We invited members of the chemical sciences community to share their views and experiences on the topic of how to carry out scientific research in an environmentally sustainable way, without compromising on research quality and impact.
Their responses form the basis of our new Sustainable laboratories report, and will inform our ongoing efforts to support the community in their efforts towards creating greener labs.
On this page, you will find highlights from our report. Or, you can dive in and read the report in full.
My group has a generally good culture of taking care of our planet. Incoming group members soon become aware of this and fit in with the ethos.
Section two of our report shows that most researchers are aware of the potential environmental impact of their research and are taking steps towards reducing it.
79% agreed that they know how their actions have an impact on the environment
84% agreed that they would like to do more to reduce the impact of their day-to-day scientific work on the environment
63% have made changes in the last two years to reduce the environmental impact of their research activities, or those of their research group, team or department
In addition to being motivated by environmental sustainability, other motivations included:
reducing costs (63%)
greater effectiveness or efficiency (58%)
required by employer (11%)
What researchers are currently doing to make their labs more sustainable
I regularly go through the labs and switch off equipment or close fume hoods and remind my students to do so too.
Section three of our report shows that researchers want to reduce the environmental impact of their day-to-day scientific work, and the majority are already trying to do so
However, there is a wide variation in the frequency and extent to which people are taking action. There are significant uncertainties, challenges, and trade-offs in making change happen. There are also many opportunities yet to be realised.
Which of the following measures do you, or does your group, team or department use to reduce the environmental impact of your work? (Questions 11 and 12, RSC Sustainable Laboratories Researcher Survey 2021.)
Question 11 responses - Daily actions
% respondents who selected always
% respondents who selected often
Switch off equipment when not in use to save energy
Wash and reuse single-use plastics, packaging, or other laboratory disposables
Close fume hoods to reduce energy consumption
Share equipment with other groups/teams to minimise downtime
Consider the energy impact of calculations/ algorithms before running
Follow sustainability guidance or frameworks (e.g. LEAF, MyGreenLabs)
Measure the energy consumption of equipment to guide decision making
Purchase more efficient models of equipment
Reduce water consumption in the laboratory (e.g. using waterless condensers)
Question 12 responses - Research and design planning
% respondents who selected always
% respondents who selected often
Consider principles of green chemistry when designing experiments
Use solvent or reagent selection guides
Change reaction protocols to use less solvent or starting material
Use alternative, more environmentally benign, solvents or reagents
Replace fossil fuel-based materials or chemicals with renewable-derived alternatives
Conduct risk assessment on environmental impact as part of project design
Recycling reaction components: for example, reagents, solvents or catalysts
The survey questions in the table above provide a set of concrete starting points. They do not represent actions that reduce environmental impact in every situation. In some cases, there may be trade-offs or unintended consequences that mean they are not more environmentally sustainable overall. For example:
It is not always obvious without a life cycle assessment whether one solvent is ‘more environmentally benign’ than another
It is not possible or necessarily energy efficient to switch off certain types of scientific instruments regularly
Recycling can lead to impurities that compromise reproducibility, therefore, leading to more experiments and the use of resources
Our quantitative and qualitative survey findings also include many examples from the research community of what they are already doing to integrate environmental sustainability into their research programmes. Five main themes emerged:
Daily actions to reduce consumption of energy, water, plastics and chemicals
Monitoring resource use, sharing equipment and leveraging procurement processes
Embedding sustainability in research design, planning and reporting
Sharing knowledge and best practice, and developing skills
Fostering a culture of sustainability in scientific research
The challenge is so daunting and multidimensional that I think a lot of my peers feel overwhelmed and don't know where to start. We need to give people actionable information that allows them to make first steps. The sense I have is that in many cases it’s "I didn't know that.." which leads to current practices continuing
Researchers face complex and context-dependent challenges in making their research more environmentally sustainable.
The nature of the decisions facing, and options available to, researchers is influenced by geographical location, access to resources, scale of operation, and research field. Survey participants revealed a number of barriers to reducing the environmental impact of their research, including:
Organisational culture and attitudes
Time and money
The availability of data, along with knowledge and expertise, to enable informed decision making and prioritisation
Navigating the trade-offs between environmental sustainability and other factors including safety, health, regulation, cost and research or application quality
"Wasted experiments" due to poor research design and reporting, as well as the duplication of effort in replicating unpublished studies
More data on sustainable practices could be beneficial for motivating people on what judgements to make when investing their time and money. For example, data on energy consumption of producing disposable plastic equipment vs less durable but reusable glass equipment; or a rough order of importance or effectiveness of various sustainable practices.
We asked, "to what extent do the following pose challenges to you in implementing sustainable practices in the laboratory?" (Question 15 of the RSC Sustainable Laboratories Researcher Survey, 2021.)
Question 15 responses
% respondents selecting agree or strongly agree
% respondents selecting disagree or strongly disagree
I have not received any training
I am not able to influence policies or procedures within my lab/my organisation
I don’t know where to start
There is not enough data available on which course of action is more sustainable
It is too expensive
I can make more of a difference by doing other things to reduce my carbon footprint
I struggle to find the time
There is currently no sustainable alternative to my current practices
I don’t currently face significant barriers in implementing sustainable research practices
The building where I work cannot accommodate the equipment or measures I would like to use (for example, more energy and water efficient equipment)
See section 4 of the main report to read more insights into the challenges, barriers and trade-offs people are facing in reducing the environmental impact of their work.
Opportunities and what needs to happen
We have just started our Green Chemistry journey and intend to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly in the future.
There are many exciting opportunities to reduce the environmental impacts of research.
However, to be successful, these will require multidisciplinary collaborations within and beyond STEM as well as support from the wider ecosystem.
There are opportunities for universities, research institutes, companies, regulators, funders, publishers, and governments to support and enable changes that will result in more sustainable research.
Many of the solutions highlighted in the report require one-off or ongoing financial investments. There is also a significant opportunity for partnership and collaboration to minimise duplication and accelerate progress in improving the environmental sustainability of research.
The real gains are to be made through green chemistry education and a green chemical emphasis on research which translates to greener processes being adopted industrially and as part of a greener wider society.
This collection of research showcases from our journals some of the innovative approaches to reduce the environmental impact of research, from solvent selection guides to machine learning approaches and more.