It all adds up to sustainability

  1. 11th Nov, 2021

With COP26 taking place nearby in Glasgow, we thought this was a good time to highlight our commitment to a sustainable and greener future. This is reflected not only in the innovative and disruptive work we do with our customers and collaborators, but also in our responsible behaviour and consumption during our day-to-day activities. 

A lot of the work at Ingenza is focused on developing bio-based solutions to replace fossil carbon feedstocks and carbon-intensive processes, aiding the sustainable production of chemicals, high value industrial products and therapeutic proteins. However, we have also worked on making our daily lab practices greener.

In 2018, Ingenza relocated to the Roslin Innovation Centre, a modern, energy efficient building with a ‘very good’ BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) specification. More recently, we decided to put the spotlight on some small behaviour changes in daily practices that could make a big difference. These include encouraging the use of public transport, car sharing, and using video-based meetings where possible. We have also made plant-based milk, and reusable water bottles and cutlery available to staff. 

Reducing single-use plastic

From a lab perspective, the biggest challenge was to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics. Bioscientific research accounts for approximately 1.8 % of the world’s plastic pollution, little of which is recyclable.1 Once contaminated with biological matter, most waste is autoclaved and goes to landfill. While not everything can be recycled, labs can make some simple changes to decrease their consumption of single-use plastics without any significant impact on day-to-day output. Addressing this issue not only benefits the environment, but also the lab, saving costs while reducing waste disposal and our susceptibility to pandemic-related supply issues. 

At Ingenza, plastic consumables in frequent use include cuvettes, plating tools, inoculation loops and needles, weighing boats and serological pipettes. Many of these can be reused or replaced with plastic-free alternatives. After collecting data to demonstrate the effectiveness of our proposals, we took the plunge and implemented a series of changes, where appropriate, around six months ago, and we are already seeing the benefits.

So, what did we change? Let’s start with cuvettes for absorbance measurements, which are 100 % non-biodegradable, non-recyclable waste. In the 12 months from February 2020-21, Ingenza used over 100 boxes of cuvettes – the equivalent to 32 kg of plastic – to monitor microbial culture growth. Now, we wash and reuse each cuvette once, halving the number required over the course of the year. 

Plating microorganisms and picking colonies are also plastic-intensive activities. Over the same 12-month period, we used 5,000 inoculation loops, 3,000 L-shaped spreaders and 5,000 inoculation needles – accounting for a further 37 kg of plastic. Now, reusable metal loops are available, and the spreaders have been swapped for glass beads that can be cleaned and reused almost indefinitely. The beads are added to the plate and shaken to distribute the culture, then collected and sterilised ready for reuse. When it comes to colony picking, a wooden toothpick is a cheap and effective alternative to individually wrapped plastic colony pickers. They are easily sterilised before use by adding them to one of our daily autoclave runs, which means that there is no additional energy consumption.

Other examples include encouraging people to reuse plastic weighing boats where possible – or to weigh onto paper slips – and growing small cultures in universal glass tubes or flasks that can be autoclaved, rather than disposable Falcon® tubes. Serological pipettes, although supplied in sterile packaging, can also be labelled and reused when transferring non-sterile solutions. These small behavioural changes make a big difference and can profoundly limit our plastic consumption.

Energy savings

We’re also doing our best to reduce energy consumption alongside these efforts to reduce our dependence on plastics. To do this, we have implemented end-of-day shutdown procedures, switching off anything that doesn’t need to be left on, and putting other equipment into an energy-saving mode where possible. We’ve also looked at our cold storage management. Every quarter, we go through all our fridges and freezers, and remove redundant or expired items that don’t need to be stored anymore. This means that we are not running more fridges and freezers than we need to, or investing in unnecessary additional storage.

Green suppliers

We now prioritise suppliers that have implemented sustainable practices in their products and services. For instance, our pipette tips come in recyclable plastic boxes, which are collected periodically by the supplier. Another supplier has changed to recyclable packaging where possible, and collects and reuses the Styrofoam boxes it uses for deliveries.

Just the beginning

Everyone at Ingenza has embraced the drive to reduce our plastic waste, using glass beads and toothpicks as opposed to their plastic alternatives wherever possible. These changes are already having an impact, and we have other ideas in the pipeline. For instance, we plan to see whether we can wash and reuse Falcon tubes. It has also been reported that operating a freezer at 70 °C, rather than -80 °C, can reduce its energy consumption by 28 %. That may be considered in the future, if the data shows that our cell banks can be stored at this temperature without any loss of viability. 

Our actions have given Ingenza a greener outlook. As we learn and experiment more, our approach to responsible behaviour and consumption will continue to develop, and we hope to achieve even greater improvements in our journey to a sustainable future.

1) Exeter scientists call for reduction in plastic lab waste.