Gold LEAF awards for sustainability efforts

3 min read

We are proud to announce that our Pathology team have been awarded the Mary Lyon Centre at MRC Harwell’s first lab-based LEAF (Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework) Gold award. In particular, we want to recognise the hard work in driving forward this achievement by Kelly O’Donovan from the Lab Services team and Jess Podd, the Pathology team’s sustainability champion.

LEAF was first set up by University College London (UCL) to provide a set of standards that labs can aim towards to improve sustainability and efficiency. Since then, use of the online tool has spread around the world and the MRC announced their membership of the scheme in 2021. By joining the programme, labs can track the financial and carbon impact of the changes they make and are awarded Bronze, Silver, or Gold level depending on the sustainability actions taken.

Shortly after joining the Lab Services team in the autumn of 2022, Kelly took on spearheading the MLC’s involvement in LEAF, initially by trialling it in her own department,

“Lab Services have been quietly implementing sustainable solutions on site for a long time now. This was evident, because it only took a total of five hours to get things in place for the department to be at Gold. The trial in Lab Services was a great achievement for the team and the experience has also given me the knowledge needed to provide any support the labs might need with their LEAF applications.”

When she became involved in the initiative, Jess found that Pathology operations were already meeting enough of the criteria across the levels that the team could start working immediately towards Gold accreditation. “As a result of the LEAF programme, in Pathology we have increased the temperatures of our ultra-low temperature freezers, and even turned off fridges to make our labs more sustainable. Being part of the LEAF programme has also enabled me to offer advice to others when striving to achieve Gold.” In total, LEAF’s calculators estimate that sustainability efforts in Pathology and Lab Services will have saved around £2,000 and 200 kg of CO2, which is equivalent to emissions from charging 24,000 smartphones or driving 500 miles!

It’s estimated that laboratories are responsible for around 2% of global plastic waste and use 3–10 times more energy per square metre than a typical office. A single standard ultra-low temperature freezer, used for long-term storage of samples and reagents, can consume as much power in a year as a typical UK household. This means that the MRC’s goal to halve its carbon footprint by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2040 will require significant effort by all MRC labs, including here at Harwell.

Alongside Kelly and Jess, a number of other local champions are leading efforts to gain LEAF awards for other MRC Harwell departments, including Amy Hewitt in the National Mouse Archive team, Toni Bell in Gene Delivery, and Ellen Hyde in Cell Culture. Kelly encourages others here on campus and beyond to do their bit as well:

“Now is the time to ask your colleagues those ‘Why do we do it this way?’ questions. Sometimes it only takes small changes to make your work more efficient and sustainable, and these actions can add up over time to make a huge difference! Think small to start off with and then, once you’ve got the basics implemented (e.g., putting waste into the correct bins), you can start to aim bigger (e.g., reusing items or using supplier takeback schemes).”

Of course, Pathology’s Gold award isn’t an endpoint for them, as Jess and Kelly will continue looking for further improvements that can be made, while also supporting colleagues in other departments looking to replicate their achievements.

Across MRC Harwell, further steps are being taken to improve energy efficiency and environmental sustainability in line with the MRC’s targets. A new green group will be recruiting volunteers from October to increase the scope of the improvements being made, including greening the estate for improved biodiversity, and improving energy and water efficiency. Larger projects, including the installation of solar panels at the site will begin in the new year.

Excitingly, while writing this piece, another department, Gene Delivery, have also been awarded Gold, so congratulations to Toni Bell and the rest of the team!

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