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Moving toward a greener lab


Sustainability issues are becoming increasingly prominent in the laboratory setting, leading to discussions about “green” laboratory environments. You can start the process to minimize your laboratory’s environmental impact by implementing a few straightforward steps. Not only can these initiatives help to address the potential influence of your lab on the environment, but they can also help your laboratory become “leaner” by increasing efficiency and reducing waste.

To start going green, consider three main areas of opportunity which include:

  • waste reduction, particularly in terms of discarded chemicals;
  • optimized workflow; and
  • energy conservation.

Waste reduction

You can begin reducing chemical waste as soon as your chemicals are specified. Start by properly evaluating and specifying the right chemicals for the job at hand to ensure you achieve reliable results the first time and avoid having to discard improper mixtures. For example, selecting a lower grade chemical that may not suit a particularly demanding process can produce inaccurate results – leading to wasted product but also costly and time-consuming rework.

You can ease the selection process by starting with chemical products that meet specific standards (eg, American Chemical Society) for consistency and quality. These products are more likely to give you dependable results across multiple batches, resulting in less rework and waste. For routine applications, consider employing a universal reagent approach by standardizing the use of an accepted ACS-rated product for technical and reagent-grade chemicals such as acids, salts and solvents. This can help to substantially reduce inventory and packaging disposal requirements.

On the other hand, universal grade chemicals may not be appropriate for more stringent processes or specifications. The solution in these cases might be application-optimized chemicals specifically developed for your methodology. If your laboratory depends on HPLC and LC/MS operations, for example, it makes sense to choose high-quality products engineered for these processes. This maximizes accuracy and reproducibility while avoiding inconsistent or substandard results that lead to wasted material.

For other lab processes you might also consider using pre-blended chemicals, like pre-mixed mobile phases such as LC/MS solvent blends. These allow you to cut down on inventory and conserve physical lab space while reducing waste from inaccurate mixing or spillage. In addition, ready-to-use volumetric solutions can save considerable time and expense for preparation and standardization.

Using volumetric solution concentrates for analytical processes, or dissolution media concentrates for tablet testing, can help reduce waste and even streamline operations by:

  • eliminating time-consuming steps (selection/analysis of starting reagents; weighing and standardization of the solution);
  • making accurate and exact volumes, with reduced reagent storage needs and virtually no discarded leftovers;
  • permitting very rapid preparation whenever needed;
  • optimizing workflow, where resources devoted to preparation and standardization of solutions can now be used more efficiently in developing products; and
  • reducing shipping costs due to less product weight.

Because you can allocate laboratory resources more efficiently, pre-blended chemicals are well suited for high-volume work. Conversely, for low-volume work, mixing chemistries in smaller batches is another good way to reduce chemical waste. This requires advanced planning and attention paid to streamlining your workflow, so that you mix only the amount your process needs. The result is that less material is required – or discarded. Whenever possible, remember to use packaging with easy-to-pour spouts or other features that can also help reduce spills and accidents.

When lean meets green

You can adapt lean manufacturing principles, proven to be effective in other industries, to your laboratory and enjoy environmental benefits as well. Lean principles often focus on inventory management. Significant sustainability and efficiency advantages can be realized from a few simple changes in how you receive and store chemical products. For example, you can save space and reduce the need to dispose of expired or unusable product by optimizing your reorder process, especially for chemicals with a shorter shelf life. Keeping your inventory at just the right level may require collaboration with your chemical provider to develop just-in-time delivery procedures.

Reducing the amount of shipping and packaging also helps minimize waste. Receiving chemicals in bulk, when practical for your particular lab application, cuts down on packaging requirements. Environmentally friendly recyclable chemical containers are also available for products consumed in bulk and high volume.

Paper recycling is also a must to minimize the impact of waste paper on the environment. Most laboratories already do this. But why not go one step further and reduce the amount of paper generated in the first place? Using electronic record-keeping methods can stop paper waste before it starts. A paperless approach can also help you speed communications, enable better global teamwork and provide faster response to changes in customer specifications, raw materials sourcing, warehousing and many other parameters. Combined with commonsense philosophies like not printing out every e-mail, a paperless system can substantially benefit the environment and the laboratory.

Of course, it helps if your chemical suppliers and distributors also provide paperless options. Electronic catalogues and data sheets, online ordering systems, e-mail notifications and similar features have an impact on cutting down waste paper.

Pay attention to your lab processes, especially in the areas of safety training and the promotion of safe materials handling procedures. Spills, breakage, damaged containers and other mishaps have an adverse impact on the environment as well as your operations. Evaluate your safety procedures and provide training regularly. In addition, be sure to order chemical products in shatter-resistant, purpose-designed containers to match your applications and requirements.

The power of energy conservation

Energy conservation in the lab is probably the most straightforward area to implement, but it’s frequently overlooked. Even simple efforts such as turning off devices and lighting fixtures when not in operation, or closing laminar flow hoods when they aren’t in use, can yield savings – both in electricity and from less wear and tear on motors. Upgrading to more energy-efficient equipment is another approach, keeping in mind that newer equipment is likely to be more environmentally friendly than older devices.

You can also save energy by controlling the climate within the laboratory. This includes installing environmentally friendly lighting and energy-efficient systems that regulate heating or cooling when the laboratory is not in use. Thoroughly sealing the building envelope, particularly the roof, can make heating and cooling more efficient. In warm climates, consider installing “cool roofs” using materials that deflect heat and lighten the air-conditioning load.

Conservation benefits

Basic laboratory energy-saving, waste reduction and efficiency practices can bring significant sustainability benefits. Your chemical suppliers can support your green laboratory initiatives by providing pre-blended chemicals and concentrates, application-optimized products, specialized packaging and guidance on specifying appropriate grades to minimize chemical waste disposal.

The key aspects of a green laboratory are already well within reach. A few small and basic conservation efforts can add up to major benefits for your laboratory beyond going green – they can also impro
ve efficiency, quality and throughput, reduce costs, minimize rework and, ultimately, impact your bottom line.

Melvin Homik manages quality control lab operations for AvantorTM Performance Materials in the company’s Phillipsburg, NJ facility. A certified quality engineer, he has more than 10 years of QA/QC experience in GLP/GMP manufacturing and laboratory operations for food safety and nutritional chemistry and specialty chemical production for microelectronics and pharmaceuticals.

For more information,  request online at www.labcanada.com/rsc, October 2011 issue, reply card # 15.

This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of Lab Product News.