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5 key ways to choose sustainable laboratory furniture

We've mapped out better ways of approaching what pieces of furniture are suitable for laboratories and sustainability goals.

5 min read

With a preceding reputation as being one of the highest contributors of carbon emissions, laboratories are beginning to make more sustainable choices. The reality that natural resources are finite has encouraged the science sector to take steps to achieve a sustainable stance.

The contention between reducing environmental impact without compromising outputs and productivity is what draws us to the conclusion that laboratories need to be designed and built in a way that can achieve both.

Regardless of where a laboratory is in its journey from inception to redesign, what is clear is that integrating a sustainable approach to life sciences research means embodying it into the very way a lab is designed. Ensuring they meet all the requirements of a sustainable lab of today and tomorrow.

Incorporating sustainability into laboratory design

From what we’ve seen in the market so far, the most opted ways of incorporating sustainability into laboratory design are as follows:

  • Combining laboratories with office workspaces, to account for non-technical work to be conducted at the same premises without the requirement to open the laboratory
  • Building laboratory spaces with optimal sustainable operations, from recycling options to active hours and safer disposal of raw waste materials
  • Making dynamic use of the space available to maximise efficiency in laboratory workflows, encourage shared resources and reduce risks of human error
  • Incorporating laboratory furniture that can be moved, repurposed, recycled or replaced individually to avoid the environmental and economic cost of an entire refurbishment
  • Fitting out laboratories with furniture that meets the evolving needs of technical and design requirements, from premises relocations to new available work processes

One of the largest frustrations we’ve seen during projects is the exhaustion of laboratory furniture that doesn’t uphold its purpose. Heavy weight instrumentation and regular workflows that test the wearability of furniture materials and structures only results in pieces that will be visiting the tip before they’re recycled.

The reality is, there is a better way of approaching what pieces of furniture are suitable for laboratories and sustainability goals.

Start with the life cycle of a piece of furniture

When designing functioning laboratories, there are many factors to consider when optimising the production of the final product. The same can be said for choosing the pieces of furniture that go in a lab. To determine whether an item is sustainable requires assessing the function of its entire lifecycle.

From design, manufacturing, transportation, to the end of life of the furniture product. Each stage of a piece of furniture’s existence is an opportunity to think sustainably. Here’s what to consider at each stage:

Do you know what your furniture is made from?

Manufacturing needs to be carried out in a way that causes minimum impact to the environment. Ensuring that all the supply chains that contribute to the procurement of a piece of furniture are as short as possible; this is a fundamental factor in reducing carbon emissions.

Understanding the materials a piece of furniture is made from and opting for readily available, renewable, or natural alternatives is another positive option to consider. Incorporating materials such as timber, wool and bamboo that have the potential to be recycled are typically sourced more locally.

How does your furniture reach you?

Transportation and storage are other important factors. As well as the supply chain that a furniture product is shipped through, how exactly the piece of furniture is packaged and shipped is vital.

If the raw materials used for furniture and design purposes are being flown in from various global locations, you’re defeating the objective of being sustainable and other efforts already implemented, such as having a zero-carbon manufacturing process.

Low storage density is also an inefficient way of shipping furniture items as it increases the per-item carbon cost of shipping. Choosing laboratory furniture items that require final stages assembly enables higher density storage and reduces energy waste. For example, a fully assembled lab chain when packaged will have a low-storage density because air is a larger occupier of the boxed package than the chain itself.

Opting for distributors who also use biodegradable packaging materials means that any shipping that is executed can be offset through recycling or reuse.

Is the furniture you use up to task?

Something that is crucial in ensuring a long furniture life span is ensuring the furniture selected is fit for purpose. If a piece of furniture meets only the needs of high-scale laboratories at present, the chances of longevity for future use is dramatically reduced.

By considering the fit and function to be achieved by a piece of furniture, it becomes easier to avoid the likelihood of it needing to be replaced in the future. Conducting a furniture survey of any existing furniture in a hybrid lab workspace offers guidance on what can be reused, repurposed or needs to be replaced.

These insights will dramatically reduce the probability of replacing large quantities of furniture whilst also heightening the importance of making an appropriate choice originally.

What to consider when evaluating if a piece of furniture is fit for purpose can include the usability, required features, lab specifications and constructed materials.

Solvent use, for instance, is fundamental in working laboratories. And if a lab bench didn’t last as long as predicted, could this have been avoided with an alternative countertop material that is more suitable to withstand contact with solvents or corrosives?

Approaching purchasing decisions in this way results in furniture that meets all conditions and requirements, which inevitably means an item will be in use for much longer. Opting for higher quality materials in the long run, will be better for the environment and enable repurposing in future.

Is is time to retire your outdated furniture?

How you retire pieces of furniture must be managed in a way that contributes to the overall sustainability goals of a laboratory. Considering the three R’s offers guidance of the choices available when a piece of furniture no longer meets its requirements.

If an item cannot be repurposed (which reduces the need to purchase more furniture in the first place) then consider if reselling or recycling is suitable. Recycling is undoubtedly preferable to manufacturing an item from raw materials. However the transport and energy costs can be significant and should be assessed.

The energy used to melt a metal frame into ingots alone can use up to 500kWh/t. Which is why carefully considering if an item can be repurposed prior is vital. Evaluating these next generation options in advance of any initial purchases further facilitates fitting out a lab with sustainable furniture for years to come.

Ultimately, as sustainability goals already transcend through businesses and their actions, the way a workplace is fitted out shouldn’t be overlooked. This is because it has an undeniable effect on the environment. And the choices we make with furniture only continues to compliment the wider efforts workplaces are making. Let us know how we can kick start your sustainable laboratory design!