Sustainable Labs Guide

McGill is a highly research-intensive university. Much of this research takes place in hundreds of labs, which use tremendous amounts of energy and water, and generate considerable waste and greenhouse gas emissions. In its Climate & Sustainability Strategy, McGill has committed to incorporating sustainability into its operations, academics, engagement initiatives, and planning and administration activities. This includes the work conducted in its labs.

McGill aims to embed a culture of sustainability in its affiliated labs and enable lab users to take actions that:

  • Reduce the negative environmental impacts of research
  • Promote human health and safety
  • Optimise financial and material efficiency
  • Maintain a record of research excellence

Below are a variety of actions — developed by the Sustainable Labs Working Group — that lab users can implement to make their lab operations more sustainable. Some of these practices can be applied broadly (e.g., community building, waste management, and energy conservation), while other practices might only be relevant to certain labs (e.g., green chemistry, animal research, and fieldwork).

If you have any feedback about the guide or would like to suggest additional resources that could benefit McGill lab users, please reach out by email to labs.sustainability [at] mcgill.ca.

Community building

Implementing sustainable practices in a lab is a community effort. This is because operating a sustainable lab depends on the day-to-day decisions, behaviours, and cooperation of all lab members and staff.

Begin by reflecting on your own actions in the lab. Consider the energy sources that power your equipment and the origins of the supplies you purchase, as well as where your lab’s plastic waste and wastewater end up. Next, refer to the tips below and think about ways you and your lab colleagues can take collective action to minimise the environmental impacts of your lab.

Steps to get you started:

  • Familiarise yourself and your lab colleagues with resources such as McGill's Climate & Sustainability Strategy

  • Set and work towards some achievable small goals with your lab group. For example, shut the fume hood sash, turn off machines and lights when not in use, sort waste appropriately, declutter/clean your lab and cold storage areas regularly.

  • Select a point person to implement and monitor sustainable practices in the lab. Also establish roles and responsibilities for lab members to support implementation and monitoring of sustainability actions.

  • Get certified as a sustainable lab (McGill certification program coming in April 2023). This will help you evaluate your lab’s status against current best practices, identify areas for change, and track your improvements over time.

  • Inform visitors and new lab members about the lab's sustainable practices and let them know how they can get involved.

  • Add sustainability considerations to your lab’s standard operating procedure or your lab manual.

  • Display prompts, reminders, and instructions to help lab users implement sustainability actions in the lab.

  • Include information about lab sustainability measures in grant applications, such as in those submitted to the FRQ.

  • Sign the Million Advocates for Sustainable Science letter to push research funders to set expectations for efficiency, resiliency, and sustainability in scientific research.

  • Apply for funding to support your green lab efforts.

  • Take the International Freezer Challenge and learn how to improve the energy consumption of your lab's cold storage equipment and compete with other labs around the world.

  • Connect with other groups at McGill, such as the Sustainable Labs Working Group, and McGill’s Green Labs Initiative (GLI@McGill) community, to get resources, ask questions, and share ideas.

Waste management

McGill has set a goal of becoming zero-waste by 2035. Per the internationally recognized standard, zero-waste means achieving a diversion rate of 90% or higher. The decisions made in labs regarding waste can help reduce the amount of material McGill sends to Quebec landfills, conserve the planet’s natural resources, address global pollution, and improve community well-being.

Steps to get you started:

  • Aim to reduce waste generation from the onset by optimising the design of your experiments, adopting good procurement practices, and doing inventory management.

  • Explore other ways of reducing, reusing, and recycling waste with lab colleagues and neighbouring labs:

    • Take-back programs for lab goods and packaging from major lab suppliers.
    • Solvent recycling within labs using a distillation system.
    • Recycle and reuse gel packs and ice packs, or donate to other organisations.
    • NOTE: A central solvent facility is not yet available at McGill.
  • Ensure all lab users review and understand lab waste categories (paper, plastics, glass, metals, hazardous waste, etc.) and their respective disposal procedures.

  • Align waste bin signage in the lab with McGill’s standard signage. Download and print signage or contact the stockroom attendant who will provide you with a quote for waste bin stickers.

  • For everyday solid waste (paper, plastics, glass, metals, organic waste, etc.) follow these waste-sorting tips and guidelines.

  • NOTE: McGill does not recycle laboratory plastics and glass that have come in contact with WHMIS-controlled substances. Such plastic and glass items should be emptied, cleaned, and then disposed via regular garbage. Here is a non-exhaustive list of chemicals that are not WHMIS-controlled, where the empty container can be disposed in the recycling bin (except code 6 plastic; see codification):

    • TBS
    • PBS
    • Tris-HCL
    • HBSS
    • Unused culture media containers
    • MOPS
    • HEPES
    • Sugars
    • Amino-acids
  • For hazardous waste (chemical, biomedical, and radioactive), consult the Hazardous Waste Management website.

  • To determine which category to choose for your biomedical waste, consult this decision chart.

  • For used and end-of-life assets, follow these recycling guidelines.

  • Opt for reusable glass instead of plastic vials, large pipettes, petri dishes, etc. whenever possible.

  • When it is necessary to use plastic items, reuse them whenever possible.

Energy conservation

Research labs tend to be energy guzzlers. While some of this energy usage is unavoidable, there are best practices to help labs be more efficient and environmentally friendly.

Fume hoods and freezers are the most energy-intensive components of a lab. McGill has more than 850 fume hoods across its campuses. One fume hood with a sash that is halfway open 24/7 will consume the equivalent energy of four typical Canadian households in a year. The Shut the Sash Project showed that keeping the sash lowered reduced energy consumption and costs by 86% and 77% respectively in the Life Sciences Complex. Here are a few things you can do to minimise the energy consumption of fume hoods, cold storage and other equipment in your lab.

Fume Hoods

  • Shut the sash. Unless somebody is working under the hood, the sash should be shut at all times to properly contain substances and ensure that fumes are exhausted from the lab. Also, turn off the fume hood lights.

  • Place prompts to remind lab users to close the hood.

  • Convert unused fume hoods to a dormant state. This can save $2,500 per fume hood per year. If there is a hood left unused in your lab for more than six months, you can contact Facilities to determine whether to temporarily decommission it depending on the type of hood, ventilation system, and lab setup.

Cold storage

  • Purchase energy-efficient cold storage units, such as refrigerators and freezers with an Energy Star rating. The upfront cost might be a little higher, but your lab and the University will save money over the lifetime of the appliance.

  • Ensure your cold storage units are properly and regularly maintained. Frost and dust buildup greatly reduce heat exchange inside and outside the appliance and force the compressor to work harder to reach the desired set point, which reduces the lifespan of the appliance.

  • Set up a detailed inventory and layout of samples in your refrigerator or freezer to reduce the time spent searching for samples while the door is open. Discard unnecessary samples.

  • Room-temperature and dry-DNA storage are alternatives to freezing samples. See an example of green bio-banking at McGill.

  • Share facilities with other labs. Shared cold rooms and appliances offer many benefits, including better energy performance, back-up emergency power, heat recovery, and more efficient use of space.

  • Take the International Freezer Challenge to implement all of the above actions as a team project while competing with other labs around the world.

Lab equipment

  • Determine with others in your lab which equipment should be turned off when not in use. Label these devices to remind users. For example, electricity-powered ovens, incubators and microscopes should not be left idling.

  • Identify and label equipment that needs time to warm up, so that users remember to turn this equipment on in the morning and turn it off at the end of the day.

  • Identify and label equipment that must be kept on at all times and determine whether placing these devices in stand-by mode is an option to conserve energy.

  • Install timers and power strips to shut off power when equipment is not in use.

  • Repair and maintain all equipment to ensure safety and efficiency.

Other actions

  • Turn off lights at the end of the day.

  • Install motion-sensitive ceiling lights. Contact the Facilities Call Centre for information.

  • Turn off computers or put them to sleep at the end of the day.

Water conservation

McGill’s water supply is extracted from the Saint Lawrence River, the second longest river in North America, and an ecosystem shared by 45 million people, lucrative industries, and vulnerable plants and animals. Labs account for a large proportion of the University’s water use and are a potential source of pollutants due to wastewater that is returned to the Saint Lawrence.

Steps to get you started:

  • Contact the Facilities Call Centre (FCC) promptly to repair any leaky faucets or leaks from equipment and lab apparatus to prevent damage and avoid wasting water.

  • Close taps when not in use.

  • Install aerators on faucets. This can reduce water flow by 60%. Talk to FCC about installation.

  • Use the appropriate water purity level for the job. See this guide about water types.

  • Consolidate items and maximise the loads for dishwashers, autoclaves, and cage washers. This means that you don’t run these equipment half empty or with just one item. Consider using an autoclave log sheet to monitor autoclave cycles, help optimise future cycles and create a paper trail for maintenance and repair activities.

  • Ensure that soaps and detergents used in the lab do not contain microbeads, triclosan, phosphates or any other known polluting agent.

  • Ensure that your lab uses waterless vacuum pumps and not water vacuum aspirators.

  • Carefully monitor experiments that require running water, such as condensing, and equipment requiring open water feeds, like water purification units, dishwashers, and autoclaves. Ensure that inlets and outlets are secured and that any accidental release leads to a well-drained sink.

Note: Once-through water-cooled systems are prohibited by municipal by-laws. Systems must either be connected to the building’s central chilled water distribution or be equipped with a cooling unit powered by electricity.

Procurement and asset management

McGill laboratories spend millions of dollars each year on consumable goods, hiring specialty services, and acquiring equipment. With this spending comes the responsibility to consider the social and environmental impacts of a lab’s supply chain. Each acquisition represents an opportunity to reduce or limit resource and energy consumption, limit pollution or greenhouse gas emissions, and support economic development. Apply the 4-R hierarchy (rethink, reduce, reuse, recycle) before any purchase, and apply lifecycle thinking when selecting research equipment or laboratory supplies.

Steps to get you started:

  • Develop an inventory of lab supplies and consumables. Be sure to check your inventory before purchasing new equipment and supplies.

  • Adopt a first in, first out system so that older supplies are used first and there is less waste.

  • Determine if the item can be borrowed from or shared with another lab. McGill’s MyLab system has a “share chemical” function.

  • McGill’s Procurement Services includes sustainability requirements in contracts with multiple suppliers. However, before any purchase you may still ask yourself these key questions:

    • Who makes this? Where does it come from? How reputable is the supplier?
    • How long will this last? Can it be repaired or upgraded in the future?
    • How much energy does this model consume in comparison to other models?
    • Can I find a model with less toxic components or contents?
  • Use credible certifications and eco-labels such as Energy Star and the ACT label inventory to inform your purchases.

  • See the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council’s comprehensive guidance on including social, environmental, and climate-related considerations as part of any spending.

  • Participate in Procurement Services trainings and workshops.

You can also support the University’s Asset Management program by:

  • Facilitating asset management tracking and tagging by Procurement Services, to ensure compliance with granting agency requirements and governmental regulations.

  • Following the correct process for managing used and end-of-life assets, in collaboration with Procurement Services, the Office of the Vice-Principal of Research & Innovation, and IT Services, when relevant.

  • Respecting University guidelines or directives concerning the acquisition, installation, and use of regulated assets (lasers and drones) as well as fume-emitting equipment (3D printers).

Green chemistry

Many of the traditional chemicals used in scientific research negatively impact human health and the environment during their production, use, or disposal. Green chemistry entails designing chemicals, products, and processes that are less hazardous and more sustainable throughout their entire lifecycle.

  • When developing experiments, consider the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry.

  • Avoid using damaging chemicals when greener alternatives are available for the intended use. Common examples are:

    • Sybr-safe instead of ethidium bromide
    • Non-halogenated instead of halogenated solvents
    • Alcohol-based thermometer instead of mercury thermometers
    • Scintillation fluids included in the HWM approved list
  • Stay informed about integrating green chemistry in your lab by checking out Beyond Benign.

 

12 Principles of Green Chemistry

  1. Prevent waste. Design chemical syntheses to prevent waste. Leave no waste to treat or clean up.
  2. Maximize atom economy. Design syntheses so that the final product contains the maximum proportion of the starting materials. Waste few or no atoms.
  3. Design less hazardous chemical syntheses. Design syntheses to use and generate substances with little or no toxicity to either humans or the environment.
  4. Design safer chemicals and products. Design chemical products that are fully effective yet have little or no toxicity.
  5. Use safer solvents and reaction conditions. Avoid using solvents, separation agents, or other auxiliary chemicals. If you must use these chemicals, use safer ones.
  6. Increase energy efficiency. Run chemical reactions at room temperature and pressure whenever possible.
  7. Use renewable feedstocks. A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting whenever technically and economically practicable. The source of renewable feedstocks is often agricultural products or the wastes of other processes; the source of depletable feedstocks is often fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, or coal) or mining operations.
  8. Avoid chemical derivatives. Avoid using blocking or protecting groups or any temporary modifications if possible. Derivatives use additional reagents and generate waste.
  9. Use catalysts, not stoichiometric reagents. Minimize waste by using catalytic reactions. Catalysts are effective in small amounts and can carry out a single reaction many times. They are preferable to stoichiometric reagents, which are used in excess and carry out a reaction only once.
  10. Design chemicals and products to degrade after use. Design chemical products to break down to innocuous substances after use so that they do not accumulate in the environment.
  11. Analyze in real time to prevent pollution. Include in-process, real-time monitoring and control during syntheses to minimize or eliminate the formation of by-products.
  12. Minimize the potential for accidents. Design chemicals and their physical forms (solid, liquid, or gas) to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including explosions, fires, and releases to the environment.

Source: Basics of Green Chemistry | US EPA

Animal research

Animal care facilities support many research programs, particularly in medicine, health, and environmental and agricultural sciences. Caring for research animals requires intensive operations, such as cage washing, lighting, aquarium maintenance, and ventilation, which consume large amounts of energy and water and occupy a large amount of space. There are many mutual benefits to reducing the harmful environmental impacts of an animal care facility, maintaining a high level of lab productivity, and ensuring the health and safety of the animals and the people who work with them.

Steps to get you started:

  • Be sure to follow McGill’s Standard Operating Procedures for Animal Care.

  • Follow the “Three Rs” of Animal Research (replacement, reduction and refinement) and ensure that animals are used in research only when there is no alternative that will produce the necessary results. Use the least number of animals required for the research purpose.

  • Use individually vented cages instead of a static rodent cage. IVCs can be used safely for the animals for up to two weeks before cleaning.

  • Unused food cannot be added to the compost stream and instead goes to the landfill. Reduce food waste by calibrating the amount of food provided to the animals to the frequency of cage changes or to the amount that can be consumed before the food spoils. If cages are changed weekly, then no more than one week of food should be provided at a time.

  • Use pH neutral cleaners in your animal facilities. This allows cleaning effluent to be washed down the drain without the need for a neutraliser and reduces the need for additional treatment before release from McGill buildings.

  • Replace equipment at the end of its life with models that use less chemicals, water, and electricity. For example, use cage and rack washers with a counter-current flow system that re-uses the final rinse water from one washing cycle for the early rinse of the next washing cycle.

  • Recycle and/or reuse cages.

Travel and fieldwork

Travel and commuting activities at McGill are responsible for about a quarter of the University's greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing emissions from travel — especially air travel — is essential for achieving the University’s long-term target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2040.

You can reduce the carbon footprint of your research by:

  • Following the sustainable travel hierarchy in McGill’s Sustainable Travel Guide

  • Posting information in your lab about alternative transport options, such as biking, walking, carpooling, ridesharing, and public transit.

  • Following the seven principles of “leave no trace” in your fieldwork.

  • Using remote conferencing to meet with other researchers when possible.

 

NOTE: This guide focuses on sustainable lab operations. For sustainable laboratory design and construction, see McGill’s Laboratory Design Guidelines.

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