Green Labs Austria: Creating a sustainable lab culture from the bottom up

Imptox partners talk to Green Labs Austria co-founder Philipp Weber to learn more about their initiative and how they envision the circular lab of the future.

Life-science research without lab experiments is unthinkable. Where would humanity be today without antibiotics, cancer treatment, or vaccines, just to name a few life-changing achievements from scientific laboratories? Thanks to this research, we have effectively addressed many of our societies' most pressing issues, including the recent COVID epidemic. But not without consequences, such as the contribution of research labs to a global increase in plastic waste.

It is estimated that in 2014 alone, plastic waste stemming from biological, medical, or agricultural research amounted to 5.5 million tonnes, more than India produced in 2010 or equivalent to the combined weight of 67 cruise liners. A question inevitably arises: is there a way to run scientific laboratories more sustainably?

Philipp Weber, co-founder of the Green Labs Austria initiative and a post-doc in environmental cell biology at the University of Vienna would respond with a clear yes. By way of example, he points out that researchers can start reducing single-use plastic items by changing their workflow. If that is not possible, they can make their used plastic interesting for recycling companies and sort it according to chemical composition. Lab plastic is often non-toxic and represents a valuable resource for more effective recycling.

Green Labs Austria, founded in 2020 and counting 43 member research groups, is a network of labs that want to transition to more sustainability. They offer valuable advice on getting started, including a series of simple, easily implementable practices to raise a lab’s awareness (see the Green Labs website for more information).

An excellent way to begin is to carry out a Green Labs "plastics waste analysis". Imptox partners, the Medical University of Vienna (MedUni Wien) and the University of Vienna (UNIVIE), who both joined Green Labs Austria this year (read our story), collected and sorted their plastic waste for one week. The results were eye-opening. According to projections based on this collection, one lab researcher in the Experimental Allergy Laboratory headed by Michelle Epstein (MedUni Wien) produces an average of 51 kg of non-hazardous plastic waste per year. The nanomedicine and pharmaceutical sciences lab headed by Lea Ann Dailey (UNIVIE) produces 32.3 kg of plastic waste per researcher annually.

The amount of plastic trash a lab produces varies widely and depends on the operating field explained Weber. Analysing the waste of seven of their member labs showed that a research lab produces, on average, 120 kg of plastic waste per researcher per year. "But we urgently need more data to get a clearer picture of the real extent of the problem," he says. Analyses such as those carried out by our Imptox partners help visualize the sheer amount of waste produced in a week. "Usually, waste disappears silently in trash bags and gets quickly disposed of. But having the accumulated plastic of a week right in front of you is shocking," says Ece Danisman, a researcher in Epstein's lab. "There is no extra effort in separating plastics in the lab; it is only a question of creating new and better habits," she concludes.

The environmentally conscious team of young researchers who founded Green Labs Austria has adopted those habits in their private lives. They avoid plastics whenever they can, participate in Fridays for Future and reduce their carbon footprints as much as possible. "It is only logical that we brought this consciousness to the lab and felt the need to do something," says Weber. Much of the plastics used in a lab are of high quality but single-use only. “Reduce and reuse has the priority, but because this is not always possible, it is important to explore solutions for a lab plastic circular economy,” says Philipp Weber. For example, when working with sensitive bacteria or human cell cultures, there is no way around single-use plastics. In other cases, plastics can be replaced by glass or reused after a simple treatment (read here their story on how to reuse cuvettes).

Researchers can adopt other measures to be more 'green'. For example, increasing the temperature of the ultra-low freezer by 10 degrees from -80°C to -70°C can reduce energy consumption and costs by 30% without compromising frozen samples. Also, publishing well-executed experiments with negative results could avoid unnecessary repetitions and liberate resources for something else or simply save them. "We need to create awareness about these issues and establish new practices, so we can build a sustainable lab culture from the bottom up," says Weber.

"While bottom-up strategies are important and effective, top-down approaches are needed too," suggests Michelle Epstein. Specific equipment, such as PCR machines or other lab instruments, requires plastic consumables. "We need producers, designers, and engineers to start rethinking the designs of these instruments to enable us to use them without creating so much plastic waste. There is only so much we can do from the bottom up. We need to raise awareness on all levels," says Epstein.

Green Labs Austria is expanding and has inspired similar initiatives in Europe, Green Labs Netherlands and Green Labs Portugal. Regional organizations are essential, as they can face local challenges. Still, global problems require attention worldwide, which is why Green Labs Austria and a series of other environmentally conscious partners officially kicked off the Sustainable European Laboratories Network last March.

"We universities have to lead by example and inspire others to follow," affirms Weber. The Green Labs Austria team is only at the beginning of what they hope will one day lead to a systemic change in the lab, making life science research sustainable and ready for the future.

If you want to learn more about this initiative or if you are a researcher and want to rethink the lab of the future together with Green Labs Austria, please get in touch at info@greenlabsaustria.at