Save energy and keep you hands warm – The “Green Laboratory Program” at the University of Washington

Hello again. Today I’d like to continue our series about how to be eco-friendly in a laboratory. Remember last weeks post about the initiative at the Simon Fraser University? Here’s another university promoting green laboratories: the University of Washington. Besides the Green Office, Green Greek (“acknowledges and educates Greek community members about their habits at home relating to sustainability”) and “SEED Green Endorsement” (recognising UW students living on campus and off, who are thoughtful about the impact of their daily life on the environment), it has the Green Laboratory Program, which I’ll introduce here now in more detail, i.e. especially the Freezer Challenge.

As pointed out on their website, “Laboratories are one of the main generators of waste …”. So true. Working in a molecular biology lab, I’v thrown away a lot of consumables every day – all the reaction vials called Eppis, all the disposable pipette tips, transfer pipets, micro plates, … – it’s simply the way, it’s the way they are supposed to be used: just once. And then you throw them away.

But leaving this aspect aside for the moment (more about this in a later post), there’s another factor with a huge impact on the environment: the energy consumption of a laboratory. I didn’t know that a lab is “using about 4 times more energy than an office of the same size”. Wow. But giving it some thought, I absolutely believe it because there’s a lot of equipment running from morning to evening or even 24h. Of course, some equipment has to run permanently, such as the various incubators, fridges and freezers. After all, your freezer at home also runs 24/7, doesn’t it? But – and here’s an important difference – your freezer at home probably got a good Energy Star rating. Why? Let’s be honest: because it’s you who’s paying the electricity bill and getting one of those A+++ fridges is one one way to save money, isn’t it?

I know, we’re back talking about money and not just about saving the environment. My feeling is that you can’t avoid this connection – there’s simply a strong link between them. Anyway, why not use saving money as a strong motivation to be more eco friendly? In the laboratory, it’s the university who’s paying the bills. But if you care about it anyway and help them to reduce their energy bill:

a) you’ve done something good for the planet and
b) you might get more money for your research – at least, you’d very much hope, that’s where the saved money ends up.

Now having a very energy efficient freezer is one way to save energy. However, it might not always be possible to get one because there just not enough left in the budget (although the UW helps with that – no costs for disposing of an old freezer and $200 rebate for the new one). But you can always save energy by how you are using your freezer. Think about it: at home, your parents or your wife (yes, she’s got a very good influence on me! 🙂 )trained you to keep the time the freezer is open to a minimum. And that’s possible if it’s well organized (or nearly empty if you forgot to do the shopping – more an issue for singles though, I assume? 😉 ). Unfortunately, life in the lab is often different in this aspect.

While getting something out of the +4°C fridge might still be fairly easy and quick, finding something in the -80°C freezer is often a nightmare: not just because is sooo cold, but mostly because that DNA sample you need is hidden in a unlabelled box, located somewhere at the back of the freezer and buried in snow … the memory still makes me shiver. It can long minutes until you find it and the freezers is open all that time!

What can you do about it? There are are few nice suggestion on the UW’s website and more on the website of the National Lab Freezer Challenge, such as (just to mention a few here):

  1. Keep your freezer clean by vacuuming the coils and removing the snow.
  2. Label your boxes and samples.
  3. Avoid crowding by checking if you really need to store something at -80° or -20°C.

That’s part of smart storage. The UW actually offers you a “Freezer Cleaning Kit” (freezer gloves and a freezer scraper and brush) to get your freezer in shape if your participating in the challenge. Nice, isn’t it? One excuse less for not doing it. 😉

Ideally you would both for the maximum impact: get a new freezer with a great Energy Star rating and use it in a smart way. But even if you can’t get a new energy efficient freezer anytime soon, you can still keep your old one clean and organised, so that it’s not open so often for a long time.

So, why not have fun with a polar expedition to get your freezer clean and organised? It’ll pay off later! At the very least, you’ll be happy not get cold hands so often anymore.

• National Lab Freezer Challenge
Themed brochure with tips on smart storage
Green Greek:
Green Office
• SEED Green Endorsement

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