Cultural and behavioral changes are seen as keys to helping labs reduce energy use, address sustainability. Gentle ‘bribes’ also can help.

In her years as a neuroscientist and then as a laboratory consultant, Allison Paradise figured that someone would do something about all the waste she saw in labs. The tossed plastics, gloves, gallons of water, never mind the ceaseless energy use.

“Nobody did,” she says.

So she did – creating My Green Lab.

Paradise discovered a few others like her – especially at universities – trying to address sustainability in health science labs in particular.

The statistic often used is that labs in universities account for 60 percent of the schools’ energy use while taking up only 25 percent of the space.

“It was clear that we had to be more holistic in our thinking,” Paradise says. “We had to really embrace the whole lab – every aspect of the lab.”

That meant not dealing just with what people could see – the recycling and the tangible, visible waste that goes out lab doors. It also meant dealing with things lab users couldn’t see like electricity, didn’t really notice like water, or even just the buildings themselves.

Turning off just one piece of equipment overnight is ‘really important’

“If every lab were to turn off one piece of equipment overnight, it’s the equivalent to offsetting the carbon emissions of burning 16 million pounds of coal,” Paradise likes to say. “These things that we think aren’t that important – they really are important.”

Paradise faced down a pervasive mentality that high-minded researchers shouldn’t be bothered with sustainability concerns or that such efforts might compromise their research. There was often pushback that newer, more efficient equipment cost too much, despite the savings and environmental benefits they would bring.

And she discovered, as did others trying this sort of thing on their own, that disparate university departments involved in sustainability tend not to talk to each other – scientists, even from lab to lab, sustainability departments, maintenance departments, purchasing, engineering.

Allen Doyle was among the few trying to do that kind of coordination as far back as 2005 at University of California-Santa Barbara – where he was a lab manager and part of the self-proclaimed LabRATS.

He still recalls asking the energy manager if he could talk to lab scientists about conserving energy. “His eyes got so big and he went, ‘Are you kidding? I can do all I want to design these buildings to be energy efficient, but if I can’t get people to turn off the lights and turn down the thermostats?’ He was ecstatic.”

Doyle says action on sustainability often came down to “people just sort of getting fed up and complaining their way into a job.”

For My Green Lab, Paradise scooped up information and ideas from Doyle and anyone she could find who’d ventured into lab sustainability. In just five years, the nonprofit organization has created five initiatives designed to give labs ideas, tools, and even some fun activities they can then use as jumping-off points to create more site-specific sustainability programs.

The key is Green Lab Certification. It sets standards for sustainability best practices. An online survey tool helps labs figure out where their problems are and customizes solutions.

Green Chemistry helps labs come up with chemical substitutions to reduce environmental impacts. One of the earliest concerns Paradise had was how to get rid of mercury – ubiquitous in thermometers.

The Accountability, Consistency, Transparency – or ACT – label is essentially a nutrition label for lab materials so users can have a standardized scale as they choose products.

The Center for Energy Efficient Laboratories is essentially Energy Star-type information for equipment, most specifically for ultra-low temperature freezers – the mainstay of bioscience labs. The effort has inspired utilities to provide incentives to help labs purchase equipment that use less power.

And then there’s the Freezer Challenge, an international competition now in its third year that has inspired thousands of labs to figure out how to lower the energy footprint of their freezers.

No labs have dropped out of My Green Lab certification, and more than 400 lab groups have been certified, engaging some 20,000 people, Paradise says.

Doyle calls her a “triple threat,” citing her skills of instrumental analysis and number crunching, market analysis and working with industry, and people engagement.

But the most telling impacts of My Green Lab are the stories that come from the labs themselves. Here’s a small selection of the initiatives at universities.

University of Colorado-Boulder

CU is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its green labs program. It was one of the first five in the country, according to Kathryn Ramirez Aguilar, the program’s manager.

It’s all volunteer, often using contests to induce labs to participate. It was Aguilar and Allen Doyle whose friendly competition morphed into the Freezer Challenge. From July 2009 through the end of 2018, more than 400 labs participated; 5,660,000 kWh of electricity was saved; 41.6 million gallons of water were conserved; and 127,000 pounds of material were recycled.

CU’s program boasts a long list of specific components designed to promote sustainability. But ask Aguilar what her biggest success is: “The engagement of campus. We have gone from a program that started very grassroots, a bottom-up approach, to one that is known across campus.”

How did she do it? Posters.

“These have been huge for raising awareness that we exist and also for cultural shift towards more sustainability,” she says.

And where are the posters? “Above the urinals in the men’s room and in the women’s stalls,” Aguilar says. “When people say they want to get in touch with green labs, we say ‘Go to the bathroom and look at the posters.’”


MIT started pushing sustainable labs in 2016 with a bit of, well, bribery – a contest in which the winner would get small amount of seed funding for their idea. The winner was the MIT Lab Energy Assessment Center – LEAC.

“It’s really quite simple,” Jen Ballew, MIT green labs program coordinator, says. It starts with the kind of monitoring device you can buy to put your lights on a timer. But MIT being MIIT, “They set up a program and used a router to kind of hack the devices,” she says.

Ballew’s office can see much more detailed data to monitor if people are leaving something on overnight that they shouldn’t. It can also shut off lights remotely.

MIT has partnered with the New England-based utility Eversource to provide systems and technology expertise, equipment purchase incentives, construction design information, technology controls, and more.

MIT may be best known for its Motion and Sash Height, MASH, alarm for fume hoods. The hoods are ubiquitous in labs to suck chemical fumes out of rooms. But they’re often left on 24/7 with what’s known as the sash open, using way more energy than they need. “Shut the sash” campaigns are common in many labs.

MIT students went one better – inventing a motion detector that triggers an alarm if it doesn’t sense motion for three minutes and the sash is open more than one inch. It stays on until the sensor detects motion or until the sash is shut.

The design is available open-source to anyone who wants to copy it.

University of Alabama at Birmingham

UAB (NOT the Crimson Tide football school), started a green labs program in 2016 when Nick Ciancio, then a freshman sustainability intern, was tasked by his supervisor, who had met Paradise at a conference, to do it.

He too took the bribery route, offering a free freezer to one lab that participated in a pilot program. He regularly gives away outlet timers and surge protectors.

He also employed reverse psychology: at UAB folks are not allowed to recycle Styrofoam or pipette tip boxes without being a participant in the green labs program.

He developed glass reuse for undamaged Pyrex. “Now whenever the chemical teaching labs go to purchase glass,” Ciancio says, “they have the opportunity to look at this glass inventory that we have in our glass recycling warehouse.”

UAB has 500 lab spaces participating in the green labs program. They’ve run a pilot that enrolled an entire building for a year during which 4,000 square feet were added, and they were still able to reduce energy consumption equivalent to 62 homes worth of energy.

“Just through behavioral changes alone,” Ciancio says.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

As part of an overarching climate action plan, UIUC three years ago started its green labs program with five labs covering seven researchers. Now there are 70 researchers.

Among the changes is a chemistry lab occupancy schedule that coordinates HVAC system use so it’s not on when not needed.

It’s human behavior, says Mohamed Attalla, executive director, facilities and services. “You don’t need to buy new equipment,” he says. “You don’t need to invest capital to improve the performance of the equipment. Our people just need to change how they do things.”

One of the things they’ve changed is how they run their freezers. And it’s made UIUC a powerhouse – or more to the point a non-power powerhouse – in the Freezer Challenge – winning its category for the second year in a row.

The challenge is probably the most fun My Green Lab effort, which at its core is to get labs to change their ultra-low freezer temperatures from -80 C to -70 degrees Celsius. That can take a bit of convincing that nothing will be damaged by the change.

But in the process of competing, thousands of freezers are getting defrosted, vacuumed, even replaced, and they’re getting inventories cleared out – with labs sometimes finding decades-old useless samples wasting electricity.

In this third year of the challenge, Paradise says 2,856 units participated and together saved some 2.4 million kWh a year. The energy savings are only part of the goal.

“What’s really important is the culture change,” she says. “When I think about the impact of what we’ve done, it goes well beyond just the measurements of, well, somebody got certified. It’s really starting to transform how people think about research.”

Jan Ellen Spiegel is a long-time Connecticut-based journalist whose career has included radio, television, print, and digital reporting. She has won awards for her reporting on energy, environment, climate...