Skip to main content

Making your lab more sustainable

Blog Posts
Highlights 2021-2022
Student Sustainability Architects
Sustainable Labs

Ashley is a PhD student in the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences and a Student Sustainability Architect investigating sustainability in labs, with a focus on the use of single-use plastics (SUPs).

Find out what Ashley has got up to so far and how she is using LEAF to drive progress towards the University's #2023PlasticFree pledge.

Hi! My name is Ashley, and as part of my role as a Student Sustainability Architect I’ve been looking at developing a way for labs across the university to audit their single-use plastic items. This will help us learn about individual needs, and find ways we can reduce or replace these items as part of our efforts towards our plastics pledge.

How can we better monitor the use of plastics across the University?

To get started on this work, I wanted to create a user-friendly way for lab users to log all of their SUPs, and note down the reasons for using them - for example, why they use them for certain kinds of chemicals and samples. I also wanted to look at where alternatives such as glass might be an option, and whether items could be re-used or not. Using Microsoft Forms I created a questionnaire where users could answer questions about specific SUP items, with the aim to understand the needs of different labs across the university.

I decided that the best way to make this work was to involve users from an early stage, and so I set up a few forms for some key SUPs and asked for volunteers from the Sustainable Labs community to complete them as part of beta test. This was a great way to learn more about how various items are used and why, and to understand why certain labs can’t use glass, or consider re-use for example. The beta test allowed me to improve my forms and create new ones, and I am now in the process of compiling all my questions for key plastic items into one single form.

I am hoping this work will form a framework that can be used across the university, and provide us with opportunity for us to look at ways to reduce, reuse or recycle SUPs across our lab activities.

What is LEAF?

Through this work I became aware of the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF) which was designed by University College London (UCL) as a green labs certification tool to help drive improvements in laboratory efficiency and sustainability. With LEAF, users can sign up with their lab or lab group, and gain access to a set of criteria and actions that can be implemented throughout their laboratory.

The assessment covers areas such as waste, recycling, equipment management and procurement, giving users the opportunity to identify areas of strength, and areas for potential improvement. Three levels can be awarded - Bronze, Silver and Gold - each with a specific set of criteria. By signing up, users can also calculate the impact of their actions in terms of cost and carbon emission savings. 

LEAF logo

LEAF is a great tool for monitoring sustainable practices in labs and allows lab users to consider many aspects of efficient practice, including single-use plastics and other areas that may not have been considered before.

Laboratories can consume large amounts of energy and generate a lot of waste, and the importance of reducing our negative environmental impacts has never been so strong as it is now. By signing up to LEAF, labs can join a collaborative effort to assess their lab practices and work together to become more efficient.

Signing up a lab to join LEAF

With the help of the Experimental Officer for the Soft Matter Physics lab group, we signed our lab up to LEAF and added ourselves as users for the lab. We then began to work through the criteria required for the Bronze award, where we would consider each criteria individually and discuss whether we were meeting it or not. We would then add a short paragraph to explain what we were doing and how we were doing it.

Working through the Bronze certification gave us the opportunity to see how much progress we were making, particularly in the last year when our research labs made the move to the new Sir William Henry Bragg Building.

We are now committed to working towards the Silver LEAF award. One of the key challenges is the use of consumables and single-use plastics, so the work I’m doing as a Sustainability Architect will hopefully feed into making the Silver award achievable across the university. I think one of the key drivers in making this a success is communication and getting everyone involved, and I will be running a session on sustainable labs at my department away day next month where I hope to get more people signed up to LEAF.

I’m super grateful for the opportunity to work for the Sustainability Service this year, and how it’s led to me being involved in LEAF. I’m excited to see where this project will go!