Virginia Tech research lab project focuses on cutting waste, saving energy

BLACKSBURG, Va. – A research lab at Virginia Tech is leading the charge in going green.

It’s a project that’s been in the works for just over a year and is now getting more attention ahead of a VT Laboratory Exposition on campus Tuesday. The theme of the expo is sustainability, so every vendor on campus will be discussing their products and programs that help cut down on waste.

That theme of transforming research labs into sustainable spaces is an idea that Ellen Garcia, a PhD student at the Cimini Lab, has been working on for more than a year.

She says her interest in the idea sparked in late 2016, when she met with the founders of My Green Lab, a nonprofit focused on saving electricity and recycling everything from Styrofoam to plastic packaging used for lab products. These are changes that are not only reducing the waste stream from the lab, but also saving energy and money for other research projects.

This lab is the first at the university to adopt these changes, officially becoming certified as a green lab back in October.

It’s a simple plan Garcia hopes others will follow as well.

“I really hope that through what I’m doing, other people will start adopting these practices and see that it doesn’t take a lot of work,” she said. “It’s these small changes and making a conscious effort to adopt a habit that you can then really decrease the amount of waste you’re putting into the landfill or the amount of energy you’re consuming.”

They’re small changes Garcia says are having a big impact on her lab. Many of the changes are simply focused on tweaks in the behavior or habits of researchers. 

Some of the simpler changes include reducing energy use by regularly turning off the lights at the end of the day. Researchers in the lab have also identified lights that are unneeded or rarely used and taped over the switches that power them—a move that eliminates them from being used altogether.

There are also brightly colored signs and notes, reminding the researchers to turn off vacuum lines and other equipment when not in use. By shutting the sash, or cover, on a chemical fume hood when it’s not being used, this one lab is saving as much as three and a half households' worth of energy each day.

Another small change with a big impact – raising the temperature of the super cooled freezers.

“Almost every life science lab has a -80 freezer, so that’s -80 Celsius,” explains Garcia. “There’s been a lot of evidence that shows by increasing the temperature to -70, you don’t affect your samples but you really increase the lifespan of the freezer and save something like 10 percent of energy a year.” 

There’s also been a big push for more recycling. From Styrofoam to plastic pipette tip boxes, more and more companies are allowing labs to send back and recycle the packaging from their products, free of charge.

To learn more about the efforts and ways to make your own workspace more sustainable, check out the VT Laboratory Exposition today.