Ever paused to wonder about your lab's role in shaping a more sustainable world? Or whether your actions pave the way for the best possible future? As it turns out, laboratories shoulder quite a hefty responsibility, accounting for 2% of global plastic waste and guzzling energy at a rate 5-10 times higher than offices or academic institutions. With such alarming statistics, sustainability can no longer be left as a ‘nice to have’.

Many have speculated which best practices to follow and debated where the quest for product sustainability should start. Energy efficiency, biodegradability, recyclability are just some of the answers we’ve been given. But the reality is that we’ve simply opened  somewhat of a Pandora’s box when it comes to determining lab equipment sustainability, as a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't apply.

‘Eco-friendly’ labels - confusion or guidance?

Is enhanced biodegradability or recyclability synonymous with a product being sustainable? Is a more energy efficient piece of equipment automatically more sustainable, or could there more to the picture?

It is difficult to accurately determine product sustainability by simply focusing on one qualitative characteristic. This can spark confusion about what aspects of a product truly make it more sustainable, and even cause inertia about where to begin with lab sustainability in general.

In the face of complexity and the absence of individual product carbon metrics, it is natural (not to mention tempting) to interpret 'green', 'sustainable', or ‘eco’ marketing labels or scores as demonstrations of absolute product sustainability. But this can also often leave us questioning the validity of such claims. At SLS, we want to change that.

Putting the microscope on the entire product lifecycle

It can often be the case that people associate a product’s sustainability primarily with its use and disposal – can I recycle it or is it energy efficient? This makes sense, as these stages of the product lifecycle are the only ones in which end users are actively involved. However, the concept of sustainability applies to the entire product lifecycle, extending from raw material sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, use in the lab, right through to the end of the product’s life when we need to dispose of (or repurpose it).

So, what if you knew more about a product’s lifecycle, right from raw material to end-of-life? Enter SLS’s sustainability attributes programme, a way for you to better understand a product’s lifecycle on a more granular level.

Raw Materials & Resource Conservation

A product’s claim to sustainability can start long before its manufacture. Product design, resource allocation, prioritising materials with high recycled or renewable content, can have a massive impact on its environmental footprint. Take for example the case of single-use consumables – while necessary in the lab because of their sterility and low cost, these products’ short, linear lifecycle is a hurdle we have yet to overcome. Fortunately, in recent years, we have started to see more innovations in product development such as minimising raw material usage or opting to pilot new and more renewable materials in the supply chain. While we’re still far from a product that ticks all the boxes, the fewer finite resources and more renewable and regenerative resources we use to make products, the better.

Environmentally Conscientious Manufacturing

As end-users, we're essentially bystanders in the manufacturing process, often oblivious to what is going on behind the scenes. However, as climate deadlines loom ever closer and more stringent reporting requirements become the norm, it is important to become aware and understand  the environmental footprint associated with a product’s manufacture – be that adherence to green chemistry practices, reduced reliance on fossil fuels, reduced energy consumption, waste generation or water usage.

Packaging & Distribution

Simply waiting for deliveries to arrive and judging distribution solely based on lead times leaves us blind to the environmental impact of what needs to happen upstream. Where in the world was it manufactured? And therefore, how far does the product need to travel to get to you? Is it packaged responsibly (both for quality and efficiency)? Is there the ability to return any packaging sent to you?

Lifespan & Resource Efficiency

Sustainability efforts and financial gain can often go hand in hand in the use stage of a product lifecycle; use less energy and your energy bill will be lower. Therefore, choosing products with lower energy (and water) consumption can not only benefit the environment but also offer potential long-term financial gains. However, whilst energy efficiency is essential component of responsible consumption, it is important to stress that it is not the be-all and end-all of product sustainability - a consideration of sustainability doesn’t just begin when you turn a piece of lab equipment on. In this lifecycle stage, also think about investing in high-quality, durable goods with longer warranties, or which manufacturers offer spare-part servicing.

End-of-life Product Sustainability

Naturally, what happens at the end of a product’s lifecycle is just as important as the rest of the lifecycle stages. If possible, try to prioritise  products that are designed to minimise waste, either through enhanced biodegradability attributes or realistic recyclability after use in the lab. While there may be products which are technically recyclable due to their material – are they genuinely able to be recycled after you have used them? While these products have a big potential in helping manage waste generation, it’s also important to consider whether you have the infrastructure in place to support their disposal.

Where is the bottom line?

While many manufacturers are making significant strides towards a more environmentally friendly future, fully sustainable lab equipment remains a distant goal. But that isn’t to say we all just sit and wait for the silver bullet solution – sustainability is everyone’s responsibility. So in the meantime, it is within every individual’s remit to seek more information and ask questions to  be well informed enough to choose products that align with their organisation's sustainability goals. While 'green' labels may offer some direction, they often fall short of capturing the full picture.

The path to truly sustainable lab equipment may still be evolving, but it is through collaborative efforts and a commitment to responsible consumption that we can pave the way for a greener future in scientific research.

Start making informed decisions today!

With each stage of the product lifecycle, there is an opportunity to make conscientious choices that minimise environmental impact. At SLS, we advocate for a comprehensive approach that considers sustainability throughout the entire product lifecycle, from raw material sourcing to end-of-life disposal. As the UK’s leading laboratory supplier, we took it upon ourselves to provide you with product-specific, evidence-based information gathered from our trusted partners, so you can start making informed decisions today!

Find out more about our Sustainability Attributes programme here or explore the full list of products with sustainability attributes below.

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