Why Universities Should Be Investing In Lab Sustainability

While there has been some criticism on how universities invest in their estate, there are also example of innovative practices to make buildings more ecological sound and effective. The Lab Sustainability Initiative at the University of Bristol is one of such examples.

With a fragile and uncertain economy, universities are under increasing pressure to show responsible spending.  For institutions that teach and research science, laboratories are an obtainable low-hanging fruit that can improve environmental and financial sustainability.

Big science means big footprint

Just over half of the University of Bristol’s student body are studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM subjects).  The pattern continues with our staff, with half of our 6,900 workforce in STEM.  Based on this, one could guess labs would consume a similar proportion of our resources.

That assumption would be right.  Our sciences buildings, more specifically, the laboratories, account for just under half (40%) of our energy and water, as well as 40% of the waste budget.  This all seems very expected, except when taking into account that labs are only 6% of our spatial assets.  This fits nicely into the often-quoted statistic that ‘labs consume 3-10 times more energy than office spaces’.  For ours, you can have six-and-a-half offices per lab-space, in energy terms. In a nutshell, if we want a sustainable university, we need to focus on labs.


Lab efficiency and sustainability is a no brainer

Bristol University is research intensive, we have hundreds of laboratories producing research across many disciplines.  Students are demanding higher levels of social and environmental responsibility than ever before.  Sustainability is on the rise, particularly among millenials and gen-zedders.  Students are universities’ bread and butter, and their opinions and desires matter.  In recent months we’ve seen the rise of plant-based eating, campaigns for plastic-waste reduction, divestment from fossil fuels and an increase in ethical consumer spending.  A lot of these have been driven by students.  The combined factors of scarce public funding and higher fees, means efficient, transparent and responsible spending on universities’ parts.

Like the city it is based in, Bristol University is progressive and puts its money where it’s mouth is.  We aim to embed sustainability within all our practices and is a key part of the University strategy. The city of Bristol has been dubbed the ‘greenest’ and ‘smartest’ in the UK (although I’m not convinced as to the methodology behind such league tables).  As a sizable part of the local community, we want to ensure our current scientists, our future scientists and our scientific activities complement our city.  Hence why we invested in a labs-specific sustainability initiative nearly three years ago, and a full-time role to drive it.

You have to spend money to save money (and carbon)

We know that in order to reduce our energy costs and correspondingly our greenhouse gas emissions, we need to invest in efficient solutions.  The upfront costs can be large, but as long as projects pay for themselves within a reasonable length of time, and a net benefit can be gained, we’ll take that risk.  For instance, we’ve recently spent £200k on upgrading nearly 200 fume cupboards in our Synthetic Chemistry Building, which is saving us an ongoing £60k each year (216 tonnes CO2e.).  Moving air around is often the largest energy consumer in labs, and is a good area to target.  This particular project has additional benefits of improved safety and containment, and reduced annual maintenance costs.

We do the same with lab equipment, replacing older, energy-guzzling kit with high-efficiency equivalents, thus saving on energy costs over the equipment’s life cycle.  We also educate our lab-users and students about how to effectively manage and maintain the equipment, providing them with resources and incentives in order to do so.

It’s important to encourage the sharing of equipment and space, attempting to combat the well-entrenched psyche of ’ownership’ within academic labs.  We teach researchers to use energy and water productively and mindfully, and to move towards a circular economy mindset in our procurement and waste management.

Not all universities will have the support or the finances to invest in a complete initiative, but there is help available.  We have a national network of UK universities with equivalent initiatives, the Laboratory Efficiency Action Network (LEAN).  We collaborate by sharing knowledge, data and resources, whilst spreading the ‘lab efficiency and sustainability’ message.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel and we welcome other universities to join, so please get in contact if this is relevant to you.


Anna Lewis
Sustainable Labs Officer at the University of Bristol