consumption patterns, why can’t labs do the same thing?

David Grimm wrote a feature (subscription required) last month on Allen Doyle, a manager of a soil ecology lab at UC Santa Barbara. However, he’s no ordinary scientist – he’s a sustainable ecologist:

The typical lab consumes four to five times as much energy as an equivalent-sized office or classroom, to say nothing of the huge amount of plastic, paper, and hazardous chemicals researchers go through. Yet in Doyle’s experience, scientists are blasé about reducing their environmental footprint while at work. “There’s a bit of a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture out there,” he says. Many researchers chastise the government for not doing more for sustainability, says Doyle, “but we’re ignoring the same issues in our own labs.”

I highly encourage all of you to check the article out. If you lack a subscription, here’s a list of greener options for our laboratory (some taken from Grimm’s article):

  • Use dish towels and mops! – paper towel is useless, unless you’re cleaning up a pseudo-hazardous spill or drying your hands in a public washroom. Get rid of it!
  • Shut down and/or unplug all electronic gear (that you can) – sure, maybe unplugging that mass spec every night and warming it up every morning isn’t a great idea – but computers? UV/Vis specs? LIGHTS!?
  • Participate in chemical exchanges – many university campuses (this includes UBC – see here) have a used-chemical exchange, thus providing a way for labs to acquire cheap used chemicals while not having to resort to dumping that kilo of EDTA or that litre of sulfuric acid kicking around down the drain.
  • Defrost your freezers regularly – according to Grimm, “The frost insulates the coils and makes the compressor work harder to pull heat away.”
  • Re-use plastic material – many labs cannot do this, for obvious reasons (contamination issues), but what if two labs with very different focuses swapped used gear? Or, like the chemical inventory, labs could resell used labware like used cars – with a documented history of use.
  • Decommission unused overhead lights and fume hoods – lights are constantly suckling at the wattage teat, while unused hoods keep pumping 24h a day. So, cut them out, and cut your lab’s carbon footprint.

Any other ideas?

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: