Recycle More! Recycle Now!
PhD Candidate, McMaster University
posted: February 12th, 2019
Many of us, if not all, try to reduce, re-use and recycle waste at home. But how often do we go looking for the ‘blue bin’ in research labs to dispose plastic waste?
According to a study from the University of Exeter in 2014, it was estimated that the 280 bench scientists in their bioscience department generated around 267 tonnes of plastic waste in that year. This is equivalent to about 5.7 million empty 2-litre plastic bottles. Globally, there are about 20,500 institutions involved in life science research which would produce around 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste over a year. That’s nearly 83% of the plastic that was recycled worldwide in 2012.
According to Lisa Anderson, a biological researcher at Amyris labs in Emeryville, California, the reason for increased plastic waste has to do with life scientists’ dependence on single-use disposables. They have become indispensable in biological research as it is convenient to throw away plastics after a single use to maintain a sterile set-up. The pipette tips, gloves and other materials that we dispose of in labs usually end up in landfills or are incinerated (if they are contaminated with anything potentially dangerous) as there are no comprehensive recycling solutions available for individuals, labs or departments. Even recycling solutions that are available, unless employed at University or Institution level, are less sustainable for an individual lab. Therefore, we justify our use of disposables on the grounds of costs and time saved.
Many governments now impose charges for single-use plastic bags and bottles. As responsible researchers, we should start to cut back on use of disposable plastics. At an individual level, we can adjust experimental protocols to minimize use of disposables. Nidhi Sharma, a research specialist at Stanford University, sets up 100µl bacterial cultures in PCR tubes (200µl) to screen her recombinant bacterial colonies instead of 5ml culture tubes. Reagents and consumables sharing programs are also being adopted in some institutions where extras are donated to other researchers who may find a use for them. While all laboratory waste is not recyclable, some is. Educating staff and students about sustainability in lab and pointing out materials that can be recycled to the staff and students will help integrate new in-house recycling solutions.
Ideally, an effective systemic change will lead to a sustained improvement at the individual, institutional and commercial levels. Allison Paradise’s non-profit, My Green lab, have developed a lab certification scheme for best sustainable practises, much like WHMIS and Biosafety guidelines. This program also helps individual labs to obtain logistical support from their institutions to set up recycling programs. Paradise says, ‘eventually, we hope to get our certification tied into (National Institutes of Health) funding. . . Labs that are using resources responsibly should be given extra points on their grant application.”
Scientists are educators. We should improve environmental awareness, responsibility and training in our labs to ensure we are not among the last to jump on the sustainability bandwagon.
Bistulfi, G. (2013). "Reduce, reuse and recycle lab waste." Nature 502: 170.
Urbina, M. A., et al. (2015). "Labs should cut plastic waste too." Nature 528: 479.
Zimmer, K., (2018). " Life Scientists Cut Down on Plastic Waste." The Scientist.