Plastic Waste and Scientific Research

While it’s a somewhat niche issue, one area where I am hyper-aware of my own waste generation is in my work. I’m a scientist, and a big part of my job is culturing the cells that we use for our experiments. A gross oversimplification of the work would be to say that I use plastic pipettes to transfer sterile media from plastic bottles into the plastic dishes that the cells grow in; then, I throw all that plastic away. It’s something I think about every time I go into the tissue culture room at work. In a day, between all of my colleagues and I, we generate easily 10-15 pounds of plastic waste (and that’s a pretty conservative estimate- I’ve never actually tracked this rigorously, so it could be significantly more). While this is a very specific problem in my work, I think that nonetheless, it has analogs in other fields.  For example, for me, just being at work and knowing I’m not the person who will take out my own trash makes me less careful about managing my waste there than I would be at home. So, I’d like to find ways to reduce the waste I generate at work, especially in the lab.

While scientific research isn’t a huge industry relative to some others, like textiles or manufacturing, a small study in 2015 estimated that scientific waste creates 5.5 million tons of plastic waste per year. To give a sense of scale, the medical industry is estimated to produced a similar amount of waste per year (5.9 million tons). The US on the whole produces about 250 million tons of trash total each year; to consider other significant contributor to trash volume, Americans disposed of 16 million tons of textiles, and 68 million tons of paper in 2015. So, plastic waste from research isn’t the biggest trash contributor, but it is significant.

One factor that makes biological waste particularly difficult to deal with is that it is often biohazardous, and therefore must be decontaminated before being disposed of. The organization where I work uses a company to perform this task; however, I don’t actually know what this company is and how they deal with our waste. So, in the next couple of weeks, I will be tracking down the person who manages our waste disposal, and learning about this process and the company that performs it. I’d like to find out how expensive, in both dollars and carbon, disposing of biohazardous waste is compared to regular waste or recycling.

An additional stream of waste is the nitrile gloves we use while handling samples. These rubbery gloves essentially never decompose in a landfill. They will last nearly until the end time. Thanks to the efforts of a couple of scientists, we’ve recently switched from using exclusively nitrile gloves to using a brand of biodegradable gloves, that can be put directly in the trash and will decompose in a landfill within 5-7 years.

The University of Colorado has a long-standing lab conservation program, with many practical tips for reducing energy consumption in the lab. The recommend taking measures such as closing tissue culture and chemical hood sashes, raising the temperature of low-temperature freezers by 10°C (from -80°C to -70°C) and putting lab equipment like incubators on timers so that they are turned off at night when no one is using them. Powering one tissue culture hood for a year uses 3.5 times the energy needed to power an entire house!!! So even simple changes, like closing our tissue culture hoods when they are not in use, could save a lot of energy if we can change habits across our organization.

While some of these changes, like closing hood sashes, are individual actions, a lot of them, like changing our glove supplier, require institutional support. My goal is to propose a few ideas to our environmental health and safety team and see if they are on board with helping implement some changes. These are the areas for improvement that I plan to discuss:

  • Identify freezers with non-critical samples (ie. bacterial stocks) that could be raised from -80°C to -70°C
  • See if we can switch out any of our current plastic labware for biodegradable labware
  • Recycle our biohazard waste (there is at least one company that can recycle biohazard waste- I’m not sure right now what company we use or if they offer this, but I will find out!)
  • Generate messaging about closing hoods when they are not in use, and roll out to entire organization
  • Trying to set up processes to keep non-biohazardous waste from entering the biohazard waste stream, and recycling non-hazardous waste.

There are a bunch of great resources on the web about reducing lab waste for scientists. If you happen to work in a lab, the Lab Conscious blog (run by New England Biolabs, which has been a leader in lab conservation efforts) is great, and as I mentioned, the University of Colorado has an awesome Green Labs initiative that helps scientists conserve energy and resources. Last, the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories is an organization working on making technical laboratories more efficient; they did an International Laboratory Freezer Challenge, with 170 participating labs, that they estimate saved 1.6 million kilowatt hours, or 1,200 tons of CO2. That is the emission of 75 average Americans for an entire year!

Once I’ve gotten more information about our organization’s waste management system and talked to our environmental health and safety group, I’ll follow up with what I’ve learned and if anything has changed!

2 thoughts on “Plastic Waste and Scientific Research

  1. Dear Melissa,
    I am horrified at the amount of plastic waste in scientific labs that you are reporting.
    What happened to the days of glass pipettes and autoclaves to sterilize them?
    A carbon tax would put an end to single-use plastic products.
    Good for the efforts to create and use biodegradable gloves and for your efforts to publicize this waste created by labs.

    Thank you for creating awareness.


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