Sustainability in Science
The word of the era is sustainable. People are working to be eco-friendly and create minimal waste in their everyday lives. And for many scientists, their everyday life is in a research lab. However, being eco-friendly and reusing materials can pose a number of problems. Many things have to be sterile, and can only be used once to avoid cross-contamination. Contamination is serious, as it can alter the data and ruin the experiment. With the necessity of a clean lab space, a lot of trash is generated in just one day. Even though it may seem that one has to give up effective experiments for being eco-friendly, there are options that provide a way to be both environmentally aware and effective at gathering data.
A lot of the trash formed in scientific research is plastic. Some of the trash is also hazardous, whether it be chemical or biological waste. In 2014, it was estimated that labs had produced as much as 5.5 million tons of plastic waste (Thielking 2019). Not only is this waste bad for Earth in general, but some of the more toxic waste can be very dangerous to all life forms. Disposing of the dangerous waste must be dealt with in a safe manner. Even waste that may not seem dangerous, like plastic, can be harmful to the Earth and stick around for a long time, taking up precious space and resources. Harmful chemicals from the plastics may even be eaten by animals, or released into the water supply.
Conservation of energy in the lab is also a key figure in environmentally-conscious science. Some labs may require freezers, high-tech vents, and other machines that cost a lot of money and energy to use and maintain (Thielking 2019). There is a push for small habits that can lead to an accumulation of energy and cost savings. Lowering the sash on the fume hood, reducing the amount of air ventilation, and turning up the temperature on freezers are all possible solutions (Thielking 2019). While air ventilation and refrigeration are necessary, they can be optimized for a setting that is energy-efficient, but also meets minimal safety standards. Lower energy use can also prolong the life of the machines.
Different organizations are helping to push for more sustainable practice in research labs. My Green Lab is a non-profit based in California that is pushing for universities to implement sustainable practices. MilliporeSigma, a chemical manufacturer, has a program where people can return used containers, and is also working on eco-friendly chemicals (Thielking 2019). It can be hard to change chemicals or reagents: many experiments are optimized and set in their procedure. However, alternative experiments that yield significant results might be worth it if the waste is reduced.
The pollution of the environment from organic solvents, such as benzene, can go into the water and cause detrimental health effects for the aquatic life. This damage can be significantly reduced if the usage of these organic solvents are reduced by 10% (O’Donnell 2019). The field of green chemistry has emerged, where scientists are making a conscious effort to be more environmentally friendly. For example, where a column chromatography may use excess solvent, the same reaction can be undertaken in a solvent-less environment with the two solid reactants mixed together in an almost melted-like state (O’Donnell 2019). The green chemistry principles are put forward by the American Chemical Society.
Regardless of the name, the green chemistry principles can be applied across multiple fields and research labs. They result in the design of safer chemicals and transformations, which minimizes the risk of adverse effects on human health, as well as the environment. This is economically profitable, as a lot of money is pooled into mitigating the effects of toxic waste (Anastas 2009). These principles outline sustainable practices at all stages of research. There is an emphasis on preventing waste, instead of just dealing with it when it is generated. Experiments and synthesis should be as efficient as possible, without having unnecessary excess of materials. Chemicals that are being used should be safe for the scientists and for the general community and the environment. Energy use should be efficient. Products should be designed for degradation, so that they do not stick around in the environment. The American Chemical Society also states that there should be constant surveillance of possible hazard risks, i.e. a scientist getting hurt, or toxic waste polluting the environment (Anastas 2009). While implementing all of these conditions might be difficult for some labs, following some is better than nothing. Even little changes to create a more sustainable research lab have a lasting impact, and can lead to even more changes.
There are many tips and tricks to creating a more sustainable lab environment. A few small adjustments can help. Even more progress needs to be made, however, especially with the use of plastics. Reusable plastics are extremely important in mitigating environmental harm. This is very important now with all of the pollution and environmental distress. While scientific research may not become completely eco-friendly, there are definite steps it can take. With more people aware of environmental issues, more labs might be forming that already are thinking about sustainable practices and ideas. With all that scientists do to better the world, making their research eco-friendly is another beneficial aspect of scientific research.
Anastas, P. and Eghbali, N. (2009). Green Chemistry: Principles and Practice. Chem. Soc. Rev. 39: 301-12.
O’Donnell, Anthony. (2019). “Solvated and Solvent-less Asymmetric Hydrogenation of a,B-unsaturated nitroalkenes via the Hantzsch Amido Dihydropyridine.” Chemistry Independent Research, Franklin & Marshall College, student paper.
Thielking, Megan. (2019). Labs rack up big energy bills and produce a ton of trash. Many are trying to become more eco-friendly. Stat News. Retrieved from: statnews.com/2019/05/15/labs-push-for-sustainability/