The healthcare industry creates 4.4% of the world’s carbon emissions. To put this into perspective, if the healthcare industry were a country, it would be the fifth-largest carbon emitter on the planet. The goal of the healthcare industry is to create new, life-saving treatments for patients, but it also produces a lot of waste that cannot be recycled, such as plastic and chemicals. Additionally, this industry uses a lot of non-renewable energy. The Green Lab Project is a worldwide, 10-year-old program attempting to reduce the carbon emissions caused by the activities of scientists within the healthcare industry. The Green Lab project arrived at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) in 2020, at the request of a group of postdocs, graduate students, and employees. The BCH Green Labs group is working to sponsor environment-protecting projects and educate BCH scientists to adopt more responsible, informed, and “greener” work practices. This article will describe ways that BCH scientists are trying to reduce lab waste and energy consumption, including sharing equipment and materials to limit waste production, cleaning freezers regularly, and using outlet timers to avoid wasting energy.
The Healthcare System Can Improve to Become More Environmentally Friendly
There are many types of scientists working in healthcare research laboratories all over the world. Some scientists study how tiny bacteria and viruses make us sick, and how to find the right cure. Other scientists study how the human body works, both when healthy and ill. Scientists also look at our genes and try to understand how certain genes result in certain diseases.
To perform their experiments, researchers must use many types of tools, pieces of equipment, chemicals, and single-use plastics. The equipment scientists use consumes a lot of energy, and the plastics that they throw away are not recyclable. The more energy and plastic an activity uses, more carbon is released into the environment. This means scientific work emits a lot of carbon (Figure 1)! Higher carbon emissions harm the planet and result in extreme events such as rising temperatures, melting polar ice, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events.
If the healthcare industry and its scientists were a country, they would rank fifth in carbon emissions, behind only China, the United States, India, and Russia. Laboratories and hospitals worldwide represent 4.4% of total carbon emissions [1, 2]. Laboratories and hospitals use approximately five times as much energy as office spaces, and they generate 12 billion pounds of plastic per year, which is equivalent to the weight of one million elephants [1, 2]!
BCH Green Labs—Helping Researchers Save the Planet
Researchers are becoming aware of the need to make research more environmentally friendly. All over the world, scientists are trying to find innovative ways to be “greener”. Being greener means decreasing the environmental impact of their labs in terms of materials, water, energy, and waste production. Scientists can accomplish this goal with the help of numerous organizations. For instance, in the United States, we have two groups: My Green Lab and the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL). These two groups were founded to help researchers working in healthcare facilities learn how to be greener and reduce their carbon footprint.
At Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH), we created an organization called BCH Green Labs, which helps BCH researchers be greener both in their workspaces and at home . This group is composed of volunteer postdocs, graduate students, and lab managers, and everyone is very passionate about the environment. BCH Green Labs has reached out to many teams within the hospital, to spread the word about reducing our carbon footprint. These teams include the Safety Department, which keeps scientists safe in the labs; the Facilities and Engineering Departments, which take care of all big equipment in the research buildings and ensure labs are always connected to the electrical system; and the Environmental Health & Safety Department, which manages trash pick-up and recycling. A lot of scientists are not aware of the impact they have on the environment or how to adopt sustainable practices. The goal of BCH Green Labs is to create awareness and share creative ideas with everyone (Figure 2).
What are BCH Scientists Doing to Be Greener?
Based on the discussions that BCH Green Labs had with the various hospital teams, here are some of the creative ways we have been trying to reduce BCH’s carbon footprint.
• The Freezer Challenge. Every year, BCH labs defrost and clean their big freezers, to reduce energy use and save time and money. At the same time, this initiative helps people develop good cold-storage practices that will hopefully become standard practice in the lab and be taught to future lab members. Did you know that most lab freezers are kept at -80°C (four times colder than the freezer you have at home)? But they do not have to be! Increasing a freezer’s temperature by just a few degrees (from -80 to -70°C) saves up to 30% of energy—this is about the amount of energy needed to power one home for a whole year! Crazy right? Importantly, a change of just 10°C has little impact on the quality of the biological samples (urine, saliva, blood, etc.) being kept in the freezer, but this change can positively impact the environment!
Achievements so far: In 2022, BCH won the Top Clinical Organization Award of the International Freezer Challenge, organized by My Green Lab and I2SL, saving 463.8 kWh/day of energy, the equivalent of 16 households worth of energy saved daily.
• Share equipment, chemicals, and supplies. To reduce waste and save space, energy, and money, BCH labs decided to share instruments and materials instead of each lab buying their own. This simple practice helps reduce not only waste and energy consumption but also the number of shipments to BCH and the use of packaging material (e.g., non-recyclable plastic such as bubble wrap, ice packs, Styrofoam coolers, etc.).
Achievements so far: BCH Green Labs created a chemical inventory, to promote sharing of common chemicals among all BCH laboratories, significantly reducing waste.
• Purchase sustainable lab products when possible: Over the years, an increasing number of sellers have begun to offer products that are manufactured using less plastic and energy. Some companies have adjusted their shipping methods to minimize their impact, by replacing Styrofoam containers with cardboard boxes and using less plastic.
Achievements so far: Scientists often use plastic pipette tips to transfer minuscule amounts of liquids between containers. These tips are made of plastic and are non-reusable. However, the boxes they come in can be reused and refilled with new pipette tips. To reduce waste, BCH labs have begun reusing and refilling these boxes (Figure 3).
• Use “turn off” signs and outlet timers. It is important for lab workers to remember to turn off lights and pieces of equipment that are not needed overnight. For this reason, we printed, distributed, and posted signs and posters to remind researchers to turn off computers, lights, and other instruments. Furthermore, to avoid having to turn things off manually, we introduced the use of outlet timers that turn equipment off and on automatically at specific times.
Achievement so far: Two research buildings have adopted our turn-off signs to help with energy savings.
• Events for outreach and education of BCH employees. We hold monthly seminars for BCH scientists, where they can learn about the ongoing initiatives and about ways to reduce and reuse lab materials.
Achievements so far: We have organized two outreach events, with an average of 40 attendants each. We have over 150 scientists subscribed to our newsletter.
As the healthcare industry has a significant impact on the global environment, it is essential for all scientists to work toward reducing healthcare’s carbon footprint. BCH is among the first hospitals in the Boston area to implement a Green Lab initiative aimed at reducing, reusing, recycling, and responsibly disposing of medical waste. Green Lab initiatives worldwide could significantly help in the fight against climate change, by educating scientists and changing their behaviors in ways that would hopefully carry over to future generations.
This article is another way to spread the word among future scientists, to help them to be more conscious of how they choose to buy, use, and dispose of materials for their experiments—and in their daily lives. We invite you to be mindful of when you can reduce (e.g., not buy something that you will throw away after one use), reuse (e.g., share with your friends), and recycle (e.g., dispose of waste in the right bin). We have made a lot of progress in our hospital, by seeing where the problems are and taking baby steps to turn them into greener practices. There is still a long way to go, and we need your help to make this planet greener! Are you ready to change the world without leaving a (carbon) footprint?
Single-Use Plastics: ↑ Plastic items intended for single use only, after which they must be discarded.
Carbon Emissions: ↑ The quantity of carbon-containing gases, often invisible, emitted by humans during their daily activities.
Carbon Footprint: ↑ The measure of the amount of carbon emissions resulting from human daily activities and its impact on the global environment.
Sustainable: ↑ A human activity that efficiently uses energy and water while minimizing waste. Sustainable processes aim to meet the needs of all while managing the earth’s resources.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
 ↑ Evans, A. M. 2021. Sustainable healthcare - time for ‘Green Podiatry’. J. Foot. Ankle. Res. 14:45. doi: 10.1186/s13047-021-00483-7
 ↑ Rodriguez-Jimenez, L., Romero-Martin, M., Spruell, T., Steley, Z., and Gomez-Salgado, J. 2023. The carbon footprint of healthcare settings: a systematic review. J. Adv. Nurs. 79:2830–44. doi: 10.1111/jan.15671
 ↑ Dolgin, E. 2018. How going green can raise cash for your lab. Nature 554:265–7. doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01601-5