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.
Return to main page to find out why we are doing this, and see our action plan for the future.
Attitudes and motivations towards greener labs
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.
How researchers are reducing the environmental impact of their work
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
|Actions||% respondents who selected always||% respondents who selected often|
|Switch off equipment when not in use to save energy||44||35|
|Wash and reuse single-use plastics, packaging, or other laboratory disposables||17||22|
|Close fume hoods to reduce energy consumption||46||29|
|Share equipment with other groups/teams to minimise downtime||27||33|
|Consider the energy impact of calculations/ algorithms before running||9||11|
|Follow sustainability guidance or frameworks (e.g. LEAF, MyGreenLabs)||11||14|
|Measure the energy consumption of equipment to guide decision making||8||11|
|Purchase more efficient models of equipment||13||21|
|Reduce water consumption in the laboratory (e.g. using waterless condensers)||20||21|
Question 12 responses - Research and design planning
|Actions||% respondents who selected always||% respondents who selected often|
|Consider principles of green chemistry when designing experiments||18||25|
|Use solvent or reagent selection guides||20||23|
|Change reaction protocols to use less solvent or starting material||20||26|
|Use alternative, more environmentally benign, solvents or reagents||20||27|
|Replace fossil fuel-based materials or chemicals with renewable-derived alternatives||11||17|
|Conduct risk assessment on environmental impact as part of project design||14||20|
|Recycling reaction components: for example, reagents, solvents or catalysts||14||18|
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
You can find more detail about what people are already doing in section 3.2 of the main report
Barriers, challenges and trade-offs
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.
Challenges of implementing sustainable laboratory 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
|Challenge||% respondents selecting agree or strongly agree||% respondents selecting disagree or strongly disagree|
|I have not received any training||53||23|
|I am not able to influence policies or procedures within my lab/my organisation||30||45|
|I don’t know where to start||29||49|
|There is not enough data available on which course of action is more sustainable||43||29|
|It is too expensive||29||35|
|I can make more of a difference by doing other things to reduce my carbon footprint||38||25|
|I struggle to find the time||42||29|
|There is currently no sustainable alternative to my current practices||28||38|
|I don’t currently face significant barriers in implementing sustainable research practices||30||31|
|The building where I work cannot accommodate the equipment or measures I would like to use (for example, more energy and water efficient equipment)||32||33|
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.
Opportunities for the research community
- New communities and networks – to enable the development and sharing of good practice
- Education, training and professional development – for people in different roles and at different career stages
- Data, knowledge and tools – gathering and sharing data, resources and tools to enable laboratory environmental sustainability programmes
- Roles, expertise and collaboration – creating and supporting roles wholly or partially dedicated to laboratory environmental sustainability programmes
- Data and digital technologies – harnessing data and digital technologies to record and share sustainability related data, and to optimise experimental design and execution
- Culture, incentives and recognition – recognising and incentivising initiatives and attitudes that work in favour of sustainable research
- New science, engineering and technology solutions – sustainable chemicals, materials and processes, and the application of life cycle and socio-techno economic expertise to scientific research
We explore these opportunities in more detail in section 5 of the main report.
What would you like to find out about sustainable laboratories?
- How can we make paint more sustainable?
- A task force of industry leaders are working with us to make polymers in liquid formulations more sustainable
- More sustainable plastics are within our grasp, but more research is needed - read our report
- Our policy on the circular economy of precious metals
- Chemistry can help the composites sector move towards more sustainable practices
- Listen to our award winning podcasts covering many aspects of sustainability
- Our other environmental and sustainability work
- See all our policies, reports, evidence and campaigns
Themed journal collection: Sustainable laboratories
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.