The Life Science Sector has a Sustainability Problem. Here’s how we can fix it.

By Viktoria Merkei 6 min read 21 Apr 2023

Sustainability has become more important than ever as we become increasingly determined to reduce its impact on the planet and reverse climate change. If we want to maintain our current quality of life, ensure future biodiversity, and protect the health of our global ecosystem, leaders must implement more sustainable practices. 

If you read that sentence again, you’ll notice that sustainability is centred around protecting “life” – either the lives of humans or the millions of other species we share the planet with. Accordingly, sustainability has become more critical in an industry where life is part of the namesake: the life science sector. With more and more companies, universities, and government labs hiring sustainability officers and publishing Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reports, it’s clear that the industry has made sustainability a major priority. 

While the increase in participation is worth celebrating, there’s still a long way to go, especially regarding lab sustainability. For example, estimates suggest the world’s labs produce more than 5.5 million tons of plastic waste annually. The global pharmaceutical industry is 55% more carbon emission intensive than the automotive industry. Meanwhile, 4.4% of worldwide global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the healthcare sector (e.g., hospitals and laboratories) alone. 

A cultural shift in the life science industry needs to occur. And what better time to discuss it than on Earth Day? 

With more sustainable lab practices and lab equipment, we can all do our part toward a healthier future. We’ll discuss how below.

Climate Change Is Affecting us All

Climate change is already impacting human health, not to mention damaging the environment and the habitats of animals around the globe. Hotter temperatures lead to more heat waves, higher cases of heat-related illnesses, increased risk of wildfires, and more drought. Storms become more frequent, including hurricanes and typhoons. Melting ice sheets cause the sea level to rise, putting millions of people at risk.

Weather changes also make it harder to herd, hunt, and fish. Heat stress can limit water sources, causing crop yield to drop. As we struggle to feed the world, we’re losing species 1,000 times faster than any other time in recorded human history.

All of these negative impacts are a direct result of human activity. We burn fossil fuels to generate power for manufacturing plants, homes, and transportation. We use fossil fuels to produce plastics, electronics, building materials, and more. We cut down forests to make space for farms and pastures. All of these elements play significant roles in producing the greenhouse gasses that warm our planet and threaten the way we live and the future of our planet.

And as activity and investment in the life sciences accelerate, our collective environmental footprint will scale accordingly.

It’s Time to Prioritize Lab Sustainability

Companies that take measures now can significantly reduce future costs and risks and simultaneously increase their value. Many businesses in the life science sector already partner with government organizations and global institutions that will ultimately set environmental regulations. 

It’s also better for the bottom line. In a review of 200 studies on sustainability in the corporate world, 88% showed that good ESG practices lead to better operational performance. 80% showed a positive correlation between stock performance and good sustainability practices.

A Digital Solution for Building More Sustainable Labs

Many companies invest in data-driven technology to improve production, R&D, and supply chain continuity. For example, AI, engineered automation innovations, and overall lab digitalisation are aiding in implementing more sustainable lab practices. Digitalisation can help minimize lost resources by decreasing the number of needlessly repeated experiments. 

Many research companies unnecessarily waste money purchasing excess or redundant reagents and materials. Digital inventory tracking trims much of this waste by giving lab personnel a continuously updated view of current stocks, making ordering more efficient. This highlights an important issue: There needs to be an adequate, efficient, and pre-existing digital infrastructure for many labs to move in a more sustainable direction. 

One of the most prodigious energy consumers in labs around the globe is the storage of samples in freezers. With sample management, we can minimise and manage the contents of freezers more efficiently, limit the number of freezers required, and cut down on energy use.

Digitalisation can also help companies organize messy data into easily accessible and searchable information. Likewise, companies can set regulations to measure and report on sustainability efforts and waste management, then provide direction for their existing personnel on how to meet these guidelines. Of course, proper funding is necessary to ensure that employees can invest in sustainable lab equipment and practices that will pay off in the long run.

Sharing is a  Sustainable Lab Practice 

Open inter- and intra-lab collaboration offer another excellent opportunity for reducing the environmental impact of R&D. Shared equipment results in lower utility loads and savings on energy by removing duplicate instrumentation that uses significant energy and takes up precious laboratory space. Additionally, sharing reduces the need to expand building ventilation and utilities to serve excess equipment.

Additionally, sharing data can reduce the number of experiments necessary, further limiting the need for resources and lowering the environmental footprint of the life science industry. Digitalisation enables the free flow of data between collaborators. For example, using electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) simplifies and automates the documentation of experiments, reducing the labour required, eliminating the need for paper lab notebooks, and making it easier to share information. 

This practice also allows us to reduce the amount of lab space used. Digitalisation allows us to access and analyze data from anywhere. In some cases, fewer staff members can keep an entire lab running safely and efficiently. The more efficient labs become, the less energy and resources we need, and the more sustainable this sector can be.

Digitalisation is Part of a Comprehensive Solution

Despite all the benefits of the digital sustainable lab practices highlighted above, there is a downside to consider: storage. The big data revolution is in full swing, and data storage is essential to the data lifecycle. In a digitized world, we’ll depend on servers to store and access that information. Those servers require energy and maintenance, which drives CO2 emissions. 

Thus, we must continually investigate and monitor the CO2 emissions of such technology in the life sciences. A recent study estimated the CO2 emissions from a genome-wide association analysis (GWAS) analysis to be 4.7 kg of CO2 to 17.3 kg of CO2, depending on which software version is used. 

For context, a passenger car emits about 14.3 kg of CO2 per 100 kilometres.

We can make servers more sustainable by using the lessons above on sharing and collaboration. Using central servers, which are operated with more energy-efficient practices than smaller local servers, and using green energy as a power source can reduce the environmental impact of data storage significantly. 

Protecting the Planet with Lab Sustainability 

Sustainability improves the quality of our lives, protects our ecosystem, and preserves natural resources for future generations. While digitalisation is a challenge, it has enormous potential to aid in reducing CO2 emissions if we can wisely deploy it. 

As more labs turn to digital inventory and data management solutions, the life science industry can share data, instruments, and servers more efficiently, reduce energy consumption by cold storage, and ensure efficient operations.  As a result, we can create less waste and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. 

If you’re looking for a path to digitalisation this Earth Day, eLabNext’s digital lab platform can facilitate the process. Schedule your demo today, and we’ll show you how we can turn your lab into a lean, green research machine.

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