Research Labs Establishing New Paths Towards Sustainability

For all the good hospitals provide to patients and families, they have outsized environmental footprints within communities. And within hospitals, especially research facilities such as Cincinnati Children’s, labs often use a large portion of hospital resources. Implementing a plan to improve a lab’s environmental footprint can improve environmental sustainability for the community.

“Environmentally sustainable labs are efficient labs,” said Danny Burdine, director, Research Operations. “So, we’ve implemented the My Green Lab program to help our labs assess their current sustainability footprint and make changes.”

Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation (CCRF) currently has five labs enrolled in a pilot program with My Green Labs. The investment in the program allows labs to document changes they have made toward more sustainable behaviors such as energy reduction, recycling and waste reduction, and sustainable supplier relationships. The program enhances lab health and safety while reducing waste and preventing unnecessary energy and water use. At times, Plant Engineering is even called upon to make changes to the building according to best sustainability practices from My Green Lab, or from one of the other labs enrolled in the pilot program.

“Collaboration and sharing information benefits everyone,” said Kelly Grimes, postdoctoral researcher in the Molkentin Lab, one of the labs piloting the My Green Labs certification. “There is a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of energy savings that maybe we hadn’t thought about in the past. Sharing information about basic behavior modifications can lead to massive energy savings.”

Some behaviors are as simple as turning off lights, but when those simple actions are multiplied across hundreds of labs, the reduced drain on resources is significant.

Labs can obtain an official My Green Lab certification for their efforts, which is widely considered the gold standard for laboratory sustainability best practices around the world, and it could be important later when applying for grants through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“There is speculation that the NIH may soon require a sustainability comment on all grant applications in which the lab must outline the steps they have taken to implement sustainable processes and behaviors. The certification would serve as an officially recognized documentation for that comment section,” said Burdine.

The My Green Lab Certification program covers 14 topics. (Image courtesy of

At the end of the My Green Lab pilot program, Cincinnati Children’s will communicate results and impact to the research community and invite other Research Foundation labs to join.

“At any given moment, Cincinnati Children’s will have anywhere from 300-400 labs,” said Burdine. “Getting every lab to participate in the My Green Lab program would have a significant positive impact on our environmental footprint.”

Newer labs are built with better visibility and sight lines to encourage collaboration and information-sharing.

Leaving open a chemical fume hood can consume as much energy as a small house over the course of a day.

Freezer Challenge

Laboratory fridges and freezers are essential for scientific discovery and the betterment of human health, but outdated freezers can consume the same amount of energy each day as a small house. My Green Lab, along with the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL) sponsors a freezer challenge to promote cold storage best practices and encourages labs to take actions that benefit the planet through energy efficiency. The challenge occurs over a six-month period during which labs implement optimal cold storage management practices, such as better sample access and sample integrity. The competition covers all forms of cold storage—including refrigerators, freezers, and cold rooms. Labs participating in the challenge are asked to submit online score sheets which are then submitted to My Green Lab at the end of the competition. Points are awarded for basic freezer maintenance, inventory management, and for replacing older freezers with new energy-efficient units.

Possible issues with old freezers are so extensive that going through every single one is monotonous, but it's worth it when you consider the possibility of this nightmare scenario: A researcher, on the brink of a significant discovery after years of research, puts a sample in a 15-year-old freezer. Significant frost has built up, a typical problem with old freezers. This prevents the door from closing all the way. The temperature rises until a service alarm goes off. Despite removing frost during the service repair, the old inefficient freezer with its ancient compressor struggles to reach the required -80 degrees Celsius, the compressor breaks down in the middle of the night, and a life’s work goes down the drain.

Admittedly, this is a doomsday scenario and Cincinnati Children’s has redundancy methods in place to limit the chances of catastrophic failures. So, loss of sample is unlikely, but it does happen. And if that’s not enough, old freezers are loud energy hogs that are uncomfortable to be around. Grimes called them, “hot freezers,” which sounds like an oxymoron until you stand in a hall lined with them and learn that they can produce heat at sweat-inducing levels. Replacing old freezers is better for the environment and makes for better working conditions for employees.

During the freezer challenge, individual laboratories and organizations are scored against their peers, and the winning labs and research institutions receive awards. Focus areas are:

  • Good management practices
  • Temperature tuning
  • Unit retirements, upgrades, and unplugs
  • Cutting edge practices
  • Freezer and sample inventories

Winners of each category will receive a plaque, be published in the journal Nature, and be recognized at the annual I2SL conference award ceremony.

By the end of the 2022 freezer challenge, the CCRF Freezer Replacement Program will have replaced 168 older freezers over the past 4 years with new, energy-efficient units. Burdine, who is the site coordinator for Cincinnati Children’s during this year’s challenge said, “This represents a wonderful opportunity for us to show the world that we are looking to make a difference with regard to sustainability.”

The accolades and bragging rights that come from winning competitions is fun, but the real win is reduced resource consumption, lower operational costs, energy savings, and ensuring a safe and healthy environment for our employees, families, and community.

Ron Moore, senior consultant, Sustainability said, “These programs being led by Danny and the CCRF team, such as the freezer challenge and My Green Lab, are helping us achieve our system sustainability goals via significantly reducing energy consumption and thus our organization’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

Old freezers, like the one on the left, use two-thirds more energy than newer energy efficient models like the freezer on the right, and only become more energy inefficient as they get older.

Future sustainability plans include building new cold rooms that are more energy efficient than our current ones.

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