By Effie Eshetu
“I need a new box of pipette tips; this one has water on it”. In 2015, it was estimated that biomedical and agricultural laboratories worldwide produce 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste a year. Surprisingly, up until recent years, scientific research laboratories have made use of single-use plastic items and require on average up to three to six times more energy per unit surface area than a typical office (Bell, 2019). Until recently, this may have either been deemed unavoidable at best, if not acceptable by some. Although undoubtedly, other industries such as oil and gas, have much larger carbon footprints, it has become increasingly clear that we all have a responsibility in tackling the issue of climate change and it is clearer than ever before that a collective effort across all industries is crucial if we are to truly bring about societal change that can prevent it getting much worse.
Pipette tips, bottles, culture plates; it all adds up. You may be asking the question: how hard can it be to recycle? In reality it is not as straightforward as simply recycling such material at the end of their use. Firstly, many laboratories buy their equipment from a range of different suppliers, and so the mixture of materials used presents a problem in regard to sorting the waste. Additionally, there is the issue of health and safety; not many recycling plants may accept laboratory plastic waste due to the potential risk of lingering contaminants, be it human cells or chemical toxins. Currently, plastic items can be autoclaved in order to sterilise them, but for the most part they are sent to waste landfill sites as aforementioned. Autoclaving in itself is a large offender to climate change in the grand scheme of things, as it requires the use of a lot of water and heat.
Moving away from such practices that have been in place for so long can seem daunting, but certain institutions have been paving the way in both taking initiative and implementing more environmentally friendly systems in their laboratories. The University of York for example have recently outlined the steps they are taking for an in-house recycling method that they claim is ‘quick and easy’. What this involves is a ‘decontamination station’, or in other words, an additional step whereby plastic equipment that would’ve otherwise gone to landfill is soaked in high grade disinfectant for twenty-four hours before being rinsed and colour coded to sort before sending off to be recycled. (University of York, 2019)
Of course, there remains a lot of reluctance from many recycling plants, but in this case the university has been able to arrange a deal with the existing chemical waste removal company they use, which can then pellet the plastic and mould it into recycled products. The university also stress the importance of labs taking the initiative to review the different types of plastics being used in the first place, not only for sorting purposes but to ensure plastics being purchased are indeed viable for this route in the first place. Secondly, they have stated the need for labs to invest time to assess what equipment is actually needed; perhaps all those large beakers aren’t needed after all? (Turner 2019)
The University of Bristol are also taking action, stressing the importance that, where possible labs should also be considering all their options, including reusing and reducing in addition recycling (Bell, 2019). The ways in which institutions and companies can go about incorporating all three of these important ‘Rs’ can vary, however it can all start by setting some achievable goals and simple changes. For example, bulk buying as an option where possible to reduce packaging, or re-assessing protocols to improve efficiency. Consequently, this may be the start of a change in mindset, whereby raising awareness to these minor, very simple measures could sensitise laboratories to the high stakes at risk if worldwide active participation is not seen.
On a smaller scale, petitioning and gaining the support of senior management within individual organisations is also important, on top of outside funding and donations, in order to ensure sustainable change and initiatives that can be implemented in the longer term. For example, by analysing the life-time costs of plastic usage versus a potential alternative such as glass. Of course, there would be an initial cost incurred, but perhaps this would be outweighed by substantial savings over time. This also requires additional investigation and considerations, for example how glass culture plates may affect cell behaviour as culture conditions to date have been optimised primarily for growth on plastic (Lopez et al. 2017). That is not to say this shift towards a no single use, more environmentally friendly labs are an option; it is a necessity. Moreover, by putting in place teams to regularly review progress and keeping shareholders, employers and employees accountable, newer systems can not only be implemented but traditional processes can continually be improved.
Bell A. (2019) ‘Can laboratories curb their addiction to plastic?’, The Guardian, 10 November. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/10/research-labs-plastic-waste Accessed: 8th September
Unknown. (2019) ‘One Planet Week: Waste plastic from science labs would fill over 100 bathtubs a year, say researchers’, University of York, 11 February. Available at: https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2019/research/one-planet-week-waste-plastic-from-labs/ Accessed: 8th September
Turner, S. (2019) ‘Lessons from the lab – working across the supply chain to divert plastic from landfill’, SWR newstar, Unknown. Available at: https://swrnewstar.co.uk/insights/lessons-from-the-lab-working-across-the-supply-chain-to-divert-plastic-from-landfill Accessed: 8th Septemeber
Lopez J et al. (2017) ‘Reducing the Environmental Impact of Clinical Laboratories’, PMC US National Library of Medicine National Institues of Health, February. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5548370/ Accessed 8th September