You may not realize it but research labs generate a lot of plastic waste. In fact, a team at the University of Exeter estimated that scientific labs generate over 5.5 million metric tons of plastic waste a year based on their own bioscience department. Plastic – which was once thought to be cheap, light, clean, and convenient for scientists to conduct experiments – is now contributing to a serious environmental problem. This has caused some institutions like the University of Leeds in the UK to rethink their plastic use policies.
While replacing plastics with more sustainable approaches in the lab is not quite so straightforward, one rule of thumb is to remember the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. In this article, we have amassed tips on ways to reduce plastic waste in the lab.
For example, can your experiments be performed in glass tubes, vials or flasks rather than in plastic? Don’t like doing dishes? Some departments have dishwashers that may offload the time for handwashing. Is sterility a concern? Most glassware can be autoclaved. Opting to use a reusable alternative will significantly reduce plastic waste but just remember to load up on the dishwasher or autoclave equipment to save energy or water.
Do you remember when you used to fill pipet tips one by one by hand? Or maybe you still do that. Now companies sell refillable pipette tip systems that make filling an entire box quick, easy and clean. Still, some labs buy cases of pre-filled pipette boxes instead of refillable systems. While pre-filled boxes may be cheaper during promotions, they leave behind a good chunk of plastic once the tips are used that often get tossed and wasted in the trash.
For example, you can often reuse plastic serological pipettes during an experiment. By maintaining sterile technique and developing a process, the same pipette that was used for saline may often be used to pipette cell culture media. Some labs opt to reuse the same filter to filter particulates from buffers across multiple batches of solutions. Stay tuned for our upcoming blog article on other ways to reuse lab supplies.
One bottle of 10X solution will save 9 plastic bottles of 1X solution. Many common lab buffers come as concentrates, such as PBS or buffers for Western blotting. In some instances, a buffer may come as pre-mixed powders in pouches and the only thing you need to do is add water.
Sure, premade buffers are convenient, save time and are quality controlled. However, some solutions only come in liter bottles, whereas you may go through 10 liters a week! In certain situations, making your own solution is not only cost effective but also reduces quite a bit of plastic waste.
Sometimes, plastic is just convenient. Maybe glassware is in the back corner and collecting dust. Maybe the sinks are always overcrowded and there is no good system for dishwashing or sterilizing. You may consider developing a new system where reusing lab supplies is more accessible and convenient. You may place glassware strategically around the lab or have a schedule where lab members take turns running the dishwasher.
Labs not only generate tons of plastic waste but much of that waste comes from an accumulation of unused lab supplies that have expired. Rather than letting unused lab materials go to waste in your lab, you may consider collaborating with other labs to share lab supplies. Some labs set up “free stores” where they set out unused yet still good lab supplies that are no longer needed. This will save labs money but also reduce waste.
More and more companies are taking their own sustainability initiatives through designing net zero carbon footprint manufacturing buildings or reducing waste in packaging or shipping. By selecting these vendors, you are playing a role in reducing waste.
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We hope that these tips have helped you think about ways for your lab to go green. While some of these tips may be challenging to implement in the lab, just remember to celebrate every little victory in reducing plastic waste. Doing so saves costs for the lab and the environment!