Scientific progress, economic profitability and environmental protection go hand in hand
Following an initiative taken by UNESCO in 1970, “Earth Day” is now celebrated in over 175 countries on 22 April, in 2022 with this year’s theme being “Invest in our Planet”. This type of vocabulary, taken from the business world, indicates that corporate success and environmental protection are not polar opposites, but can represent a “lucrative business”. Studies such as those cited in the Harvard Business Review , already show that companies with strong ESG (Environmental Social Governance) standards also demonstrate stronger profitability and more resilient stock performance. So, the question is not about choosing whether to increase profits or protect the environment; but understanding that the two go hand in hand and represent a win-win situation for all parties involved: businesses, society as a whole and, most importantly, for our home, the Earth.
The Covid crisis of the past two years has demanded great adaptability from economies and people worldwide and forced us to rethink. UN Secretary-General António Guterres sees new potential for the post-Covid era: “The road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to lead the world on cleaner, greener and more sustainable paths.” This opportunity must be seized, by all civil society actors together, and – especially given the current political situation – across all borders. War and destruction have never produced anything positive for humanity and our planet.
The Laboratoire national de santé, which as the backbone of the Luxembourg health system produces quite a bit of waste, is also contributing to becoming more sustainable. Julien Huguin, hygiene, safety, and environment manager at the LNS, talks to us about the challenge of balancing research excellence, safety, and environmental sustainability as a scientific laboratory.
A general engineer by training from PolyTech Nancy, I joined the LNS in 2016.
My work mainly revolves around four activities:
The first and most important task is staff protection: I make sure that our staff can work safely in our laboratories to avoid any kind of contamination or accident.
The second is building security. My task is to ensure that the building is safe in terms of its accessibility, but that the security installations (fire and gas alarms, etc.) function properly too. This second activity is closely linked to the first; if the building is safe, so are our staff members.
My other two activities are laboratory hygiene and waste management. Hygiene is very important in a sector such as ours. If a lab is not properly decontaminated, we risk producing incorrect test results and also contaminating our staff. Together with my deputy, I coordinate a cleaning team of 18 people. As for waste management at the LNS, I work closely with the infrastructure and logistics manager to ensure optimal management of the building and our various waste storage areas. This collaboration also allows us to ensure that the LNS is managed in an environmentally friendly manner, particularly in terms of energy monitoring.
Our position is actually quite clear. Our aim is to ensure the quality of the analyses carried out and the safety of the personnel, without compromise. This de facto leads to the production of waste. In order to limit our environmental impact, we make great efforts to manage the disposal of waste in the most responsible way possible, with the objective of limiting the incompressible share of our final waste.
In a laboratory, we distinguish between two types of waste: disposable waste and chemical or infectious waste, the latter being the most critical. Chemical or infectious waste is the most critical, as it is highly hazardous and has a greater environmental impact. With this in mind, we need to ensure that our chemical waste is properly sorted and stored before it can be recycled.
This is why the LNS works closely with the SuperDreckskëscht (SDK), the Luxembourg state body responsible for waste management. Together, we have set up clear processes for each of our laboratories. After all, waste differs greatly from one department to another, which also means that it is handled differently.
These processes are evaluated and monitored annually to ensure that the rules laid down in these domains are being followed. Is this the case, SDK awards its label, which we have held for some years now.
To prevent this critical waste from coming into contact with the outside environment, a number of measures are taken (retention tanks, storage bunkers, specific ventilated cabinets, specific containers, etc.) to keep the safety and environmental risk to a minimum. To give you a simple example: from the moment they come into contact with biological material, disposable gloves are considered to be infectious waste and therefore treated as such. To do this, we place them in specific containers which, once closed and hermetically sealed, are processed and recycled by a Luxembourg company located near the LNS. Whenever possible, we favour short circuits for this type of recycling.
Our core activity naturally presents us with a dilemma in this respect. We produce a lot of waste, but we do so in order to ensure the quality of our scientific results and the safety of our employees. We cannot make concessions on either point. On the other hand, when it comes to our activities outside of the laboratories, there are many other aspects that are respectful of the environment around us.
In terms of energy, for example, we have set up a monitoring system for our consumption. As our activity is relatively energy-intensive, nearly 300 energy meters have been installed to monitor our consumption (electricity, ventilation, heating, water). The LNS building also enables us to recover the energy we use via a cogeneration system. The latter recovers city gas, creating heat and electricity. Some of this is used and some is fed back into the grid. To a certain extent, we can thus also be considered an energy producer.
As far as environmental emissions are concerned, we pay particular attention to the air and water we emit. To give you an example, the laboratory takes in outside air to heat and ventilate the building. This air enters at a temperature of 12 degrees and is then heated to 20/25 degrees for our laboratories. If it were to be released into the environment as is, it would have a negative impact on the environment. The heated air therefore passes through a system that cools it down to around 12 degrees before it is released. This system consists of simple water columns through which the exhaust air flows.
Other measures also make LNS’ corporate life more sustainable, such as recycling programmes for our laboratory equipment, through donations to universities and in some cases to charities. We have also eliminated packaging for some products that do not require it. In addition, we do not use single-use lab coats for our employees, but coats that are cleaned sustainably by an external company. Other projects are under development, such as a soft mobility concept for staff and the replacement of the lighting in the LNS with LED systems.
In short, wherever possible and without jeopardising the safety of our employees or the reliability of our test results, we do everything we can to reduce our ecological footprint as much as possible and to contribute to a more sustainable world.