Green labs group strives to make science more sustainable

With guidance from Penn’s Sustainability Office, laboratories on campus are earning recognition for curbing waste and energy use. Next week’s Power Down Challenge is one place to start.

A person smiles while using a pipette and petri dishes in a scientific lab.
Since applying for a Green Fund Grant to replace plastic petri dishes for glass ones, Elicia Preston, a lab manager and technician at Penn Medicine, has spearheaded campus-wide efforts to make scientific endeavors more “green.”

Glance into any of the hundreds of labs around Penn and you’ll find examples aplenty of waste-generating plastic pipette tips and petri dishes, energy-sucking freezers and ventilation equipment. And while such tools can help make research safe and streamlined, they are also good targets for labs that wish to undergo a green makeover.

That is the aim of the Green Labs working group, an effort of Penn’s Sustainability Office in Facilities and Real Estate Services, which has been spearheaded for the last several years by Elicia Preston, a technician and lab manager of geneticist John Murray’s lab in the Perelman School of Medicine

Akin to the Green Office designation, whereby offices on campus can get recognized for efforts to be more environmentally friendly in their practices and consumption patterns, labs can also take steps to earn recognition from the Sustainability Office. The Green Labs group is building awareness and offering expertise on how scientists around Penn can reduce their waste production and energy use without cutting corners on productivity. 

“For most scientists, research is their number one priority,” says Preston. “They don’t want to spend time doing unrelated things. But some of the steps they can take are easy, or are things they’re supposed to be doing anyway, so it’s not a hard thing to work into their practices.”

Preston took initiative in this area back in 2015, applying for a Green Fund Grant to purchase reusable glass petri dishes to replace plastic petri dishes. While not a possibility for labs that work with particularly hazardous materials, the glass dishes cut down on a significant amount of waste in the Murray lab, Preston says. 

Such steps may seem small but can make a big difference. According to recent calculations, the top 10 most energy-intensive lab buildings on campus account for more than a quarter of all of the campus buildings' energy usage.

“In general, labs are heavier consumers of energy and waste compared to offices, just by virtue of the work they do,” says Elizabeth Main of the Sustainability Office. But labs are diverse in their tasks, making the process of “greening” more complex and varied than doing the same with offices.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint a set checklist of actions that any single lab can take,” Main says. “You might have a lab with animals; you might have a microbiology lab or a psychology lab. Not everyone is going to be able to take the same steps.”

Despite this variety, Penn Sustainability has developed a guide to help faculty and staff who work in or run campus laboratories: “Green Labs @ Penn.” If 75 percent of a lab’s members agree to adopting greener practices, they receive a decal to recognize their commitment. The guide is broken down into daily actions, such as shutting off lights and turning off equipment when not in use; monthly actions, including choosing less-hazardous chemicals where possible and combining purchase orders; and annual actions, such as performing maintenance on ultra-low temperature freezers or hosting a green event. 

At a meeting of the Green Labs group last month, Preston, who is also a staff eco-rep, discussed these and a host of additional tips that labs can take, from the simple, like using a cloth towel for lab cleanups, to the more elaborate, like replacing old energy-guzzling electronic equipment with efficient new varieties. 

A sign says "He's Watching You" with a picture of Ben Franklin. Text on the other side says "Shut the Sash" and "Help Penn reach its energy conservation goals."
Motivational sign and stickers, available from Penn’s Sustainability Office, encourage lab workers to engage in practices that conserve energy and reduce waste. (Image courtesy: Facilities and Real Estate Services)

It was Lisa Valenti’s first time attending a meeting. A graduate student who works with biologist Katie Barott in the School of Arts and Sciences, Valenti felt it was important that the Barrot lab, which focuses on coral reef biology, take steps to improve its environmental footprint.

“We’re working on a question that has a lot to do with the environment, pollution, and climate change and all those things,” says Valenti. “So I wanted to attend today to find out what else we could be doing.” 

A strong supporter of the group, Rebecca Hoffman has implemented a variety of practices in the “wet” labs around the School of Nursing, where she serves as lab manager. “I’ve had good acceptance with the faculty I work with, but it always surprises me that scientists aren’t more green,” she says. “I think when it comes to potential biohazards you want to err on the side of caution, but if you keep up on your education it’s easy to find a lot of materials you can reuse or recycle.”

A person in a lab pours a bin full of plastic petri dishes into a blue recycling bin.
In circumstances when plastic petri dishes are necessary for laboratory work, Preston ensure that they are properly cleaned and sorted for recycling. Reducing waste of all kinds, however, is the number one goal.

The meeting concluded with a quiz; Preston had spider plant babies and vegan brownies to share with those who gave correct answers. 

And Preston is upping the reward for those interested in taking further “green” steps for their labs. They are offering to conduct green lab audits, visiting labs in person, and suggesting tailored suggestions, for those interested.

In the meantime, the next Green Labs meeting will be held Friday, April 19 at 1 p.m. in CRB 302, and the Power Down Challenge week begins March 18 (see sidebar). For more information, contact