How green is your lab?

  • Sarah Sterrett, the Green Labs representative for Paul Goepfert's lab in the Bevill Building, has connected many of the lab’s small machines to power strips, making it easier to switch them off at the end of the day or before a weekend.
  • The lab uses outlet timers to turn equipment off at night and on in the morning for use by lab staff, and also is using rechargeable batteries in all Bluetooth technology in the lab, such as cordless mice and keyboards.
  • Sterrett discovered that several vendors, such as Sigma-Aldrich and Fisher Scientific, provide easy recycling options for their products. Fisher encourages labs to recycle pipette tip storage boxes by purchasing special boxes that ship for free.
  • UAB has more than 2,000 labs on campus in around 20 research-intensive buildings, which consume roughly five times the amount of energy as a normal office building. Those research-heavy buildings, such as the Bevill Building, cost nearly four times as much per square foot as buildings without labs.


nick ciancio sarah sterrett insideUAB Sustainability Intern Nick Ciancio and Sarah Sterrett, who works in Bevill Building 546, one of the inaugural members of the Green Labs CohortEighteen research labs are the inaugural cohort of UAB’s Green Labs initiative to ensure campus labs are operating in the most sustainable manner.

UAB has more than 2,000 labs on campus in around 20 research-intensive buildings, which consume roughly five times the amount of energy as a normal office building. Those research-heavy buildings cost nearly four times as much per square foot as buildings without labs. For example, Biomedical Research Building II costs UAB around $9 per square foot — or more than $4 million — to power per year. The Business and Engineering Center, however, costs only about $2.94 per square foot.

The 18 labs in the inaugural cohort working to achieve Green Labs status may be implementing small changes, but even minor adjustments could lead to big results.

Friendly competition

UAB Green Labs participants begin by completing an initial survey from greenlabs.org, designed by a California-based nonprofit that includes educational institutions, the U.S. Department of Energy, public utilities and private manufacturers among its lab sustainability clients. Participating labs have six months to implement changes such as using recyclable gloves, unplugging lab equipment when able and defrosting freezers to make their lab more sustainable before UAB Sustainability reassesses the lab and charts its progress.

UAB has more than 2,000 labs on campus, which consume roughly five times the amount of energy as a normal office building, and its research-intensive buildings cost nearly four times as much per square foot as buildings without labs.

Labs in the inaugural group that complete the full Green Labs program are entered to win a free Stirling ultra-low freezer, which has a volume capacity of 780 liters, operates between -86 degrees Celsius and -20 degrees Celsius and uses 100-percent natural refrigerants.

Nick Ciancio, a Sustainability intern and junior studying neuroscience who spearheaded the Green Labs launch, said the program’s popularity has increased rapidly. A rolling admission deadline has since been implemented, and three labs applied to participate during the summer, when Ciancio and Sustainability weren’t promoting the imitative.

green lab 21 insideLearn more about participating in the Green Labs program at uab.edu/sustainability/greenlabs.“When we start sending info out this fall, I expect labs to apply at higher rates,” Ciancio said. “Whenever I go visit or check on current labs and remind them Green Labs isn’t just a one-year program and that it’s ongoing, they are always excited about what’s to come.”

Leading by example

One of the most invested charter members of the Green Labs initiative is Paul Geopfert, M.D., whose lab on the fifth floor of the Bevill Biomedical Research Building conducts first-response HIV research with the School of Medicine’s 1917 Clinic.

Sarah Sterrett is leading that lab’s initiative — as one of the first to sign up — and she takes increased sustainability seriously.

Sterrett has connected many of the lab’s small machines to power strips, making it easier to switch them off at the end of the day or before a weekend, and she plans to use outlet timers to turn equipment off at night and on in the morning for use by lab staff.  

Sterrett also encourages other members of the lab team to switch off biosafety cabinets and fume hoods when not in use.

The lab also is using rechargeable batteries in all Bluetooth technology in the lab, such as cordless mice and keyboards.“Some of it is much easier than I thought, like realizing that equipment doesn’t have to be turned on 24/7,” Sterrett said of adjustments to create a more sustainable environment. “It’s surprising, once you start thinking about it, how many small things you can think of to do that add up in the end.”

“It’s surprising, once you start thinking about it, how many small things you can think of to do that add up in the end.”

Sterrett also discovered that several vendors, such as Sigma-Aldrich and Fisher Scientific, provide easy recycling options for their products. Sigma enables labs to recycle its Styrofoam packaging — the delivery box is reversible for return shipping — and Fisher encourages labs to recycle pipette tip storage boxes by purchasing special boxes that ship for free. Sterrett’s lab reuses some of the storage boxes, but she is happy to have a recycling option, she said.

“The pipette tip boxes are one of our most commonly emailed-about topics,” said Julie Price, manager of UAB Sustainability. She said campus labs soon will have access to recycling boxes in common areas, courtesy of UAB Sustainability, as a result of Sterrett’s discovery.

“It’s not like [recycling creates] more work,” Price said. “It’s just a different work flow.”

Cross-campus partnerships

Sustainability is partnering with UAB Occupational Health and Safety and UAB Research to ensure researchers are safe and the quality of research is unaffected as UAB labs become more sustainable.

“You want to remove all variables that could wreck the viability of your research,” Price said. “Those are our big concerns: not affecting quality of research and not affecting safety. But anything we can do after making sure those are intact is our mission.”

Sustainability also does everything it can to provide alternatives for interested labs, Price said. Some upcoming offerings will include stickers for fume and chemical hoods to remind users to shut them off when not in use and aerators for faucets to conserve water and reduce energy costs.

Changing the community

Ciancio believes Green Labs is integral to helping UAB become a sustainability leader in Birmingham and the state. UAB is the largest consumer of electricity in the state, and its conservation choices set a good example for other area and state businesses.

“There are other universities in Alabama that are larger in size than UAB, but there’s no university like UAB in Alabama,” Ciancio said. “We do the most research, and when you compare where electricity is being consumed, a lot of it is consumed in our labs.”

For more information on participating in the Green Labs program, visit uab.edu/sustainability/greenlabs.