How to Make Research Labs More Sustainable
The global research community creates billions of pounds of plastic waste a year—an award-winning BU Campus Climate Lab–backed project aims to make science more eco-friendly
Scientists are increasingly joining together to warn the public about the world’s current climate emergency and the dire consequences to come if we don’t make big changes, fast. But the dirty secret is that many of these scientists’ labs inadvertently contribute to the problem: one study finds that research labs produce 12 billion pounds of plastic waste a year.
When researcher Angie Serrano saw this statistic, she became inspired to do her part. In January 2022, Serrano, a Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine assistant professor of vascular biology, started her own lab at the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CReM) and realized it gave her the perfect opportunity to incorporate eco-friendly practices from the beginning.
Fortunately, BU had a way to help her get started. Serrano and her group pitched their idea of researching better ways the University’s labs could recycle, reuse materials, and reduce energy use to the BU Campus Climate Lab. It’s an initiative that supports student and faculty research teams to identify innovative climate solutions right on BU’s campus—with the hope that findings can one day have a broader impact off campus.
They were one of 21 teams awarded Campus Climate Lab funding this school year. Their effort would prove so successful that it also earned one team member—Carly Golden (CAMED’27)—this year’s Anthony Janetos Climate Action Prize. Now, having recorded what worked and what didn’t, they’re creating a blueprint for other BU laboratories with guidelines on the best sustainable practices and the required financial commitment.
Since its founding three years ago, the Campus Climate Lab—now overseen by the Institute for Global Sustainability (IGS), in collaboration with BU Sustainability and the Office of Research—has funded 31 projects. These projects have helped make campus landscaping more eco-friendly, explored how to make Cummington Mall more walkable, and brought diverse campus faith groups together to talk environmental justice. Serrano’s team was given a $9,200 grant for its eco-friendly labs project.
Rebecca Pearl-Martinez, IGS executive director and climate lab director, describes the Serrano Lab’s project as innovative, impactful, and well-executed. “BU has a tremendous number of labs that could learn from this,” she says.
12 Billion Pounds of Plastic
Serrano Lab manager Saylor Williams, a CReM research study technician, remembers feeling excited when she received an email last fall that called for Campus Climate Lab submissions. “It seemed like the perfect opportunity for us,” Williams says.
After winning the funding, Williams began by interviewing lab managers at other research institutions, such as the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of California, Davis, to see what she could implement back in Boston. One idea she picked up was to slightly increase the temperature of their lab’s sample freezers (while monitoring their samples) in order to conserve energy. She is currently researching how to make this possible in the Serrano Lab, which studies neurodevelopment and cardiovascular development, specifically in the case of rare disorders.
But the big step Serrano’s team could enact right away was a robust recycling program, as biomedical single-use plastics are one of the largest producers of plastic waste production worldwide, Williams says. “Everything that [the science community] uses is single-use plastics,” she says. “And it has to be sterile, so it’s just become the norm to use it and then throw it in the biohazard box.”
The team invited other CReM labs to participate and eight soon joined. “After we began recycling within our group, the entire center quickly followed suit,” says Golden, a Serrano Lab PhD student who cowrote the Campus Climate Lab application.
Since they started recycling any plastic that did not come in contact with biohazard materials, CReM has recycled 796 pounds of it, including pipette tips, media bottles, and PCR plates. The Serrano team chose the vendor Polycarbin, since the company pledges that most of the plastic they process will be formed into research products. CReM has sent about 100 Styrofoam boxes, countless rubber gloves, and 1,200 coffee K-Cup pods to recycling (they are now inspired to research biodegradable K-Cups). The team also learned how to work with these recycling vendors while using BU’s purchasing system.
In the future, the Serrano Lab plans to be certified by My Green Lab, a nonprofit organization aiming to build a global culture of sustainability in science. They are also continuing to collect data and work on their best practices document. They hope to publish this report in the next month or two and make it available to all BU researchers.
Serrano says in order to adopt these oftentimes costly green initiatives, most labs would require the backing of institutional and federal entities, an elusive goal for any laboratories with limited funding. She is therefore thankful for the Campus Climate Lab funding and the support from the CReM leadership, and one day hopes federal and institutional support mechanisms can offset the cost of these programs.
Janetos Climate Action Prize
At the end of the spring semester, Golden was awarded the Anthony Janetos Climate Action Prize for student contributions to the Serrano team’s work and for furthering the goals of BU’s Climate Action Plan. The prize’s namesake, Anthony Janetos, was an internationally renowned expert on climate change who died in 2019 of pancreatic cancer. The director of BU’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and a College of Arts & Sciences professor and chair of earth and environment, Janetos led the University’s Climate Action Task Force, which helped create the University’s Climate Action Plan (with an ultimate goal of reducing BU’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2040), leading to the Campus Climate Lab.
“It’s incredibly humbling for us to receive an award that pays tribute to the legacy of Professor Anthony Janetos,” Serrano says. “Ultimately, we’re standing on the shoulders of giants and leaders in the field who have laid the groundwork for us. Their efforts give us a fighting chance to get things right.”
Do you have an idea for a Campus Climate Lab project? Ideas can be grounded in any discipline, including engineering, humanities, health, social and natural sciences, communication, business, and fine arts. Learn more about how to apply here.