Creating sustainable clinical laboratories of the future

By Dr Saswati Das, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital & ABVIMS

Sustainable living is fast becoming a way of life as the global concern regarding the environment and the carbon footprint is increasing. Clinical laboratories have to improvise in order to adapt to the sustainable model. However, with laboratories being a higher throughput area, the task seems daunting. Sustainable labs are also referred to as “green-labs” in many institutions. To achieve the goal of creating a sustainable working environment, the laboratory staff have to become mindful of the environment. Through implementation of some basic steps, laboratory personnel can minimize energy and water consumption, as well as reduce the waste generation in the clinical lab. These small measures can transform laboratories into a sustainable space.

Measures to reduce energy and water consumption

The architecture and design of the lab buildings should be compatible with sustainable living.  Carbon neutral laboratory designs are being adopted by various organizations. Solar power, sustainable bio-fuel, combined heat and power systems can be used to supplement the electricity and heat requirements of the lab buildings. Few steps like switching of lights when no one is working in a particular area, switching off equipment when it is not in use can save energy. Auto switching off of lights can also be programmed if a lab area is unoccupied. Labs should consider purchasing energy efficient refrigerators and freezers. Efficient cold storage uses 50% less electricity than standard freezers. The amount of water used by laboratories is quite a lot. Installation of faucets with low-flow aerators can reduce water consumption by half.  Autoclaves and dishwashers should be used to full capacity to ensure better efficiency.

Steps to reduce laboratory waste generation

Laboratories usually generate a large amount of waste. One move to reducing the amount of waste coming into a lab is by making purchases of products with minimal packaging. To avoid waste generation from the start, labs should reuse as many items as possible. Waste segregation at the source should be practiced with recyclable waste separately labelled. All areas of the labs should be provided with labelled waste segregation bins. The staff should be repeatedly trained on waste segregation. Recycling of non-hazardous waste should be done whenever possible. Hazardous waste may also be recycled by some organizations. Solvent recyclers can be purchased for the lab. Equipment which has reached the end of life may also be recycled.  Preventive maintenance of equipment is to be done at regular intervals to ensure optimum functioning. Freezers should be defrosted regularly, organized and cleaned periodically to remove unnecessary samples.

Reducing plastic and hazardous chemical use

Clinical labs should switch to safer and green alternatives instead of hazardous chemicals. Safety guidelines should be in practice to handle radioactive material. Labs should also work towards eliminating the use of mercury in thermometers. Disposable plastic-ware should be replaced with glassware or metal whenever feasible.

Efficient management of laboratory inventory and equipment

Laboratory stock can be consolidated and purchases minimized, if a store manager is assigned to keep a record of the inventory. This will reduce piling up of unnecessary items in the laboratory and avoids any useless purchase. Sustainable purchase practices should be introduced and reviewed time to time. Laboratory equipment also need to be used economically and switched off  when not in use. If  the laboratory has two similar equipments, they can be used on alternate days to reduce energy consumption depending on the workload.  Some instruments can be shared between nearby labs.

The impact of everyday actions on and off the bench in a lab by the staff can aid in the metamorphosis of the clinical labs into a sustainable space. The staff need to be trained and retrained on the sustainable practices of the laboratory to make it an integral part of the laboratory. Laboratory leadership should encourage sustainable practices and such initiatives ought to be rewarded.  The sustainable laboratory is a positive impact to the environment as well as the staff. Recycling and reducing the waste can also lead to increased savings which may be utilized for buying equipments and for other requirements of the laboratory. Sustainable laboratory practices need to imbibed by one and all, for successful implementation.

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