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Plastic tips: a more sustainable science


Alternatively, this post could have been titled, My Guilty Conscience Series: Plastics

This blog post has been a long time coming – given the fact that I (and many others) have been conditioned to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” before we could even multiply. Yet, as I continue to diligently organize my empty jars and cans into recycling bins, I come to the lab everyday and amass a sizable amount of single-use plastics, and they’re not even recycled. 

They just go straight into the garbage.

It doesn’t come as a surprise: we have a global plastic crisis. The increasing plastic pollution has been well-documented by researchers around the world. If our current plastic waste production and management persists, we face long-term, detrimental consequences that include endangerment to marine life, economic damage to coastal cities, and increasing microplastics in our diets. Currently, there is a movement to limit or ban single-use plastics for average consumers, largely focusing on everyday plastic bags, utensils, and packaging.

However, it would be reckless to claim that all plastic waste is due to individual consumer behavior. There is a more insidious current of plastic waste coming from a bigger, systematic entity: the research and development sector. Without exception, academic and industrial research bears a responsibility to curb its own plastic usage.

10mL serological pipette tips in a vase. A lovely bouquet. Image Credit: reerdahl via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. 

In 2010, approximately 275 million metric tons of plastic waste was generated by 192 countries. Researchers at the University of Exeter estimate that life science research institutions generate 5.5 million metric tons of plastic waste each year, or roughly 2% of the global plastic waste production. This waste contribution is overwhelmingly disproportionate, considering the fact that life science researchers make up just 0.1% of the world population.

The reason for researchers’ large plastic contribution lies in the fact that plastics are well-integrated into laboratories. They’re cheap, disposable, and most importantly, sterile. 

Reagents are delivered to our door in plastic bubble wrap and Styrofoam. On our hands are periwinkle blue, latex-free gloves. Plastic pipette tips and sample tubes are disposed after a single-use, unless you want to introduce cross-contamination to your samples.

Curious about my own contribution, I collected all the single-use plastics I used in a day and estimated the amount of plastic waste I would generate in a year. With maintenance of my fly stock, cell culture, and miscellaneous experiments, I accumulated 254 g of plastic by the end of the day. This totals to approximately 66 kg – roughly the mass of a small woman – of plastic in a single year.

It quickly adds up. But how do we limit our plastic consumption when our research depends on it? 

67 g of my non-hazardous plastic waste. Not pictured: the rest of the 187 g of biohazardous plastic waste – which had already been safely disposed of. Image Credit: Kathy Bui. Used with permission. 

Some eco-conscious scientists are attempting to change their daily lab practices without compromising results, and they are calling for more awareness of science’s sustainability issue. There are open resources and hashtags (e.g. #labwasteday, #labconscious, #sustainablescience) dedicated to sharing sustainable practices and inspiring other scientists to follow suit in this movement. Currently, some general tips are to use glass containers as an alternative, wash and reuse single-use containers (whenever contamination is less of an issue), and support suppliers that sell sustainable products.

In addition, some universities are taking matters into their own hands. The University of Leeds made an ambitious initiative, pledging to give up single-use plastics entirely by 2023. This does not only include plastics in office spaces and cafeterias, but in laboratories too. Currently, the university is working with suppliers to limit the amount of plastic packaging and products as well as developing other alternatives to plastic equipment. Similarly, University College London, the UK’s largest university, plans to cut out single-use plastics and increase support for sustainability research by 2024.

Throughout the past few decades, there has been a major rally to control individual consumer plastic waste. However, there have not been any regulations on the research sector. While there is some recent progress on making scientific research more sustainable, there is still a need for systematic intervention and regulation for an entire sector’s worth of plastic waste. Some steps towards a large-scale change are to (1) contact your university’s sustainability program about a bigger initiative towards more eco-friendly practices and recycling programs in research or (2) express interest for more sustainable lab products with your supplier on social media. In the meantime, we can only be more conscious of our actions to reduce our environmental footprint – whether it’s recycling cans at home or just one less pipette tip at our bench.

Kathy Bui is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Cell Biology at the University of Georgia. She is currently working on CRISPR-gene editing in Drosophila melanogaster and developing split fluorescent protein technology. She uses sturdy glass tupperware for lunch and her Google Pixel 3 to take high-quality pictures.

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