Dermatopathology Laboratory Green Initiatives

Illuminating Environmental Stewardship Opportunities in an Era of Climate Change

Cary Chisholm, MD; Kelvin Hayford, HT; Megan Stewart, PA(ASCP)

Disclosures

Am J Clin Pathol. 2022;158(3):372-377. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Objectives: Climate change and the accumulation of greenhouse gases pose challenges for humanity. The laboratory can reduce the environmental impact of routine operations.

Methods: Our laboratory implemented several recycling initiatives in 2021, including shredding plastic and recycling 10% formalin, xylene, and reagent alcohols. Additional insulation has reduced electricity costs, and we have plans to derive 100% of our electricity from solar in 2022.

Results: Recycling leads to decreases in reagent purchase by several hundred gallons. Our lab reduced its carbon footprint by a minimum of 68.52 tons, with an anticipated $43,000 savings in purchases and waste disposal during 2022.

Conclusions: Regardless of an individual's environmental consciousness, green initiatives have several tangible benefits. Recycling helps mitigate climate change and decrease the laboratory's carbon footprint. These measures also insulate the laboratory from supply shortages and lead to significant, tangible monetary savings.

Introduction

Global climate change resulting from rising temperatures is projected to have significant and deleterious effects on humanity if overall warming is not held at or below 1.5°C over preindustrial levels.[1] A cumulative 1.0°C rise was documented in 2017, leaving a small residual margin to avert potential catastrophe. Contributions to global warming come from various economic sectors—electricity and heat production, agriculture and forestry, buildings, transportation, industry, and others.[2] The combustion of fossil fuels, which also contributes to climate change, is involved across these sectors, and all the various ways to decrease dependence on fossil fuels must be considered to preserve our planet for future generations. Reduction in material usage, reusing existing materials, and recycling existing materials are well-established mechanisms to decrease energy consumption in the production and transportation of those materials.

Additionally, the mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" seeks to raise awareness of how to diminish the amount of materials discarded as waste.[3] Plastic waste has been documented in ocean and fresh water, accounting for up to 85% of marine debris and present in 92% of analyzed drinking water samples.[4] Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and landfill waste generates 18% of global anthropogenic methane emissions.[5] Some chemicals with deleterious effects on human health, such as phthalates and perfluorooctanoic acid, are found in waste and leach into both soil and water, leading to food supply contamination.[6]

In the laboratory setting, waste is typically taken to landfills (eg, trash), recycled (eg, protected health information [PHI]), or taken as waste to be incinerated or burned as fuel (eg, biohazardous waste, reagent hazardous waste).[7] Typically—and anecdotally, given our professional experience at various laboratories—reagents are purchased and discarded after single use. Disposal methods depend on the type of reagent. Chemicals such as xylene and different grades of ethanols are placed in hazardous waste barrels. Formalin may be treated or disposed of in municipal sewage (ie, sink drains) in many city water municipalities, but some jurisdictions require that used formalin be disposed of as hazardous waste. Reagents are usually received in cardboard boxes or plastic containers, and specimens are received in 10% formalin-containing plastic containers. As with any other business, laboratories also rely on electricity for lights, computers, breakroom appliances, and laboratory equipment as well as heating and cooling via electric or natural gas heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units.

The materials that enter the laboratory and the waste produced during patient specimen testing provide ample opportunities for improved environmental stewardship.[8] Improving the long-term health of the environment and reducing global temperature increases is 1 additional mechanism by which laboratories can dedicate themselves to improving the lives of the patients for whom they directly provide testing but also of patients on a global scale. These changes can provide significant monetary savings that outweigh the upfront cost of such "green" activities. The green initiatives we have implemented drastically reduce reagent usage, increase recycling, and eliminate some of our contributions to climate change.

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