Greener lab research: our cancer researchers are leading the way

April 18, 2023

We need lab research to understand the diseases of today and find the treatments of tomorrow. But like other areas of healthcare, it creates a lot of waste and uses a lot of energy.

A year ago, head of cancer research at The Ottawa Hospital Dr. Rebecca Auer was inspired to tackle this problem after attending a webinar from the University of Ottawa’s Planetary Health Community of Practice on the role of health care workers in the Climate Emergency.

“The take-home message was that we can’t wait to become experts to make change,” she remembers. “The most successful initiatives begin with a group of engaged individuals coming together and simply getting started. So that’s what I decided to do in our cancer research program.”

A call for volunteers was sent out, and soon the Cancer Therapeutics Program Green Team was formed. The team includes ambassadors from each cancer research lab who meet every month to discuss green practices. The ambassadors recommend and implement program-wide changes and bring eco-friendly practices back to their groups to share during lab meetings.

Lab Manager Carole Doré joined the team because she was trying to be more eco-friendly at home, making her own soap and avoiding paper towels.

“In the lab, it is very difficult to be green –we use so many plastic disposables,” said Doré, who now leads the Green Team. “While I was making good choices at home, it was upsetting going to work and seeing the waste every day.”

The Green Team’s goals are to reduce waste in the lab, minimize the impact of their research on the environment, lower their lab’s carbon footprint, increase engagement and literacy around environmental sustainability in their labs and participate in green initiatives in the greater Ottawa community.

While some of the Green Team’s advice is about replacement – using glass pipettes instead of plastic or ordering pipette tip boxes that can be restocked – much of it is about reducing waste in the first place.

“A lot of it is just changing your thinking,” says Doré. “Do you really need to use a new flask or dish? Do you really need to print that scientific paper? Can you switch to an electronic lab book? Are there some reagents you can make yourself rather than ordering kits with plastic bottles?”

The team also encourages labs to keep a good inventory of their chemicals and materials so they can use them before they expire. They’re also working on an exit form to remind people leaving the lab to clean out their materials from the ultra-low-temperature freezers, so others can use the space.

The team has also made many practical changes in the cancer research labs. They’ve put the overhead lights on timers to go out at night when the labs are empty and have worked closely with the Research Safety Office to determine which products can be safely reused or recycled.

When ordering supplies, the team considers how far the products are being shipped from and how they are packaged, and lets their suppliers know they actively seeking more sustainable products and companies with sustainable practices.

The team has also worked to move the temperature of most of the ultra-low-temperature freezers from -80 °C to -70°C. This small change significantly saves energy while having no effect on the RNA, DNA or proteins preserved in the freezer.

Dr. Auer hopes that more research labs at The Ottawa Hospital will be inspired to adopt green initiatives, and she is encouraged to see that planetary health is embedded in the strategic plans of both the hospital and its research institute.

“As researchers and health care professionals, we recognize that urgent action is required to secure a livable future across the globe. We must lead in the creation and implementation of initiatives to reduce the impact of our research on planetary health and the environment. It is our responsibility.”

Green Team members: Carole Doré (Green Team Lead), Rebecca Auer, Marie Marotel, Ian Lorimer, Anne Landry, Carolina Ilkow, Reem Kurdieh, Galaxia Rodriguez, Julia Petryk, Sam Delisle, Brennan Garland.

Resources: My Green Lab, uOttawa Faculty of Medicine Planetary Health website 

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa and supported by The Ottawa Hospital Foundation.