The challenges and surprises of creating a green lab

31 Oct 2023

Hugh Fay. Image: Henkel Ireland

Henkel Ireland recently received a certification from My Green Lab for its efforts in improving sustainability in its labs. To find out more, we spoke to Henkel’s Hugh Fay.

Recently, we reported on the launch of a new sustainable laboratory certification by Science Foundation Ireland in partnership with non-profit organisation My Green Lab. According to the announcement, Irish labs that join the programme will participate in the My Green Lab ambassador training programme and will be invited to join the Irish network of the organisation. The ultimate goal is to have 100 Irish labs join the certification programme, with the first 50 joining in November 2023, in order to reduce the environmental impact of lab research in the country.

But what is My Green Lab? According to the organisation, labs are resource-intensive spaces that use 10 times the energy consumed by offices and four times the water, and according to its estimates, labs produce 5.5m tonnes of plastic waste each year. In order to counteract this, My Green Lab promotes improved sustainability standards in this sector through the provision of sustainability programmes and data on best practices, and labs who meet the required level of standards can obtain a certification for their efforts.

One company that was recently awarded a My Green Lab certification is the Irish arm of multinational chemical and consumer goods company, Henkel. According to the multinational, its Irish site is the first of Henkel’s global labs to achieve this certification.

The company achieved the certification through a pilot project focusing on four different types of laboratories, namely a product development lab that dealt with the blending of chemicals; an analytical chemistry lab that focused on high-tech instrumentation; a process technology lab that focused on chemical synthesis; and a materials testing lab that dealt with mechanical engineering.

According to Hugh Fay, manager of the Analytical Solutions Group at Henkel Ireland, the labs selected represent most of the types of laboratories used in R&D at Henkel, and each lab had different opportunities for improvement in different areas.

To find out more, we spoke to Fay on the various changes that the company implemented in these lab spaces.

Changes to processes and behaviour

According to Fay, the biggest challenge of the transition to a sustainable lab environment was questioning lab processes that had “remained unchanged for decades”.

“Quality, along with safety, of course, is the most important focus of scientific lab work,” said Fay. “The generation of repeatable and reproducible data requires robust processes, which have been validated and proven over time. This does not lend itself well to change!”

Fay explained that because a lot of processes would not have had any scientific incentive to change, risk was introduced and validation work was required prior to the implementation of a more sustainable alternative.

“My Green Lab gave us focus on sustainability as an incentive. Not everything is possible, but everything should be considered.”

Despite this, Fay stated that some of the processes examined led to simple but effective changes. One example he referred to was the lab’s waste bins, which had all been labelled as ‘chemical waste’ prior to the focus on sustainability, even for uncontaminated material.

“The introduction of domestic waste and recycling bins removed unsuitable material from the chemical waste stream. Of course, this relies on staff using the bins properly, but that’s where the sustainability awareness aspect of My Green Lab was useful.”

However, the focus on sustainability was not as simple in other areas. Fay points to the company’s analytical chemistry lab, where the team was able to “substitute sample vials made from virgin plastic with ones made from biobased material”, which he says was not as straightforward as it sounds.

“A tiny degree of contamination from sample vials can disrupt the chemical analysis and invalidate the result. This switch to biobased plastic had to be checked and validated – work that would not have taken place without the drive of the My Green Lab project.”

Another area of focus was the energy consumption of the lab. Fay said that in the labs, most of the equipment was left switched on at all times. While this was necessary for some of the equipment, it wasn’t required for all of it. After carrying out an audit of the lab’s equipment, the team applied red stickers to equipment that couldn’t be switched off and green stickers to equipment that could be switched off at the end of the day.

But changes to processes and equipment management were not the only things amended in the labs. Fay said that efforts were made to improve the behavioural practices of those working in the lab, which primarily related to the promotion of good practices. This included encouraging staff to turn off equipment when not in use, as well as computer screens and lights.

“In addition,” said Fay, “useful information, such as action progress, principles of green chemistry and so on, was posted on lab notice boards where staff were familiar with receiving safety updates.”

Revelations on an endless journey

Through the completion of a project such as this, we wondered if there were any surprises in relation to the way the labs used to run prior to the pilot. Fay informed us that there were indeed a few, such as in the process technology lab, where distillation columns were cooled by water flowing from a tap down through the glassware, before emptying down the sink continuously.

According to Fay, this system was replaced with water being delivered from a cooled bath and circulated back into the bath. “Literally no water was wasted. When we calculated how much water had been flowing down the sink we were astounded – 40,000 litres of water per year from that one lab. We had to recheck the figures!”

Fay also pointed to another process that was “surprisingly effective”, where the team reduced the diameter of the tubing in their ion chromatography equipment. “This not only resulted in a 75pc reduction in waste, but the quality of the results obtained from the system improved as well.”

However, despite all the successes seen in the labs’ sustainability efforts, Fay also emphasised that the journey to sustainability is “endless”.

“[The] certification shows that the lab has considered sustainability in all its processes, that all staff working in there are aware of this and as many practical improvements as possible have been made,” he said.

“There is a transition to a lab doing its best, rather than attaining the perfect state of a ‘sustainable lab environment’, which could imply a carbon-neutral situation. The journey is endless, with continual improvement being the order of the day.”

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Colin Ryan is a copywriter/copyeditor at Silicon Republic