“Reduce,” “reuse,” and “recycle” are more than just environmentally friendly buzzwords. These simple practices can positively impact the bottom line for clinical laboratories.

By Ann H. Carlson

Summary: Clinical laboratories consume significantly more energy per square meter. leading to increased operational costs and environmental impact. Green initiatives will save resources and go right to the bottom line.

Takeaways:

  1. Sustainable practices can reduce energy consumption, water usage, and waste generation, improving both environmental impact and lab profitability.
  2. Implementing energy-efficient equipment and proper waste management systems can enhance workflow efficiency and reduce operational costs.
  3. Engaging staff in sustainability initiatives through education and incremental changes can foster a culture of environmental responsibility and long-term commitment.

To perform the indispensable testing services required by patients and health care providers, a clinical laboratory uses between five to 10 times more energy per square meter than a typical office building1.

“The demands on labs continue to increase,” says Maureen Mazurek, chief sustainability and environment, health, and safety (EHS) officer for BD. “Higher throughput means higher energy and water usage, more waste, and greater emissions.”

The resulting electricity, water, and waste-disposal bills add up quickly for labs already struggling to stay profitable while keeping up with today’s rising testing volumes in a touchy reimbursement climate.

“The widespread use of disposable plastic consumables such as pipette tips, gloves, and tubes leads to substantial waste generation, contributing to environmental pollution and resource depletion,” says Namrata Jain, PhD, senior marketing manager for My Green Lab, a San Diego-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the sustainability of scientific research. “Inefficient water management practices, including leaky faucets and the use of single-pass cooling, also contribute to water wastage and increased utility costs.”

According to a recent study, about 1% to 2% of all urban waste is health care related. The good news is that approximately 85% of healthcare-related waste is nonhazardous, which makes it an easier target for reduction efforts2. Labs can also implement technologies and practices to decrease the amount of biohazardous waste generated in the lab.

“Effectively, all labs must pay to properly remove biohazardous material, as it cannot simply be thrown into the trash,” says Milan Patel, CEO and co-founder of PathogenDx. “Less waste means less outgoing cost, which ultimately means the lab is going to deliver more profit to benefit the bottom line.”

Improving Workflow along with the Bottom Line

Going green can also improve your lab’s workflow and patient care.

“Labs that operate sustainably tend to perform consistently and provide accurate clinical data, ensuring better healthcare outcomes,” says Eric Pabon, senior manager of hematology global product marketing for Beckman Coulter. “Moreover, sustainable practices often lead to more efficient workflows, enhancing access to timely and reliable health care services.”

Improving the Bottom Line as a Group Effort

Implementing greener practices in the lab does not have to be intimidating or costly. Changes—both big and small—can be rolled out incrementally to meet sustainability goals.

“Seemingly small changes in laboratory operations can have a significant impact on sustainability,” Jain says. “Labs can invest in energy-efficient equipment and adopt energy-saving practices such as turning off equipment when not in use, utilizing outlet timers, and sharing equipment with neighboring labs.”

Even something as simple as regularly checking for leaky faucets in the lab can make a meaningful difference. A single faucet that drips once per second wastes 3,000 gallons of water per year—the equivalent of 180 showers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)3.

To ensure the success of new sustainable practices, everyone in the laboratory needs to be on board.

“While big actions are often the focus to drive change faster, even small actions can make a significant collective impact,” says Cristina Van Loy, senior manager for EHS and sustainability for Thermo Fisher Scientific. “Creating a Green Lab team and hosting monthly Green Lab meetings can be effective in fostering discussions on greener processes, greener chemistry, and the procurement of greener products.” 

Implementing a Waste Audit

Teams can start by conducting a week-long waste audit in the lab to help identify and quantify the materials that end up in the trash4.

“For example, there may be a substantial amount of nonhazardous plastic that can be recycled,” Van Loy says. “Labs can partner with their site’s environmental, health, and safety teams to review the plastic waste and identify recycling solutions through waste haulers or local recyclers. Suppliers of plastic lab products may also offer take-back programs as an alternative solution.”

The team can also suggest improved processes for waste sorting.

“The establishment of a waste sorting system can be done quickly in different categories,” says Carola Schmidt, general manager of automated robotic systems at Revvity. “It takes some pre-work and some discipline, but everyone in the lab should be responsible for it. The consequential distinction between contaminated and noncontaminated waste can have a significant cost impact.”

A Matter of Education

To ensure the success of these types of sustainability efforts, it is important to prioritize staff education. Supporting more than 2,600 labs and 32,000 scientists, My Green Lab offers a 14-topic certification program to help educate laboratory professionals about best conservation practices.

“Engaging lab members in sustainability initiatives through education, training, and regular communication fosters a culture of environmental responsibility and ensures an ongoing commitment to sustainable practices,” Jain says. “While we focus on behavior change and tasks that scientists can do themselves—the program also provides recommendations for more extensive changes to the space or maintenance of equipment that can significantly impact sustainability parameters.”

Evaluating Equipment for a Greener Bottom Line

With little effort, laboratories can take simple, energy-conserving steps when managing existing instruments and equipment.

“Often, turning off laboratory equipment when not in use—particularly those with heating functions such as heating blocks, microscopes, PCR machines, water baths, and incubators—can significantly reduce energy consumption,” Van Loy says. “Additionally, ensuring regularly scheduled maintenance for all equipment is important for longer life and optimizing efficiency. In some cases, upgrading old lab equipment to more energy-efficient models may be necessary, especially for equipment that cannot be shut down, such as freezers and refrigerators.”

Of course, it is most cost-effective for laboratories to invest in products and equipment that offer less packaging, use less energy, and generate less waste immediately out of the box.

Further Reading: Survey Reveals Labs’ Environmental Sustainability Progress, Goals

“Understand your starting point, and focus on your biggest sources of emissions,” Mazurek advises. “Choose equipment with high energy use, and work closely with like-minded suppliers who can help you achieve your sustainability goals.”

In some cases, greener machines have a smaller physical footprint, in addition to a lower carbon footprint, which is a bonus for laboratories with space constraints.

“Laboratories are adopting analyzers that are more efficient in terms of space, water, and electricity usage,” Pabon says. “These analyzers also require fewer consumables, resulting in reduced waste production and more cost savings.”

With more recent governmental pressure for healthcare enterprises to get to zero emissions by 20505, more laboratories are looking for ways to go green, and many manufacturers are designing eco-friendly products to help labs meet their sustainability goals.

“At Revvity, we continuously improve our package size to minimize the hazardous waste volume,” Schmidt says. “Besides that, our focus area is method miniaturization for fully automated workflows with less sample and reagent volume—to do more with less. Through this process, you may reduce the number of sample collection tubes, which are presenting the highest volume in the case of biohazard waste costs.”

Some vendors also make it convenient for laboratory staff to recycle the plastic waste associated with their products. For example, certain Thermo Scientific ART pipette tip products are packaged with a recycling kit—complete with a prepaid shipping label and instructions for collecting used, nonhazardous pipette tips, tip racks, and associated plastic packaging—to take the logistics burden off laboratory staff. 

“These can be treated and recycled into a mixed plastic composite to create new plastic products,” Van Loy says.

Vendors are also conscious of the need to reduce biohazardous waste. To this end, the PathogenDX D3 Array molecular testing technology can run 48 samples per plate, as opposed to the standard eight to 11 samples per plate.

“The cost of removing biohazardous material is quickly lowered when the amount of biohazardous output is lowered,” Patel says. “Lab costs immediately come down, workflows are more streamlined, and profits go up.”

Repackaging products is another way for manufacturers to significantly reduce cardboard and plastic waste. For example, a typical lab may run through 3.5 diluent boxes per day to perform 500 complete blood count tests. The Beckman Coulter DxH Concentrated Eco Diluent, however, has been packaged so that labs only need to reload one new box every 5 days or so for the same throughput.

“This translates to a single box that needs to be stored, carried, reloaded, and disposed of,” Pabon says. “The DxH Concentrated Eco Diluent contributes to a 95% reduction in plastic waste from its predecessor.”

Ditching Disposables

The common refrain to “reduce,” “reuse,” and “recycle” is still the most relevant plan to cut costs for laboratories and other healthcare enterprises. For example, by simply transitioning from disposable to reusable isolation gowns, the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles saved more than $1.1 million in three years6.

Moving from disposable to reusable products is “always cost-effective in the long run,” according to Beau Wangtrakuldee, PhD, co-founder and CEO of AmorSui, a New York-based maker of reusable lab coats and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

After suffering a burn from a chemical spill that leaked through a low-quality lab coat, Wangtrakuldee was inspired to create her own line of PPE with an equal emphasis on protection and sustainability. The liquid-repellant gowns are designed to be responsibly repurposed after 100 washes.

“It may look like it’s cheaper to buy a disposable gown, but the hospital is paying for things like disposing it as hazardous waste,” Wangtrakuldee says. “The hospital is paying for people to manage picking up that waste—and the more waste, the more labor you have to put into it.”

To remove any labor burdens from their clients, AmorSui includes laundering services as part of their subscription model. After the 100-wash lifecycle of the product, the company also offers a take-back program to recycle its old lab coats into other plastic products. According to company data, AmorSui clients have saved up to 22% by making the switch from disposable to reusable lab coats.

“One of the biggest hurdles for implementing sustainability is logistics,” Wangtrakuldee says. “We realized that unless we made it really easy for a laboratory to implement, it was going to be really hard for them to make a shift.”

Wangtrakuldee also notes that investing in quality protective equipment sends a positive message to staff. “When you’re talking about health and safety of your employee, I feel like that directly equates to employee satisfaction and retention,” she says.

While the idea of investing in sustainable practices can be daunting for busy laboratories, Wangtrakuldee says that pursuing these goals is well worth the effort. The key is to find vendor partners that will help support those goals.

“There’s something you could be doing today to improve not just sustainability, but also your bottom line,” she says.

Balancing Sustainability and the Bottom Line

Sometimes this might involve reaching out to other laboratories for support. 

“Often times a lab may not have the resources to make changes, nor the scale of a large hospital system or major corporation,” Mazurek says. “Developing a consortium or coalition of labs with similar challenges and sharing best practices can effectively utilize limited resources.”

Laboratories should also be encouraged by the wide-ranging benefits of going green.

“Introducing sustainability initiatives not only reduces operating costs but also enhances efficiency, promotes regulatory compliance, and improves overall lab performance,” Jain says. “Additionally, sustainability initiatives contribute to a healthier environment, support corporate social responsibility goals, and enhance the reputation and credibility of organizations within the scientific community.”

Sustainability practices also challenge laboratories to do more with less—something that is entirely possible, even today.

“Needing more information when running a lab test does not inherently mean that you need to use more materials or spend more money,” Patel says. “It can all be done on a miniaturized scale, with a smaller carbon footprint.”

And the benefits are twofold: a greener lab and a better bottom line.

Ann H. Carlson is a regular contributor to CLP.

REFERENCES

  1. “Laboratories for the 21st Century: An Introduction to Low-Energy Design.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Aug 2008 https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy08osti/29413.pdf
  2. Janik-Karpinska E, Brancaleoni R, Niemcewicz M, Wojtas W, Foco M, Podogrocki M, Bijak M. Healthcare Waste-A Serious Problem for Global Health. Healthcare (Basel). 2023 Jan 13;11(2):242. doi: 10.3390/healthcare11020242. PMID: 36673610; PMCID: PMC9858835.
  3. “Fix a Leak Week.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. September 25, 2023. https://www.epa.gov/watersense/fix-leak-week
  4. “How to Reduce Waste in the Laboratory.” My Green Lab. May 12, 2021. https://www.mygreenlab.org/blog-beaker/how-to-reduce-waste-in-the-laboratory
  5. “Health Sector Commitments to Emissions Reduction and Resilience.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. May 2, 2024. https://www.hhs.gov/climate-change-health-equity-environmental-justice/climate-change-health-equity/actions/health-sector-pledge/index.html
  6. Baker Natalie, Bromley-Dulfano Rebecca , Chan Joshua , Gupta Anshal , Herman Luciana, Jain Navami , Taylor Anita Lowe , Lu Jonathan , Pannu Jaspreet , Patel Lisa , Prunicki Mary. COVID-19 Solutions Are Climate Solutions: Lessons From Reusable Gowns. Frontiers in Public Health. 2020 August. https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/public-health/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2020.590275. Doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2020.590275