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Raising Benchmarks for Lab Sustainability

May 15, 2014

When we think of unsustainable businesses we don’t usually think of the clean, sterile environments of laboratories. But labs – from small academic ones to the larger biotech industry benches common in the Seattle area – are hazardous polluters that often get overlooked by the public eye.


Tepe presenting the Green Lab Alliance at the GoGreen Conference, 2014

“By industry, the biotech and biomedical sector is the second biggest incinerator of toxic waste, behind municipal waste services,” said Jill Tepe, founder of the Green Lab Alliance and PPRC’s Technical Project Manager. Tepe says that scientists and safety officers are generally aware of the irony that laboratories, often dedicated to saving lives, work with materials that can cause health problems. The challenge is to come up with workable solutions. “This is becoming a hotter topic but there’s not a lot of consensus on validated best practices to improve sustainability while reducing risk,” Tepe said.

As part her mission with the Green Lab Alliance, Tepe is creating forums to promote successful ideas about lab sustainability. In March, Tepe gathered many of the region’s leaders in lab sustainability from across academia, government, and biotech for a one day workshop on Best Practices for Sustainable Labs. Hosted by the University of Washington Environmental & Occupational Health and Sciences Continuing Education Program and King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, the workshop was held in a packed room at the King Street GIS Center in Seattle.

“I got to put together my dream team of committee folks,” Tepe said of the lineup she organized for the workshop. “We have some experts and great resources in this area.”

PPRC’s Brian Penttila, a safer chemicals expert, also served on the organizing committee, which ensured that presenters included diverse voices from academia, government, and industry. Tepe and Penttila were particularly excited to include Allen Doyle, who Tepe credits as being “one of the godfathers of the green labs movement.” Doyle founded the Lab Rats program at UC Santa Barbara, which published one of the first consolidated guides of best practices for sustainable laboratories. He is now the Sustainability Manager at UC Davis.

Other presenters included experts on local hazardous waste management like King County’s David Waddell, author of the highly regarded Laboratory Waste Management Guide. The workshop didn’t merely list good health and safety protocols, it addressed the full scope of lab sustainability problems. Both Nancy Lee, a professor with the Evans School of Public Affairs at University of Washington, and Kristi Budzinski, of Genentech, presented a number of useful tactics to engage employees and ensure organization-wide commitment to sustainability efforts.


Allen Doyle presenting on “Measures of Success”

The workshop exposed attendees to a number of short and long-term solutions to greening laboratories. Allen Doyle, for example, highlighted the need for more efficient freezers and use of fume hoods. “Those are changes that can be made in the short term, and can save both money and health costs,” Tepe said. Presenters also emphasized the increasing usefulness of green chemistry methods that encourage less toxic product designs. Alex Stone, with the Washington Department of Ecology, detailed a number of different alternative assessment tools that can help laboratories target and replace the most hazardous chemicals during a product’s development stage. Emily Peterson, of Amgen, presented ways that companies can select greener chemicals early in drug development, eliminating toxic exposures before they get folded into operations.

Though participants came from different life-science sectors, Tepe says that major biotech companies struggle with many of the same things that smaller labs do. For example, labs of all sizes are trying to reduce use of organic solvents. “Biotech companies would love to get certain organic solvents out of their waste stream.” Tepe said. “And now they’re actually starting to invest in research to do this.”

The one-day workshop demonstrated the regional demand for opportunities to swap ideas and solutions to lab-specific issues. Tepe vows that there will be more opportunities to come, both as formalized continuing education classes and as informal gatherings for those who care about improving the health and safety of their work environments.


-Cyrus Philbrick, Communications Manager




* Post edited 5/20/14 to include more links.

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