"Human Practices is the study of how your work affects the world, and how the world affects your work." — Peter Carr, Director of Judging
The iGEM competition encourages teams to consider the environmental implications of their projects. We took this sentence, published on the iGEM webpage, literally. With iGEM goes green we want to offer a new approach to share ways of ecological improvements of research projects, and to encourage as many teams and research groups as possible to get involved.
Talking to various experts in the field of sustainability and environmental protection made us realize that there is a lot to catch up on regarding sustainable lab work and research.
Therefore, we integrated all the comments and input we obtained from experts into the planning and implementation of the iGEM goes green initiative and our scientific project as well.
One of our main goals was to estimate the GHG emissions of our whole project, as no other iGEM team was engaged in this concern before. As soon as we realized that we would need some help and expertise, we got in contact with Toni Kiel who is a business consultant for sustainability. In our first meeting, he introduced us to a concept for structuring our emissions:
GHG emissions can be classified by scopes that reflect different forms of emission. “Scope 1” relates to direct emissions caused; for instance, by burning coal. “Scope 2” relates to indirect emissions caused by the generation of warmth and electricity.“Scope 3” accounts for all the other indirect emissions related to your work.
The unit for measuring the global warming potential of the emitted greenhouse gases (GHG) is CO2. The different gases are multiplied by a factor that reflects their harmfulness on our climate. For instance, methane is 12.4 times as damaging as carbon dioxide, so one ton of methane accounts for 12.4 tons of CO2.
GHG Emission Calculation
Calculating the carbon footprint of our own lab work was an important goal for us, as it is the only way to actually determine the most influencing factors regarding GHG emissions. While there are a lot of online tools to calculate your personal carbon footprint or the carbon footprint of your travel by plane, train, or bus, we found nothing comparable for the GHG of lab work. Since we set our minds on determining the factors that add most to the carbon footprint of our lab work, there was no way around creating a tool by ourselves.
Toni Kiel accompanied the development of our calculation tool for weeks and provided us with helpful sources and professional advice so that we could assign all of our potential consumptions into scopes and eventually translate them into emissions. Thanks to his assistance we could actually determine the carbon footprint of our lab work!
What have we done to integrate the gained knowledge and to reduce GHG emissions?
With the help of the GHG emission monitoring we wanted to detect the biggest influencing factors and draw conclusions for reducing our carbon footprint. This allowed us to integrate the gained knowledge into our project and change our behavior concerning lab work:
Avoiding power consumption of devices in the standby mode
We found out that some of our lab devices (e.g. scales and photometers) always consume power although they seemed to be turned off. This is because of the standby mode. Some devices have an additional switch to disconnect from the mains. For those that cannot be turned off completely, we decided to pull the plug if the device is not in use for longer periods of time. Thereby allowing us to save energy without effort.
Reconsidering working routines
By sharing devices and by thoroughly planning experiments, no-load running can be avoided and thus power consumption can be reduced. Sometimes it is reasonable to (literally) go the extra mile and incubate your plates in the 37°C room (if there is one at your institute), instead of turning on the incubator in your lab for incubating one petri dish. We tried to share as many devices as possible; such as our ultra-low temperature freezer, our ice-machine, autoclaves, thermocycler, plate reader, etc with other working groups at our institute. Furthermore, we collected media and materials of the whole team for autoclaving or tried to autoclave our stuff together with materials that were needed for practical courses anyways. Reconsidering working routines means also to differentiate between reasonable actions and convenience. Is it really necessary that computers or incubators are running at all times?
Reconsidering machine settings
The power consumption of just one ultra-low temperaturefreezer is equal to that of 2-3 average german households. . That is why we have set our minds to raising the temperature of our ultra-low temperature freezer from -80°C to -70°C which saves up to 40% of its total energy consumption . It was not hard to convince the head of our institution of this action, as he has an interest in prolonging the longevity of his device. This is due to that fact that raising the temperature of the freezer reduces the burden on the compressor, making a failure of the system less likely. There is a lot of proof as well, that the sample quality is not influenced by storage at -70°C (have a look at this list of successfully preserved samples ).
Surprisingly, setting deep-freezers to -80°C is only a result of marketing strategies and not done out of necessity. When we communicated our findings to other working groups they were surprised and open-minded, so that now a handful of our collaborator's freezers are also set to -70°C, with hopefully more to follow.
When we were looking into our working routines, we noticed that our default setting for the autoclave was at 134°C. As it is one of the devices with a high power consumption we tried to find ways of reducing its runtime. A quick google search revealed that a setting of 121°C is more than sufficient when working with S1 organisms. Higher temperatures are only necessary for persistent pathogens like prions. So of course, we adapted the settings to minimize the autoclaves power consumption.
German-wide Meetup/ GoGreen workshop
In the beginning of July, we hosted a German-wide Meetup in Dresden with members of 13 German iGEM teams in attendance. Hosting a big event like that required a lot of organization and therefore sticking to our sustainability goals was challenging. In addition to getting to know the other teams, their projects, and looking for collaboration possibilities; we were also thrilled to share our iGEM goes green concept with the German iGEM community.
The following aspects of the meetup were the parts where we especially tried to act in an eco-friendly manner:
Providing a dinner for about 50 people on a small budget was a big challenge. But we made it our goal to greatly reduce the amount of animal products on the menu. Our Tortilla Party evening was a great success! In the end, the total amount of meat provided was reduced to only 4 kg of organic chicken; since livestock is one of the main contributors to GHG emissions. All of the other fillings for the Tortilla wraps were vegetarian and vegan (and also yummy!).
Furthermore, we purchased some of our vegetables as well as fruits for coffee breaks from the German foodbank organization “Die Tafel” - which is a charitable organization that distributes food that cannot be sold in supermarkets anymore. In this way we could “save” groceries from being wasted.
A big goal of the meetup was to keep the waste products as small as possible. Therefore, we organized porcelain mugs for the coffee breaks and porcelain dishes for our Tortilla party in the evening. The big advantage was that we did not have to use disposable plastic tableware that would have been thrown away afterward.
Every participating team was provided with a group ticket for the public transport during the time of the event. We also encouraged the visiting teams not to use inland flights but rather to share cars or come by train and bus.
During the Meetup we presented the general concept of iGEM goes green in form of a workshop, in which we gave tips and instructions on how to improve sustainable scientific lab-work. After a group work task, where the participants could get creative with their own ideas for sustainable research, we showed clear ways to reduce GHG emissions and gave examples on how to calculate the carbon footprint of lab work.
Further achievements are listed on our experience page of iGEM goes green.
Unfortunately, some emissions cannot be avoided. Therefore, we looked into ways to compensate our unavoidable emissions.
Planting a tree
Our initial idea, to plant enough trees to compensate for the CO2 emission was dismissed very soon, when we figured out that, depending on the calculator we used, we would have to plant about 200 trees. Due to the lack of space and money for a small forest, we decided to compensate for the emissions in other ways. Nevertheless, the idea of planting a tree was stuck in our heads and is also represented in our logo. In the end, we decided to plant one tree as a symbolic act for our go green initiative. Now we are proud patrons of a tree (Quercus macrocarpa) in the Forest Park Tharandt near Dresden.
Early on in our project we realized that compensating for our GHG emissions would be expensive. Finding sponsors to pay for all the material, registration fees and flights for our team was challenging enough. The decision to donate money to a non-profit organization to compensate for our flights was easy enough to make, but where would the money come from?
Luckily, New England Biolabs hosted two creative competitions in the last year. The NEB Upcycle challenge asked the participants to find a new use for one of their products packaging. Totally supporting the idea of reusing and upcycling old material as part of the "iGEM goes green" initiative, Anastasia and Labu created a video projector for mobile phones from the NEB box. Although our contribution was featured in the newsletter of NEB, our project was unfortunately not chosen as the winner.
In September NEB hosted yet another competition asking this time for nature pictures for a calendar, and so we tried our luck again. We contributed with a beautiful image of a bleeding heart flower taken by our talented teammember: Nina. The picture actually won over the judges and it was chosen to become part of the calendar. It was awarded with 500€ for either NEB products or as a donation for a charitable organization.
These 500€ were donated to Wilderness International; a non-profit organization based in Dresden that aims to preserve a temperate rainforest in Canada that is endangered by the wood and mining industry. The money is used to guarantee a long-term nature conservation of a 640 m2 forest.
We are very happy for the possibility to donate this money to Wilderness International as a compensation for our GHG emissions! In the following years, these centuries-old trees will convert CO2 into biomass and therefore, make up for the emissions we caused with our flights. Of course this is a rather naive calculation, as this will not solve the problem of humankind's enormous GHG emissions in the long run. But saving a rainforest from deforestation is a good place to start fighting global warming. Hopefully in the future we will have deployed new methods for climate-friendly transport.
With calculating our GHG emissions and collecting our ideas for sustainable iGEM projects and benchwork we also wanted to be an example for others. We thought about what we can do to help other teams adapt our work to become part of iGEM goes green and how our approach could be used in other research groups worldwide.
The result were three different resources freely available for download:
The Guideline provides our tips for how lab work can be more sustainable by thoughtful planning and conscious usage of resources. Furthermore, it contains suggestions for more environmental friendly conferences and meetings. With the help of the collaborating teams we could add some new points to the content. Additionally, we talked to Dr. Kerstin Hermuth-Kleinschmidt, a sustainability consultant for companies in life sciences with a focus on sustainable lab work. With her large knowledge and experiences in the field of sustainable lab work we were able to extend and improve the GoGreenGuide.
The most important lab work with relevant tips are summarized in a poster. It was created to hang it on the wall in labs as a reminder to work greener.
This Excel based tool offers teams the opportunity to calculate their team´s carbon footprint that is related to the laboratory work. Consumables, heating, and electricity consumptions can be entered to get a summary of the GHG emissions of the lab.
Spreading our idea of a greener iGEM
The efficiency of a sustainability project increases drastically with the number of people involved in the idea. Moreover, we realized that many scientists never actively think about sustainable research and that the information you can find about the topic are very limited. Therefore, it was very clear from the beginning that our aim was to convince as many teams and research groups as possible to take part because, we noticed that iGEM goes green has the potential to become something great.
We created a short video to introduce our idea to other teams and people.
Today, the easiest way to efficiently share your ideas with the world is social media. We created a Facebook and an Instagram account where we inform people about our progress and share sustainable lab work tips.
Our social media accounts created the necessary awareness for our sustainability topics. We were offered to publish articles in different newsletters:
The CMCB Newsletter (Center for Molecular and Cellular Bioengineering) is published monthly for the research groups of the CMCB Dresden.
Another article was published in the newsletter of the Environmental Management of the TU Dresden. It provided us the possibility to reach many people since it is forwarded to all employees of TU Dresden.
Furthermore, an article about our project and iGEM goes green initiative was published in the Sächsische Zeitung 29/10/2017, a local newspaper.
We found out that there is already a community that shares our concern. We followed the blog on Labconscious with interest and contacted Nicole Kelesoglu, the editor of this webpage. She kindly offered us to publish two blog posts to extend our outreach on her website. She also helped us with the distribution of our “Green your lab” poster via Labconscious. We are looking forward to meeting Nicole after the Giant Jamboree at the NEB Campus in Boston. She will interview our team and publish the story of iGEM goes green in one of her blog posts. Furthermore, the iGEM goes green initiative will be the content of an episode of NEB.tv.
We believe that iGEM goes green has the potential to last longer than one iGEM year, and we hope that the idea behind it is carried on throughout the years. Maybe sustainable involvement can even become a medal criterion one day. We want to convince research groups and iGEM teams worldwide that with a small amount of effort, research and especially lab work can be organized in a much more sustainable and eco-friendly manner.