Dr Marta Rodríguez Martínez: Achieving a More Sustainable Research Model

Marta Rodríguez Martínez, PhD, sustainability officer of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, highlights the primary sources of scientific research waste and how to reduce them.

Marta Rodríguez Martínez, PhD, sustainability officer of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), notes that primary sources of scientific research waste are biological waste, chemical waste, and single use plastics, with reduction efforts focusing on biodegradable materials, fluid technologies, and sustainability initiatives.

She expanded upon the topic during her presentation, "Reducing Waste in Research - The Road to Building a Sustainable Lab," at the European Hematology Association (EHA) 2024 Congress in Madrid, Spain.


What are the primary sources of waste generation in scientific research practices today?

The primary sources of waste generation in scientific practices today come from 3 different places. There [are] 2 types that are very inherent to the research we do, which are biological and chemical waste, but then there's a third area—that is single-use plastics—that is particularly concerning in our field, because whatever is touched by biological or hazardous chemical waste cannot be recycled. Therefore, our use of single-use plastics counts even more than the normal average citizen because we do not have the opportunity to recycle it.

Are there any emerging technologies or approaches that can help to reduce waste and enhance sustainability in scientific research?

Interestingly, most of the things that need to be done and used to achieve a more sustainable research model already exist. Research 30 years ago used way less single-use plastics [and] was less resource intensive, so the means are there.

However, if we want to talk about the emerging technologies that would really help to transition into a more sustainable research model, I would like to mention 2 of them. One is obviously biodegradable plastics, which are essential to achieve a model in which we can still use single-use plastics when necessary, but these would be biodegradable.

The second one is one of the technologies I am really liking lately, and that is to eliminate the use of pipette tips by transitioning into fluid technologies, which will reduce greatly the amount of plastic waste generated, because the second source of plastic waste in the lab is pipette tip boxes, which are not even a product; they are actually packaging.

In your role as EMBL's sustainability officer, could you share some examples of what have you done to promote lab sustainability? What impacts have your efforts had?

Two of the main efforts I have participated in as sustainability officer of EMBL, one is developing a sustainability strategy and set ambitious science-based targets. The other one is working with the scientists to support them into transitioning their research method into a more sustainable one.

One I'm particularly proud of is that we have achieved 100% engagement with all wet labs in the LEAF program, which is the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework, which is a sustainability lab program that helps scientists follow a simple set of criteria that go from bronze to gold to become more sustainable.

For example, this has led to the creation of the Green EMBL group in Heidelberg. Also, we now have more than 70% of our ultra-low temperature freezers change from a –80 [Celsius] setting to –70 [Celsius] setting, which accounts for about 30% of energy savings.

From a more operational point of view, we have achieved an 18% reduction in our energy-related carbon emissions and 24% reduction in our energy intensity. These 2 together have achieved what I consider one of the main goals of a sustainability office in a research organization, which is to create a sustainability culture that puts together administration, facilities, and scientists.

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