The University of Michigan has 2.8 million square feet of lab space for research and teaching and is ranked #1 in research volume among U.S public universities according to the National Science Foundation. With an enormous amount of equipment and energy used to conduct research, labs have historically not been the most sustainable of workplaces. Fortunately, The University of Michigan Office of Campus Sustainability operates the Sustainable Lab Recognition Program. The Sustainable Lab Program honors research labs with a Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum certification for sustainable lab practices such as Green Chemistry, reducing energy use, and reusing and recycling lab materials when possible. This month, I spoke with two lab managers who are proud to work with Platinum certified labs: Laura Mayo-Bond with the Institute for Social Research (ISR) Biospecimen lab, and Holly Evanoff with the Kunkel Immunology lab.
Laura has worked in research at U-M for 30 years and began her position with ISR five years ago. The Biospecimen lab is housed in a new wing of ISR built in 2015. “The lab was recently built from the ground up, so it was important that we started off sustainably,” said Laura. A large contribution to the sustainability of the lab was the implementation of Stirling Ultra-Low freezers for research sample storage. The Stirling freezers use 50% less energy, take up less floor space in the lab, and can store more samples than a conventional laboratory freezer. The Stirling freezers’ continuously-operating linear piston motor allows them to operate more efficiently in challenging conditions. When the freezer room temperature rose to 92 degrees Fahrenheit, the eight freezers continued operating at -80 for 16 hours without incident until the room temperature returned to normal.” The energy use reduction from the lab due to the freezers helped the new building earn LEED Gold Certification.
Holly started as the lab manager for Steve Kunkel’s lab in 1988 and has been with the lab ever since. During this time Kunkel lab has developed close collaborations with Nick Lukcas, Katherine Gallagher, Matt Schaller and Jenni Bermick, enabling the consolidation of supplies. This limits the impact of shipping, overstocking and extends our ability to encourage sustainability. “It is rare that someone stays in the lab as long as I have. My longevity has helped me interject sustainability into our work.” Holly said she was fed up with the enormous amount of garbage that came out of the lab and she wanted to make a change. She switched to using pipette tips that come in paper boxes. “It is important to understand the manufacturing process for the commodities you buy,” she said. In addition, the lab purchases 100% post consumer recycled paper which allows us to assist in creating a market for recycled goods, commonly referred to as “closing the loop”. Because of her conscientiousness about the carbon footprint of the lab, about 90% of the research supplies are now purchased from sources that prioritize sustainable business models. Additionally, many of these sources are U.S. based, which further minimizes the carbon footprint.
Both Laura and Holly are excited to be part of the Sustainable Lab Program and have some advice for other labs interested in becoming more sustainable. Laura says that there are many companies that supply sustainable research tools, and that lab managers need to do research of their own to find the products that best fit their needs that are also more sustainable than traditional tools. Holly added that labs should also look into lab equipment trading and using tools from other labs “Equipment trading within the University Research Community has happened for a long time, but I’m glad that there is now institutional support behind it with the ChEM Reuse Program.”
When asked why others should become part of the Sustainable Lab Program, both Laura and Holly had strong statements. “Being sustainable is part of being a responsible researcher,” said Laura. “We spend more time at work then we do at home,” said Holly, “It is important that people proactively participate [in sustainability].”