Setting high standards for a low environmental impact

How we have cut emissions to limit global warming

INTEGRA Biosciences is a leading provider of high-quality laboratory tools and consumables for liquid handling and media preparation. Headquartered in Zizers, Switzerland, the company is committed to fulfilling the needs of laboratory professionals in the life sciences industry, and has a strong focus on minimizing its carbon footprint and having a positive impact on the environment.

In February 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations published its Sixth Assessment Report [1]. Two hundred and thirty-four IPCC authors from 65 countries analysed 14 000 scientific publications, with the results showing that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are responsible for the approximate 1.1 °C of global warming since 1900 [2]. The consequences affect all of us and impact the entire climate system, with scientists observing various changes including more intense rainfall and drought, ocean warming and acidification in every region. Many of these changes are unprecedented over thousands of years, and some of them – such as continuous sea level rise – are irreversible [2]. Limiting global warming to 1.5 °C will be beyond our reach if we don’t drastically and immediately lower our greenhouse gas emissions.

The laboratory waste conundrum

Unfortunately, labs are environmental polluters. While research in the lab can help us to understand our ecosystem and develop strategies to maintain it, lab work can also produce an incredible volume of waste, as well as use a significant amount of water and electricity. It’s estimated that labs produce a staggering 5.5 million tons (12 billion lbs) of plastic waste per year [3]. They also use about four times as much water, and 10 times more electricity, than office spaces of the same size [4].

Every ton of CO2 saved counts, and we believe that the careful use of our resources is the responsibility of the entire INTEGRA team, helping to ensure a ‘green shift’ to more sustainable practices that will benefit generations to come. Our globally-recognized products – from our PIPETBOY serologic pipettors and EVOLVE manual pipettes to our VIAFLO electronic pipettes and ASSIST PLUS pipetting robots – are designed and manufactured to minimize their impact on the environment. We also continually review our processes and materials to ensure we meet the highest possible standards of sustainability.

Reducing the impact of energy consumption

Industry was responsible for over 40% of global emissions in 2019 [5], but companies can contribute to a sustainable future by taking a wide range of simple of measures, such as installing photovoltaic (PV) systems on all roofs of company-owned buildings. For example, we built a 574 kW PV system at our production site in Hudson, NH, USA, which now sustainably and independently generates 45% of our energy needs. This offsets the energy-intensive plastic injection moulding processes for our pipette tip and reagent reservoir production. Furthermore, a PV system on the roof of our Swiss headquarters supplies all the energy we need for the assembly of our pipetting and media preparation devices.

Even companies that don’t own their corporate buildings may still have the option to use sustainable energy, or implement measures to reduce their energy consumption. For example, our German subsidiary switched to an electricity provider that only supplies energy from renewable sources, and our French subsidiary reduced its energy consumption by 45% simply by installing LED lamps.

Plastic-saving products and a recycling alliance

A huge number of laboratory workflows in the life sciences sector rely heavily on single-use plastics to avoid cross-contamination and carryover for consistent and reliable results. Unfortunately, as analytical methods become ever-more sensitive, the risk of even trace contaminants being present in a microplate, tube or reagent trough from the re-use of plastics means this is unlikely to change. However, that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done. A transition to renewably-sourced carbon is the chemical and plastics industries’ equivalent to decarbonization in the energy sector. Petrochemicals and their derivatives account for approximately 21% of the world’s oil and gas, and the increasing need for plastics will represent the largest growth in net demand for oil. Renewable carbon is therefore an attractive substitute for fossil carbon, and should eventually completely replace it. For example, green hydrogen – obtained by electrolysis using surplus electricity from renewable energy sources – can be used to synthesize methane, ethanol and other chemical building blocks. Combining green hydrogen with biomass from waste and recyclates will hopefully soon be possible, creating a sustainable circular economy for chemicals and plastics [6,7].

Global plastic consumption also needs to be reduced, as it has more than tripled since 1990 [8]. To this end, we have developed our ECO Rack range – which contain 60% less plastic than our previous pipette tip racks – and our reagent reservoirs have reusable bases. In addition, we’re working on a solution to recycle plastic laboratory waste, including empty tip boxes. For this to remain sustainable, short transport routes from the lab to the recycler are needed, which is possible where there are already recycling systems for household plastics. However, even where these services are available, labs generally don’t recycle their plastic waste, because they have to take it to the collection point themselves. Furthermore, labs aren’t willing to pay more for recycling plastics, meaning that manufacturers of plastic consumables need to organize onsite collections, and cover a majority of the costs.

Manufacturers must join forces to set up such a system, as high purity plastics from labs can only be processed into top quality regranulates in large quantities. In addition, if each manufacturer were to set up its own collection system, labs would have to separate all their plastic waste. This is why we’re trying to bring the major plastic consumables manufacturers together, with the intention of creating an alliance to address these barriers.

The challenge of using recyclates in lab products

Manufacturers of liquid handling products cannot yet use recycled polypropylene, because it does not have the required purity and quality. For example, the chemicals industry cannot guarantee that its recyclates are free of RNAse, DNAse, endotoxins and pyrogens, which is why pipette tips have to be moulded from virgin polypropylene.

The good news is that this situation might soon change, as recyclers are becoming more successful in ensuring consistent, high-quality recyclates. Plastics don’t always have to be down-cycled anymore – e.g. into pipes or garden furniture – and can increasingly be processed into the same basic product. PET beverage bottles are an excellent example of this, and Frosch– a German company known for its sustainability efforts – produces 100% of its polyethylene and PET bottles for household cleaners from recyclates [9]. In the meantime, the industry should ensure the minimum waste of virgin polypropylene through implementing initiatives such as zero-waste manufacturing, an approach we are taking at INTEGRA to use excess material from tip production for the manufacture of tip boxes.

Sustainable yet customer-friendly shipping

Shipping is another significant challenge for international companies. According to the myclimate foundation [10], air freight is much faster compared to ocean shipping, but 200 times more damaging to the environment. So how can companies guarantee short delivery times while avoiding air freight? Our strategy is to have warehouses that are large enough to store products in quantities higher than the actual market demand. This gives us enough time to use sea freight to ship pipette tips, reservoirs and manual pipettes produced in the USA, or electronic pipettes and devices produced in Switzerland, to our warehouses around the world without impacting delivery times.

Larger warehouses are also beneficial during times of heightened pressure, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, when the demand for pipette tips increased enormously and coincided with transport bottlenecks. We are currently building a second plastic injection moulding facility in Switzerland to provide more flexibility during such events without having to rely on air freight, securing manufacturing capabilities in both Europe and the USA. If you want to help your suppliers deliver sustainable products, we advise you to plan your consumables needs and order well in advance, and don’t insist on fast delivery if it’s only possible by air freight.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are several measures that lab equipment manufacturers can implement to drive the green shift, many of which we have already started at INTEGRA. With further technological advances, solutions such as renewable chemicals, plastics and high quality recyclates will hopefully soon become available, enabling us to further reduce our carbon footprint, limit global warming and, ultimately, protect the environment for future generations.

www.integra-biosciences.com

References

1. Sixth assessment report. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2021 (https://www.ipcc.ch/assessment-report/ar6).
2. Sixth assessment report: press conference slides. IPPC 2021 (https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/outreach/IPCC_AR6_WGI_Press_Conference_Slides.pdf).
3. Urbina MA, Watts AJ, Reardon EE. Environment: labs should cut plastic waste too. Nature 2015;528(7583):479  (https://doi.org/10.1038/528479c).
4. Kaye C. Media Briefings 2020. #3 Efficiency & sustainability: igniting innovation. Agilent 2020 (https://www.agilent.com/content/dam/about/newsroom/media-room/igniting-innovation/Efficiency-Sustainability-Igniting-Innovation-Media-Briefing.pdf)
5. Global CO2 emissions by sector, 2019. International Energy Agency (IEA) 2021 (https://www.iea.org/data-and-statistics/charts/global-co2-emissions-by-sector-2019).
6. nova-Institut GmbH. The Renewable Carbon Initiative (RCI) (https://renewable-carbon-initiative.com).
7. The future of petrochemicals. IEA 2018 (https://iea.blob.core.windows.net/assets/bee4ef3a-8876-4566-98cf-7a130c013805/The_Future_of_Petrochemicals.pdf).
8. World plastics production 1950 – 2015. Plastics Europe 2015 (https://committee.iso.org/files/live/sites/tc61/files/The%20Plastic%20Industry%20Berlin%20Aug%202016%20-%20Copy.pdf).
9. Sustainability at Frosch. Werner & Mertz GmbH 2022 (https://www.frosch.eco/be/en/sustainability/#we_for_recyclates).
10. myclimate (www.myclimate.org).