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ECOMAPPING (TM) – an easy method to make your lab work more sustainable

This article was graciously provided by Kerstin Hermuth-Kleinschmidt, an expert on lab sustainability who joined our Winter network meeting as an external speaker.

When I was asked to give a short presentation at the Winter Meeting in December 2021, I was very delighted to have the opportunity to talk about the ECOMAPPINGTM-method. This method provides an easy way to implement sustainable measures in every lab. If you missed the presentation, here’s a short summary of this method.

My name is Kerstin Hermuth-Kleinschmidt. I am working as a sustainability expert, speaker and publisher with a strong focus on the life sciences. After graduating in chemistry and completing my PhD in microbiology, I worked several years in sales and technical support in the life sciences industry before I’ve decided to combine sustainability consulting with my scientific background. I’ve founded my own company NIUB sustainability consulting and since 2014, I give presentations, workshops and support to help people work more sustainably in the lab. 

In my presentations, I usually start with facts like these: 
Working in the lab is connected to big resource consumptions: a lab building consumes 3-5 times more energy and water than an office building, an -80 °C-freezer uses as much energy as a single-family house, 5.5 million tons of plastic alone were used in all life sciences labs worldwide in 2014, and this number has certainly not gone down…

This impresses people because these numbers are often not or barely known. But if we don’t know our impact, we cannot change anything. So, the first step is to get an idea of your resource consumption. But how to go on? The next steps include the analysis of processes and routines in the lab, like your freezer management, the use of sustainable methods and the purchase of sustainable products like energy- and water-efficient equipment. 

In theory, this looks good – and there are a lot of actions you can take like defrosting your -80 °C freezers regularly and participating in the freezerchallenge, using miniaturization methods like liquid-liquid-miniaturization-extraction in your sample preparation, or using glass instead of plastics

There are a lot of checklists and tips on the internet like this guide from the iGEM-goes-green group, these checklists from the UCL, these tips from mygreenlab or these from the labconscious website.

BUT I often also hear the following concerns:  

  • These recommendations do not apply to us
  • Our methods are established and cannot be changed.
  • We already optimized all our routines – no idea what else can be altered

So, there is really nothing that can be changed?

When I first learned about the ECOMAPPINGTM-method, which was originally developed for small and middle-sized enterprises (SMEs) wanting to implement an environmental management system according to EMAS, I thought from the first moment that this was a very practical and easily adaptable method for the lab.

Having been trained on the ECOMAPPINGTM-method, I’m confident that it can help any lab put sustainability into practice, whether it is a biological lab doing a lot of protein chemistry, a chemistry lab, a microbiology lab or a physical lab.

Every laboratory has an impact on the environment. These include, for example, energy and water consumption, waste or the generation of wastewater.  When using the ECOMAPPING method, you make an environmental assessment of your laboratory, taking into account the following environmentally relevant aspects:

  • Waste
  • Water and wastewater
  • Energy
  • Emissions (which also includes noise emissions)
  • Storage (e.g., of chemicals)
  • Risks and safety
  • Chemicals and consumables

How does it work? What do you need?

Here’s your checklist:

  • You need a person, better a team of 2 or 3 persons, for every aspect
  • You need a floor plan of your labs plus the rooms associated with your lab (like storage rooms…)
  • You need a camera (smartphone or tablet) for documentation
  • You get a questionnaire as guidance for your aspect

Let’s have a look into this lab:

All the teams go through the lab focussing on their aspect and writing down on to the floor plan what they notice, what is striking them and which action should be taken.

The actions are also prioritized into:
Priority A: Change immediately
Priority B: Change as soon as possible
Priority C: Check and change if needed

Do not forget to make photographs as this is your documentation!

A checklist will help each team gather ideas on what they should look out for. The energy team will get questions like:

  • Do we know the power consumption of our devices?
  • Are the devices in standby mode or off?
  • Do we know the heating times?
  • When are the devices usually started? (Directly in the morning or adapted to the heating-up times).
  • Do the devices have a high heat load?
  • Are they in the right place to dissipate the heat?

This is what the teams noticed in the lab:

And this is what they noted in their individual floor plan, now their ecomaps:

This is your task for the first day – and I am sure that every team will find ways to improve.

Discuss and get into action

The next day, compile all the results and discuss the findings recorded in the individual ecomaps in your group. There may be overlaps – this is not bad, but desirable as it shows the different environmental impacts a routine, tool or method could have.

Discuss open questions and challenges. Evaluate all ideas for feasibility, environmental impact, cost or impact on your daily work.

Finally, create a joint assessment of your ideas and prioritise them together.

Create an action plan that includes the following:

  • Concrete actions
  • Budget (or not, because many measures cost nothing)
  • Deadlines by which the measures are to be implemented
  • Responsibilities
  • Resubmission to review your measures

What could be your result?

The team formulated the following action plan:

  • No more use of aluminium in autoclaving bacterial cultures. Instead, metal sealing caps are used.
  • The autoclaves were running at 134 °C, but the team found that 121 °C was sufficient:From now on, the autoclaves will be run at 121 °C, and stickers remind people to only run an autoclave when it is fully loaded.
  • Stickers on the instruments remind people to switch them off when not in use to avoid stand-by.
  • Since cooling with ice requires a lot of water and energy to produce ice, alternatives are being tested.
  • A concept for sharing equipment is under development.
  • Guidelines for sustainable procurement are being developed, sustainability labels such as ACT, EGNATON-CERT and Energy Star will be considered in the future.

These are just a few examples that can result from applying the ECOMAPPING method. And most of these actions do not cost anything.

I personally like this method since it is easy to apply and at the same time raises awareness for sustainable measures in everyday laboratory life. Feel free to contact me if you have further questions or need assistance in implementing the ECOMAPPING method.

Contact details:

Twitter: @NIUBsustainable

Note: The Ecomapping method is based on the ecomapping/EMASeasy™ concept, which was originally developed by Heinz Werner Engel and is disseminated in German-speaking countries by WUQM Consulting.

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